Hidden Figures Are All Around Us

By Justice Shorter

The recent release of the box office sensation Hidden Figures has ignited international interest in the untold stories of steadfast individuals whose intellect, hard work and influence changed the course of history. The movie, based on the book of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly, follows the journey of a brilliant team of African American women who were NASA mathematicians, engineers and “human computers” — essentially the brains behind the mission that launched astronaut John Glenn into orbit. Revered by colleagues and area residents of Hampton, Virginia’s Langley Research Center — the oldest of NASA’s field centers — these trailblazers are regrettably absent from most historical accounts of the U.S. space program and American history

Hidden Figures does more than offer a well-told story of three amazing women; it encourages us to find and tell stories of ordinary people who accomplish extraordinary things under difficult circumstances. These stories provide relatable role models for Americans from all walks of life. Hidden Figures come in all races, ethnicities, genders, abilities and sexual orientations. Unsung pioneers changing the way we navigate the world and the universe beyond our borders.

They can be found in unexpected places and are present across the globe. They are often part of communities ignored by the media and marginalized by society. As a result, their intellect and input are underappreciated and largely go unnoticed. However, without their contribution, social, political and economic progress would be sluggish or even stalled.

To be sure, Hidden Figures can be found everywhere — among youth who identify new ways to reshape our social relationships while acknowledging issues at the intersection of identity. You can find them within groups of ethnic and religious minorities who strive for equal rights by combating mistrust, stereotypes and discrimination. You can find them among people with disabilities who break barriers and excel in positions that were historically held by those without disabilities. And among employees who institutionalize policies of inclusion while simultaneously holding supervisory staff accountable for implementing more equitable practices.

Inequality isn’t inevitable. I recently came across this phrase and I find myself reflecting on it frequently as I consider what my legacy will be one day. As a blind woman, I know for certain that just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there. As an African-American I know for sure that the prolific Frederick Douglass was speaking truth to turbulent times when he said that without struggle there is no progress. As a woman I know without reservation that just because something has become the status quo doesn’t make it right. As a lesbian I know that the deepest kind of love allows you to grow into greatness without having to silence, suppress or subvert others.

In honor of Black History month, let us honor Hidden Figures’ heroines Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson by making an effort to share the stories and successes of tenacious individuals, courageous co-workers and everyday ambassadors for positive change. Let us bring the stories of other Hidden Figures out of the shadows and into the public light. In doing so, we can all rise to new heights while boldly encouraging ourselves and one another to do more and be more.

Justice Shorter is a crisis communication professional with areas of specialization in policy advocacy, strategic communication and inclusion. She has an MA in Sustainable Development: International Policy & Management at SIT Graduate Institute. Shorter studied community development and social entrepreneurship in South Africa as well as peace and post-conflict reconciliation in Uganda and Rwanda. She graduated from Marquette University in 2012, where she earned a BA in journalism with minors in entrepreneurship and justice and peace studies.