“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” Harriet Tubman.

Dorothy Vaughn, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson are the fulfilment of an enslaved person’s dream. Ordinary women, doing what they loved with strength, patience and passion, changed the world.

“I changed what I could, and what I couldn’t, I endured.”
Dorothy Vaughn.

Dorothy understood the times. She knew opportunities like the one she had been given didn’t come around again for people who looked like her and she maximised it to the full. In the midst of segregation and adversity, with black employees forced to use separate bathrooms and dining facilities, she became the first African American manager to National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA. She advanced to become an expert in the applications of digital computers in NASA programs. A mathematician and one of the first computer programmers, she trained herself to become proficient in early computer languages like FORTRAN. From there she did what all really great leaders do – she created space for others, helping advance the careers of Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson. She could not have known what Katherine and Mary would go on to achieve, but her brilliant work made their opportunities possible. Dorothy endured humiliations, indignities, and sometimes difficult working conditions to ensure others were free to do what they love… and the world was changed.

“Give credit to everybody who helped, I didn’t do anything alone. Girls are capable of doing everything that men are capable of doing.”
Katherine Johnson

Dorothy Vaughn made Katherine’s temporary position at NACA’s laboratory permanent by assigning her to the Flight Research Division where she went on to make history. Katherine calculated the trajectory of the rocket for Alan Shepherd, the first American in space in 1961. Her impeccable computations enabled astronaut John Glenn to orbit the earth in 1962. Glenn trusted Johnson’s calculations more than the computer’s, requesting that she double-check the machine’s figures manually, declaring “if she says the numbers are good, I’m ready to go.” She also calculated the trajectory for Apollo 11’s flight to the moon in 1969, worked on the Space Shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite, and plans for the Mars mission.

“I plan on being an engineer at NASA, but I can’t do that without taking them classes at that all-white high school, and I can’t change the colour of my skin. So, I have no choice but to be the first, which I can’t do without you, sir.”
Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson loved science as much as she loved improving the lives of the people around her. Hindered by barriers of segregation and gender bias, Mary’s dream of being an engineer meant taking on the State. She had to obtain permission to study with White students as Virginia was self segregated. She completed her studies and earned a promotion, making her the first Black female engineer at NASA. As the years progressed with no promotions, she came to understand there was a glass ceiling that female professionals experienced as the rule rather than the exception. So, Mary left her dream of engineering, choosing to sow into people. She took a demotion to fill the open position of Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager where she committed to hire and promote the next generation of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers and scientists. She was successful in her determination to break down barriers for African Americans and women in engineering and technology.

Refusing to be victims, these women lived within the racism and misogyny of their time and found ways to make it work for them. Despite the difficulties and injustices, they showed up every day, refusing to be deterred. They knew they were made for a purpose, and this was it. They gave their best so the world could see space as the new frontier. I believed in the possibilities for me because I saw Storm, from X-Men, and Star Trek’s Commander Uhura onscreen. They encouraged me, and lots of other girls who looked like me, to know we could excel in every arena. The stories of Dorothy Vaughn, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson were, as yet, unknown. Their brilliance forgotten, their endurance minimised, and their extraordinary capacities hidden behind the dungeon doors of racism and misogyny – we did not realise how influential they were… until now.

Countless women have given their all through blood, sweat and tears. They forged a path for us to run on. Their achievements created road maps so that we could construct our own, finding new opportunities, taking new land, discovering new species, standing up to and defeating injustice to live and work in freedom. History rewarded their toil by relegating them to the shadows, forging their might, their unbreakable wills, their endurance and faith for a better future that made the Emes we live in possible, but their names and deeds are now coming to light. When we put aside all that divides us, the moon is not beyond us, peace is not beyond us, love is not beyond us. We can all be a necessary ingredient for a better and brighter future. Dorothy, Katherine and Mary, in shooting for the moon, gave us infinite solutions to future challenges. They were not the only women working in the space race. There were many women of different races who contributed massively to the successful space flights. They, and countless others, are the authentic Storms and Uhuras, along with others such as the Wakanda warriors – Okoye, Nakia, Ayo – who can give young girls, as well as their mothers, a vision of what is possible. When we highlight hidden figures, we give our daughters the opportunity to become what they see. They can envision their futures and work toward it; extraordinary feats born of the seemingly ordinary ways God has gifted us.

Diverse problems require diverse solutions, which come from diverse individuals. There are many stories of multiple hidden figures, encircled by the great cloud of witnesses that came before them. Despite their piercing wounds, they ran life’s marathon with passion and determination and finished well. And they are cheering us on.

Reflective Leadership Questions

(Can be done individually or in groups)

It is easy to be overcome by the prevailing circumstances and systems which are designed to keep you from fulfilling your destiny. Dorothy, Katherine and Mary did not allow their circumstances to keep them from doing what they were born to do.

  1. Identify up to three circumstances that could keep you from progressing. Keep yourself from playing the blame game, making your situation someone else’s fault.
  2. How might you, like these three women, find ways in which to work within the system in order to overcome it, rather than use the system as your excuse for not excelling?
  3. Discuss ways in which systems you may have taken part in the creation and perpetuation of may be regularly reexamined to take account of the changing times.