Duchess Harris on “Hidden Human Computers” and Belonging

The school community experienced a vivid recounting of the history of African-American women in NASA’s workforce and some guidance on inclusion and belonging at the school as part of a recent visit by Professor Duchess Harris.

To kick off this Morning Ex, Upper School Head Justin Brandon introduced Harris, sharing personal anecdotes about her effect on him as a student in college. He spoke to her expertise as a professor in the American Studies Department at Macalester College and her co-authoring of 70 books for 3rd through 12th graders, known as the Duchess Harris Collection. Harris also co-authored Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA and Black Lives Matter with Sue Bradford Edwards (Essential Library), wrote Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Trump (Palgrave Macmillan) and published an edited volume with Bruce Baum, Racially Writing the Republic: Racists, Race Rebels, and Transformations of American Identity (Duke University Press).

In her presentation, entitled “Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA,” Harris shared the story of how her grandmother Miriam Mann came to work at NASA. Mann was one of the “human computers” responsible for calculating math for engineers during World War II, a group of women also celebrated in the recent film Hidden Figures. Harris provided her audience with a vivid history lesson, detailing the many employment obstacles and limits people of color confronted since the abolition of slavery, providing important context for her grandmother’s story.

Following this assembly, Harris helped facilitate an afternoon workshop on the “Culture of Belonging” with members of the Upper School Student Task Force for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, students who recently attended the Student Diversity Leadership Conference in Nashville, employees, alumni and parent members of the school’s community committee for DEI.

Participants met with Harris for an introduction to the day’s work and an extended question and answer session during a working lunch. Next, they broke into smaller groups for focused conversations on citizenship and belonging. Timeica Bethel ’07 then facilitated a panel of current students sharing their personal stories related to identity and belonging before the entire group reconvened for closing thoughts.

With Harris’s help, interested members of the school community focused on conversations of inclusion and belonging and had the opportunity to share challenges and creative solutions that will inform Parker’s emerging Strategic Plan for DEI.

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Francis W. Parker School educates students to think and act with empathy, courage and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders in a diverse democratic society and global community.