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I've never been big on national observances or commemorative months. Even though they're started with the best of intentions, they seem to devolve into brief periods of recognition without any meaningful change. A marginalized group gets a month's worth of documentaries on PBS but the issues that led to the creation of the commemoration in the first place remain unresolved. It's as if the powers that be said, “If you want to maintain the status quo while appearing to give a damn, give them a national observance”. I've written about my feelings on Black History Month in an article that can be found here.

Ain't I a Woman, Too?—Sharon Kyle

Ain't I a Woman, Too?—Sharon Kyle

But having said that, recently I accepted an invitation to deliver the keynote speech to The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom of Los Angeles in honor of International Women's Day. In spite of my lack of enthusiasm for this day, I'm glad I accepted the invitation.

Following is the talk I gave:

I'd like to thank The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom of Los Angeles for inviting me to be your keynote speaker and I send a special “thank you” specifically to Grace Aaron for asking me to speak on a topic I'm rarely asked to speak on.

When Grace first contacted me, I was somewhat surprised. Usually, when I'm called on to give a talk, the topics I'm tapped for are race, progressive media, the prison industrial complex, civil rights or civil liberties – which of course makes sense. I publish a progressive social justice magazine, I'm a law professor, a member of the board of the ACLU of Southern California, and I'm black.

I have running joke with my husband, who happens to be white: Whenever someone wants a speaker for veteran's issues—between the two of us, they call on him naturally because he's a veteran. But when they need a speaker on the topic of race, they call on me—naturally because between the two of us, I'm the one who belongs to a race. But I digress. That's a topic unto itself that I don't have time to address today.

I am all of those things I mentioned—a law professor, a publisher, a progressive, an Africa American—but somehow, when I think of my activism, I tend to overlook the core of what I am—a woman. Or as Sojourner Truth so eloquently put it, “Ain't I a Woman”?

So back to my acceptance of Grace's invitation and—to a greater extent—my surprise at being invited to speak on feminism. Preparing for this talk put a spotlight on the ways in which intersectionality has bifurcated my sense of who I am and where I believe my voice has the most resonance. You see, I am all of those things I mentioned—a law professor, a publisher, a progressive, an Africa American—but somehow, when I think of my activism, I tend to overlook the core of what I am—a woman. Or as Sojourner Truth so eloquently put it, “Ain't I a Woman”?

Unbeknownst to me, Grace's invitation was a gift. In preparing for this talk, I had to look inward in ways I hadn't done in quite a while.

Even though I am a feminist and have been one for as long as I can remember, I'm not plugged into the feminist movement in any meaningful way. I take activism seriously, devoting a considerable amount of life to the causes I believe support a civil society. So why is it that I'm not actively engaged with a feminist organization? That was the question this invitation sparked and one I'm trying to answer for myself.

This keynote prompted me to look a little deeper at my views through the feminist lens. Although I remember the 60s, I'm really a child of the 70s. By the time I was in high school, the Vietnam War was over and with it the peace movement, the great civil rights marches were a thing of the past, and the women's movement was no longer making headlines. As a young person I explored the idea of joining several different activist groups, but the truth is the 60s sense of urgency had dissipated by the time I came of age. Or so I thought.

Also around that time, I made a decision that ultimately shaped every other decision to come for 25 years, I became a mother and soon after was a single mother of two. That changed the course of my life. At a relatively young age, I found myself working for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. What began as a temporary job to bring in some much needed cash morphed into a long-term assignment that ultimately became a career lasting more than 23 years.

For most of those years I was a member of a spaceflight team. Mars Pathfinder, the Magellan Mission to Venus, the Voyager Project, and the Genesis Mission were some of the projects I supported as the financial manager. My responsibilities included securing funding, procuring and contracting with spacecraft designers, working with engineers and scientists to help them to get the biggest bang out of their buck as they designed, developed, and built spacecraft, some of which went to Mars and beyond.

I have to tell you—this was exciting, heady stuff. The typical spaceflight project at that time had a core team of approximately 50 people who were responsible for all of the decisions that ultimately led to a mission to another planet!! I was in the room when decisions like where to land the robotic rover for the Mars Pathfinder mission were made. I helped to shape the financial and resource requirements and presented our requests annually to NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. I was there along with my husband when the Genesis Sample Return Mission crashed on the desert floor in Utah—my husband and I along with a couple hundred NASA personnel, their family members, and journalists had gathered there for what we believed was going to be one of the most fruitful of all sample return missions. That particular mission ended catastrophically but so many others were unparalleled successes. Remember the Magellan mission to Venus and the Mars Pathfinder Mission?

As required by law, JPL had an Equal Employment Opportunity policy prominently posted strategically across the facility, but a quick look at the workforce demographics would lead one to question whether NASA had ever heard of the EEOC.

Initially, during the early years of my career at JPL, my life was consumed with raising the kids and producing realistic, credible, and, most important, sellable budgets for spaceflight projects. But as my children matured and became more self-sufficient, two things re-awakened the activist yearning within me. First, with the passage of time, I began to see a clear pattern of gender and racially disparate outcomes in terms of promotions and overall hiring at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Second, I knew there wasn't a plan of action to change this pattern irrespective of what was presented on paper.

When I first arrived at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory there were almost 10,000 employees. But cuts to government-funded programs resulted in drastic reductions in the size of the workforce. At one point, the mantra was “faster, better, cheaper”—which meant doing more with less. By the early to mid 2000s, JPL was employing approximately 5,500 full time equivalents but still scheduling a mission to Mars every two years.

As I've said, I missed the 60s. But what I missed was more than made up for by working in an organization, the management of which was 99% white male, especially during the lean years.

As required by law, JPL had an Equal Employment Opportunity policy prominently posted strategically across the facility, but a quick look at the workforce demographics would lead one to question whether NASA had ever heard of the EEOC.

One might assume that technical know-how is racially neutral. That gender has no relevance when staffing a spaceflight project but organizational experts have demonstrated that the key to optimizing efficiency in any organization is to increase diversity. In his book, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, political scientist and complex systems analyst Scott E. Page argues that groups that display a range of perspective consistently outperform groups of like-minded experts.

Over time, I began to search for answers for the lack of diversity. Was it possible that an organization such as NASA with a reputation for doing such phenomenally positive things for humankind could also be a cauldron of sexism, racism, able body-ism, homophobia and transphobia—it certainly looked as if its standards of selection for the best positions excluded women and people of color. The demographics of its workforce were appalling.

What was equally distressing was that the criteria used for determining who was hired or promoted didn't seem to be an adequate predictor of job performance. During my tenure there, there were several catastrophic mishaps. Many made the headlines. You might remember the Mars Polar Lander failure, the Mars Climate Orbiter disappearance, or the Genesis Sample Return Mission crash.

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After every major failure, a Failure Review Board is convened. Its job is to determine the cause of the failure and to report back. The board reports contain copious amounts of informtion and are usually published in a couple of volumes. The volumes contain an analysis of the catastrophe and its origins from several perspectives.

Although the technical cause(s) of each major mishap is different, in the reports I've read, there is one consistent thread that runs throughout. Each review board cites the lack of vertical communication and lack of team cohesion as being at the core of mission failure.

In the more than 20 years I worked there, I observed a stratified hierarchical organization that almost mirrored the social stratification of the United States. The top tier of the organizational pyramid was practically 100% white male with women and minorities sprinkled at the lower ranks. In fact, I came to view the JPL community as a microcosm of our country. Because I was a member of the spaceflight team of the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander, when I read that one of the primary causes of the twin disasters was ineffective communication, I was not surprised. Thankfully, there was no loss of life and plenty of opportunity to grow from the lessons learned.

Although the investigation of the $300 million loss of the two Mars spacecraft uncovered many deficiencies related to organizational culture and breakdowns in communication, the stratification of their organization along racial and gender lines was not mentioned.

Then, just three years after those disasters, and after not seeing any changes in the way the organizational structure facilitated communication, there was another catastrophic failure and this one did involve the loss of life. The Columbia Shuttle blew up partly due to ineffective communication according to the NASA Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB). In a section of the review emphasizing how essential it is to encourage minority opinions, they stated:

Leaders continually emphasize that when no minority opinions are present, the responsibility for a thorough and critical examination falls to management. Alternate perspectives and critical questions are always encouraged. In practice, NASA does not appear to embrace these attitudes. Board interviews revealed that it is difficult for minority and dissenting opinions to percolate up through the agency's hierarchy. . .

Ironically, it's unlikely the CAIB's use of the word minority here was in any way related to ethnicity or gender but one glance at NASA's org chart from that perspective is quite telling. The org chart sends a message loud and clear - diversity is not valued here. It doesn't take much of a leap to assume that diversity of any type is not fully embraced by NASA so the power of diversity to create better outcomes is an avenue that isn't available to them which is a loss for all Americans.

As I've said, the stratified hierarchy at NASA/JPL was not unlike any other major institution either public or private in the United States. This microcosm helped me to gain a critical perspective on systems that perpetuate a world view or set of values that produce outcomes that are less than ideal. My time at NASA/JPL were my personal 60s. The experiences I had there prompted me to go to law school— prompted me to co-found the LA Progressive along with my husband and prompted me to be more of an activist than I had been. My search to understand the normalizing of systems of discrimination led me to read the works of authors like bell hooks who coined the term "Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy."

bell hooks identifies the patriarchy as a system. According to hooks, it isn't necessarily a particular individual or group that perpetuates what can only be characterized as a caste system in the United States -- it is a system of interlocking practices. hooks says that a person cannot be "imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy;" but a person can support, uphold, or perpetuate the "imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy" and that person can be of any race, sex, nationality, class religion or sexuality.

And that takes me to my lack of involvement in the feminist movement but also to my hope for the future. For more than ten years now, I have devoted myself to activism on many different fronts but in all of the efforts I've thrown myself into, after a while I've consistently experienced a sense of futility. After working to support one progressive cause after another—whether it was work I did with the Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Party, the NAACP, Common Cause, even the ACLU—I found myself wondering, “Are we progressives—the activists among us, the supporters of non-profits, and a million and one good causes— merely rearranging the furniture on the Titanic?” Are we like the engineers, scientists, and managers I worked with at NASA who continued to focus exclusively on technology and engineering to solve problems rather than work towards creating a more diverse culture with open lines of communication? Are we perpetuating systems of white supremacist patriarchy? Are we destined to create the final disaster be it nuclear war, or racial wars, or global climate conditions that don't support life. Are we like the lemming?

Then I started to think about what I would say as I stood before you today. Should I share my sense of futility. Surely there must be a reason to do the work that we do to support peace, to work towards the eradication of nuclear arms, to battle against racism, sexism, and corporations that destroy our environment.

As I searched for ways to infuse my talk with inspiration, I went to the writings and YouTube videos of some of the women I've come to admire over the years. Women like Lani Guinier, bell hooks, Nina Simons, and Melissa Harris-Perry have helped me to find inspiration when it seemed impossible to see light at the end of the tunnel. Nina Simons says that we must shift our collective course. All of the organizations I've worked with over the years are, almost without exception, white male led. These organizations use measures such as legislation, policy, environmental awareness—to make change but these measures won't be enough. If scientists are to be believed, we are headed toward a collision coarse with our environment. We have enough in terms of nuclear weaponry to destroy the world several times over and the population continues to grow at exponential rates, insuring that our land mass won't be able to support humankind in the near future. If we don't make radical changes, we'll all be the losers.

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Nina Simons says that all the policy changes, political actions, legislative efforts, and I'd add "technological advances" will not be enough to create a sustainable world without an accompanying and radical shift in heart. She believes—and I tend to agree with her—that what is central to humanity's strife and at the core of our devastating impact on the planet is the imbalance between the masculine and the feminine.

In my search to understand what looks to me like humankind's version of the march of the lemmings. I read a lot about other primates hoping that maybe there might be some explanation for our destructive behavior.

It used to be thought that humans were the only savagely violent primate. This belief was held long before the works of Jane Goodall and others revealed otherwise. The view that “We are the only species that kills its own” fell by the wayside as it became clear that some of the other primates kill their own regularly. They have rigid hierarchies where alpha males kill, females kill, and those living on the lower ranks of the hierarchy live tenuous existences. Some primates even engage in what can only be called warfare—organized, proactive group violence directed at other populations.

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For me, this discovery was pretty demoralizing then I read an article about a troop of baboons given the monicker the “Garbage Dump Troop.”

A team of researchers had been studying this group of baboons and found that the alpha males had been feeding from a garbage dump that contained contaminated refuse. Being the "alphas", they precluded any other member of the troop from having access to the dump. But soon afterward, tuberculosis—a disease that moves with devastating speed and severity in nonhuman primates—broke out in Garbage Dump Troop. Over the next year, most of the alpha males died.

The end result was that the troop was left with males who were less aggressive and more social than average, and the troop now had double its previous female-to-male ratio giving the females more opportunities to populate the social hierarchy at various levels.

The social consequences of these changes were dramatic. There remained a hierarchy, but it was far looser than before with the females taking on more leadership roles. Aggressions against each other were less frequent. And rates of social bonding behaviors, such as males and females grooming each other or sitting together, increased. The more inclusive more diverse leadership of the Garbage Dump Troop resulted in a more civil existence for the entire group. What is even more amazing and inspirational is that the changed dynamic of the troop lasted and was passed down to the next generation.

The story of the Garbage Dump Troop gave me hope egalitarian structures lead to more successful civilized societies. This is the hope that Nina Simons spoke of and is possibly the only solution for humankind.

sharon kyle

Sharon Kyle
Publisher, LA Progressive