Commentary: ‘Hidden Figures’ illustrates barriers to advancement

“Hidden Figures,” a film about pioneering black women mathematicians who helped astronauts take flight during the 1960s space race, continues to top the box office in wide release. Part of the movie’s blockbuster appeal is the way it illustrates the intimate drama of its three heroines’ lives within the broader sweep of American history.

A particularly moving scene takes place not at NASA but in the public library of Hampton, Virginia. Mathematician Dorothy Vaughn steers clear of vocal civil rights protests on her way into the library. Yet her visit is cut short when a white librarian warns her: “We don’t want any trouble in here,” as she considers a computer programming text on a shelf. Vaughn’s only seeking knowledge — a book that can’t be found in the colored section — yet she and her young sons are brusquely escorted out by a guard.

As a book lover and community advocate for literacy and libraries, this scene got me thinking about today’s hidden figures. It distills so many dimensions of the enduring obstacles to equality in America, from restricted access to career-propelling information to the threat of rebuke for daring to challenge the social order. And to think that Dorothy was one of the lucky ones — a college-educated NASA employee.

Today, incredible barriers to adult education and career advancement continue to persist. And there’s not necessarily a villainous gatekeeper standing between workers and the information they need. Complex systems of discrimination and segregation conspire to limit opportunity for many. Even well-intentioned programs often fail to equip learners to thrive amid the speed and competitiveness of the modern economy.

In Austin, persistent racial and economic divides have created an underclass of black and Latino workers stuck in dead-end jobs, potent poverty and intensified isolation, official desegregation notwithstanding. Private land-use restrictions, city zoning laws and federal policy all locked in patterns of race and housing that are incredibly tough to dislodge. Worse still: White Austin’s wealth is so geographically concentrated that rich, college-educated professionals are less likely to share neighborhoods with less-educated blue-collar workers in Austin than in any other U.S. metro area, according to data from a University of Toronto study.

This is a problem not just for individual workers who can’t win jobs to sustain their families but for the Austin economy as a whole, which has more jobs to fill than qualified local talent. The Austin/Travis County workforce system predicts a need to double the number of adult education and workforce development graduates in the next few years to meet the growing demand for middle-skill jobs in IT, health care and skilled trades.

Just as NACA — the aeronautics-focused precursor to NASA — opened its doors to black women mathematicians in the 1940s only because wartime labor shortages necessitated it, we face a similar moment today. Our competitiveness in the world economy is threatened because we’ve failed to nurture the talents of a large portion of our workforce. Let’s seize the opening to pull new swaths of workers onto profitable career paths while job opportunities abound.

The stars have aligned. Fresh changes in the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act are pushing local agencies to meaningfully train low-skilled adults so they can find better and better jobs. The new federal guidance compels players across the workforce continuum to integrate their instruction for maximum impact. That means more literacy, job placement, occupational training, certificate program and post-secondary education providers are closely collaborating to deliver basic literacy and life-skills services hand in hand with intensive training for specific in-demand jobs.

Now that the adult education field is reorganizing to help people work at a level that can sustain their families, we as citizens have to do our part to spread the good news. United Way operates a 211 line that connects adults to education programs, and we should all encourage the low-wage workers in our lives to call. We also must challenge employers to work with education and training providers like the Literacy Coalition of Central Texas to teach low-skilled adults what they need to move ahead. Together, we can help individuals reach the tipping point where education catapults earnings.

Until we get serious about targeted work-readiness training and postsecondary education for all, we will continue gutting middle-income neighborhoods and bolstering Austin’s spot as the most economically segregated city in America. Moreover, as “Hidden Figures” illustrates, we’ll fail to launch pioneering careers of mission-critical importance.

Payne Smart serves on the boards of the Literacy Coalition of Central Texas, Austin Public Library Friends Foundation and Texas Book Festival. She chairs the University of Texas Libraries Advisory Council and is an OpEd Project Fellow.

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