Enthusiastic Carlson Lecture crowd welcomes Margot Lee Shetterly's message to 'dream big'
In a spirited celebration of women, science, and the breaking down of gender and racial stereotypes, Hidden Figures author Margot Lee Shetterly Tuesday night encouraged an energized audience at Northrop to dream big and tell stories. More than two-thousand people—including young women, scientists, and teachers—filled the auditorium to hear what had inspired Shetterly to write her story, about the black women who worked as “human computers” at NASA.
“Every time I think about the question of why we haven’t heard this story before … [I think] our imaginations were not large enough to accommodate these women,” she said, in delivering the Distinguished Carlson Lecture presented by the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. She noted that women and people of color in science and technology fields are often overlooked, even today.
During her inspiring presentation that ended with a standing ovation, Shetterly encouraged people to “look beyond” the expectations and limitations society places on people, just as the protagonists in her book had done back in the 1950s and ‘60s.
“The Einstein archetype” of a male scientist in a white lab coat is “so stubborn,” said Shetterly. “The women of Hidden Figures upended all the expectations of what it means to be a woman and to be black.”
Shetterly grew up in Virginia near the historically black Hampton College, which the women in Hidden Figures attended, and she knew many of them personally. When she was a child, Shetterly said, she thought nothing of the fact that the women in her neighborhood worked at NASA.
“I grew up knowing them as my parents’ friends. There was no cognitive dissonance when I heard ‘black, female, scientist,’ to describe them,” said Shetterly. “It took my adult life for me to see them as they deserve to be seen, to value their contributions to my community and my country.”
The work of these mathematicians—virtually all of them women and many of them black—was largely unknown until Shetterly’s book and the accompanying Hollywood movie came along.
Joined by Michele Norris, master storyteller and former journalist who now leads a national initiative— the Race Card Project—designed to get people talking about race, Shetterly talked about using stories about people as a way to change attitudes and biases.
“We have to tell those stories until they represent the entire spectrum of the black experience,” Shetterly said. “Not just the tiny slices—the ‘awful’ experience on one end, and the ‘first and only’ on the other—because life happens in the middle.”
Eric Schwartz, dean of the Humphrey School, noted in his remarks that Minnesota feels some connections to the important topics raised in Hidden Figures, as does the School itself.
“During the same time period of Shetterly’s work, our own school’s namesake, Hubert Humphrey, was promoting equal education, fair employment practices, voting rights, access to public accommodations, and other civil rights,” said Schwartz, noting that Humphrey did so “on the shoulders of Minnesota civil rights heroes” including Roy Wilkins, Fredrick McGhee, Nellie Stone Johnson, and Josie Johnson, who was in attendance.
The Distinguished Carlson Lecture Series is supported by Carlson and the Carlson Family Foundation. They were represented on stage by Marilyn Carlson Nelson, the former CEO of Carlson and current vice chair of the foundation board, who presented Shetterly with an art piece commissioned specifically for the occasion. Nelson said Shetterly was an ideal choice to represent the Humphrey School’s mission to advance the common good.
“We needed you to remind us that when we face challenges, when we want everyone to succeed, we need to draw from the entire talent pool,” said Nelson. “We need to have the confidence of our values, to embrace change, not to be afraid, and to bring others along with us.”
When asked if there will be a Hidden Figures 2, Shetterly said she is already working on two more books that follow similar themes of race, identity, work, and social mobility. One book has an international science angle, while the other will look at African Americans in business and entrepreneurship.
But for now, the focus is on this story—the women who are hidden figures no more—and the national buzz that’s inspiring young people of all races to make their own history and tell their own stories.
About the Distinguished Carlson Lecture Series
For 34 years, the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, with support from Carlson and the Carlson Family Foundation, has presented the Distinguished Carlson Lecture Series, bringing to Minnesota world-renowned speakers to participate in a forum dedicated to the presentation and discussion of the most important policy issues of the day. The series began in 1980 with a gift from Curtis L. Carlson to honor his late friend, Hubert H. Humphrey, and to “contribute to the intellectual life of the greater Twin Cities community by sponsoring lively forums of broad interest.”
To date, the Carlson Lecture has presented more than 50 speakers, including Bill Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Elie Wiesel, the Dalai Lama, and Beverly Sills. See the complete list here.
The Distinguished Carlson Lecture Series is made possible by a gift from Carlson and the Carlson Family Foundation.