She should have gotten a Nobel Prize, he should have been the first black astronaut

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Over the last two weeks I watched two short documentaries. They were both part of the Almost Famous series by The New York Times. The first documentary follows Jocelyn Bell Burnell on her way to becoming the woman who discovered pulsars in 1967. Something for which she did not get the Nobel Prize. The second documentary is about Ed Dwight Jr. The American astronaut who did not end up as the first African-American in space.

As I was watching the stories unfold, it struck me that these were two examples of minorities battling a system that was meant to keep them down, but they rose to almost-fame, regardless. It also struck me that their under-representation was less than 60 years ago. Although their stories differ on some elements, there are also big elements that they share – and that we can learn from. I want to share these with you in this article because I believe they hold valuable information on how we raise the next generation, interact with each other and address topics like discrimination.

You can watch the documentaries here and I highly recommend you do so!

What I learned about inequality through the Almost Famous stories from The New York Times

1. Upbringing and natural interests shape careers

Jocelyn read one of her father’s books, “Frontiers of Astronomy”. Before she left school, she knew she wanted to be a radio astronomer. You can see the love for astronomy the first time Jocelyn says “Pulsars”. The small smile radiates pure energy, pride and joy. As a kid, she found a spark that led to what eventually became her fire.

Same goes for Ed. He would hang around the airfield all day: “I was down there every day. I became their mascot”. That’s how he got the fly bug.

Lesson learned: we have to create environments where all kids can find their natural interest and then nurture said interest.

2. A growth mindset is a must

Frustrated by the fact that all the girls were sent to the cooking room and the boys to the science laboratory, Jocelyn acted. She protested to the teacher, which did not work. However, when she told her parents, they “hit the roof”. By the next lesson, three girls were part of the science class. The fact that Jocelyn stood up for this says something about her mindset, as well as about her parents’.

Ed talks about a brain being something that can destroy you, or you can teach your brain to help you. “Your brain will react to what it’s been told”, he says. That’s a pure growth mindset. Ed goes on to explain that his mother said that he could do anything in the universe, proving that she nurtured, if not straight up taught, this growth mindset.

We know that a growth mindset is taught, and the younger we start, the more this will help the next generation. Jocelyn and Ed were able to break through barriers because they – and their families – would not let those barriers stop them.

3. We need role models to look up to

“As a small child I wanted to be an astronomer, but at that stage there weren’t any women role models.” It’s one of the first quotes from Jocelyn in her video. Luckily, she did not let a lack of female role models hold her back. Jocelyn found her spark and future through Fred Hoyle, the writer of “Frontiers of Astronomy”.

Ed, on the other hand, talks about a black jet pilot standing on the wing of an F-86 Saber jet in the newspaper that he delivered as a paperboy. “My world exploded. They’re letting black folks fly airplanes!”

If we want to inspire a generation, we have to have the right role models. And role models are a thing to be very critical about. Do we want our role models to be people like Jeff Bezos, who dominates a market, but has underpaid employees pissing in bottles because they can’t take a break? Or do we want it to be Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, who keeps advertising not to buy their clothing since production is so bad for the environment in the first place? Which one of these two gets the media coverage and the spotlight? Who do we want our kids to aspire to be?

4. All people are equal, but we (still) live in a white male dominated world

Both Jocelyn and Ed faced tremendous opposition. They did so on their own, which took a lot of courage. They both faced deep-rooted discrimination, but never mention this in the documentaries. They have every right to do so, but they choose to let you feel what they felt. For example:

Jocelyn was the only woman in a class of 50. It was a “tradition” that every time a woman entered the lecture theatre, all the guys would whistle and cat-call. The camera follows her as she walks into a room where two men are talking about how to publish her results, without asking or including her in the discussion. The lack of equality is pressing when “the girl” is interviewed by journalists: the questions they ask are outright ridiculous. You feel: “this cannot be happening” when the Nobel Prize is given out to someone other than Jocelyn. “It did not bother me, I was actually pleased that pulsars were considered important enough to rate a Nobel Prize,’’ she says with a proud smile and friendly eyes. Never the victim, always the victor.

When Ed joined the test pilot school, the guy who was running the school called in the students and the instructors and said: “Don’t talk to him. Don’t socialize with him. Don’t drink with him. Don’t even invite him to your parties. Just ignore him like he does not exist, and in six months he’ll be gone.”

Ed’s story takes an emotional turn when we see 14 selected astronauts walk out on stage. Ed did not make the cut. You feel sorry for him, and it’s deeply moving when he walks us through the day he left the air force base. He looks at us straight through the camera, eyes full of tears. “Next question”, is his request, so he can move away from this painful moment.

How can we put a stop to inequality?

What I learned from watching these documentaries, aside from the inspirational stories of Ed and Jocelyn, is that we can stop inequality by telling these stories, as well as modern versions of these stories. It helps when we raise our kids with a growth mindset. They need to be in an environment that helps them find their natural interests. We need to have diverse role models that they can look up to.

Finally, we need to make more of an effort to treat everyone equally. I know a lot has been said about the role of white privilege lately, and I understand it’s difficult to hear and talk about. White privilege falls in the Wikipedia-series on Discrimination. I don’t think white men want to discriminate or see themselves as somebody that discriminates, but we cannot ignore the fact that these stories only date back three generations. White privilege has not disappeared since then, and we need to recognize it before we can change it.

Let’s learn from Ed’s mom, who says: “All people are equal”. We need to make more of an effort to eliminate these issues, before another three generations have passed.

Thanks, Ben Proudfoot, for telling these stories.

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