For Steve Driffin, ConnCAT Center program manager at Lincoln-Bassett Community School, taking a large group of girls to see the hit movie Hidden Figures was not just about going on a fun field trip; it was an investment in the girls’ futures and a strong statement about possibilities.
The Oscar-nominated movie, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, brings to light a history that has been largely hidden from the common history of America’s nascent space exploration program and overlooked in some history books.
Hidden Figures tells the story of a group of talented African-American female mathematicians, referred to as “computers,” who worked for NASA before the arrival of IBM’s early mainframe computers. The women of the West Computing group battled racism, segregation, sexism, and low expectations, even as their brilliant calculation acumen and problem-solving skills proved pivotal in helping launch John Glenn into orbit, and with him, America’s capacity to explore space.
Steve Driffin was also reaching for the stars when he was tagged in a Facebook post by a friend who, like Driffin, had been observing how schools across the country were taking advantage of the chance to bring students to see Hidden Figures. On that Facebook thread was Cold Spring School Director of Admissions Sara Armstrong, who contacted Driffin offering to help with a field trip for some New Haven students. Driffin had an audience ready to go: students from the ConnCAT after-school program and the pre-K-8 Lincoln-Basset School.
The idea for a girls’ night out to see Hidden Figures was hatched, and the brainstorming began: “Why don’t we take them out in style? Let’s have them dress up and let’s rent a party limousine (Yeah!!!), and afterwards, have a post-show discussion with some good food, and positive women who are New Haven firsts,” Driffin posted in a GoFundMe online campaign to raise funds for the trip. Driffin was adamant about paying full price for the theater tickets, saying he wanted to support the movie to prove to the industry that black movie leads are good for business.
Inside the handsome ConnCAT Cafe at Science Park, as students gathered for the field trip, Driffin reflected on the multi-pronged project: “This is about excellence. Why can’t we give our kids the best? This is not just a field trip — I want it to be an experience.” Before departing for the movies, Driffin informed the students that “we’re not just going watch the movie — we have a job to do.” The students were given note pads and 10 questions to answer to help them stay focused on film content.
The experience began with a big surprise. Instead of the yellow school bus students were expecting, a gleaming black 25-passenger limousine party bus greeted them as they exited the building.
“That’s not a school bus!” exclaimed some students, followed by squeals of delight as they boarded the limo to see glowing blue lights and luxury wrap around style seating.
Once inside the theater, students would again enjoy special seating: reserved, luxury lounge chairs along with their freshly made popcorn.
After the movie, students shared their immediate thoughts about the film and the scenes that resonated most. New heroes had been discovered: “The lady, Katherine Johnson, she’s a woman I want to be like. She fought for what she wanted and expressed herself as a person who was equal to everybody else and not different at all,” said sixth-grader Fantaisha Smokes.
Back at ConnCAT headquarters more surprises awaited. ConnCAT Director of Programs Genevieve Walker led a guided tour of ConnCAT student art work and a photographic exhibit, “Countdown to Eternity,” which featured black-and-white images of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., by Benedict J. Fernandez.
Chips, salad, sandwich roll-ups, and cookies were enjoyed during an informal conversation, followed by a moderated panel discussion with Ms. Walker and three guest panelists — all women who battled odds and uncertainty en route to successful careers. The three panelists included Khalilah Brown-Dean, a professor of political science at Quinnipiac University; Debra Raine Vazquez, a civil engineer and STEM career awareness professional; and Tyra Pendergrass, a scientist and associate director for the Yale Center and Learning Games.
Each panelist shared stories of overcoming gender stereotyping, and of the internal motivation needed to rise above obstacles on their way to achieving goals. Pendergrass, a doctoral candidate, wearing a shirt that that read, “I am my ancestor’s wildest dreams,” acknowledged the groundbreakers who came before her.
“I recognize that I stand on the shoulders of giants, people that I may have never met or heard of — there were sacrifices that were made for me to be where I am — a little black girl from Florence, South Carolina, graduating from an Ivy league university — there were sacrifices and for me to think I got here all on my own would be fooling myself,” she said.
Walker then guided the students through a series of positive affirmations: “I am amazing. I have everything in me already to be wildly successful. I will define success. What I do not already have, I will find. I am amazing.”