Tag Archives: Sally Ride

Social Justice and Presidential Medal of Freedom Honorees

12 Aug

2013PresMedFreedomSocJusThis year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Presidential Medal of Freedom  Awards, established by President John F. Kennedy.   For me, this year is particularly impressive because it is also the 50th anniversary of the Freedom March, which was organized by one of my personal heroes, Bayard Rustin, who has been celebrated several times on this blog.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the Nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.  While I am not going to address all 16 recipients, I would like to take some time to recognize a handful that I consider Heroes of the World.

Bayard Rustin: I am sad this is a posthumous award, but he so deserves to be celebrated and acknowledged.  Not enough people know that it was Bayard Rustin, close confidante to Dr. King, who worked with King on techniques for nonviolent resistance.  Rustin was an openly gay black man working tirelessly for civil rights.  I cannot fully articulate my admiration for this man.  Of course at the time he was working with Dr. King, it was illegal just to be homosexual.  Some believe that Rustin’s effectiveness was compromised because he was openly gay.  Unfortunately, Rustin started to worry that his integral part in the civil rights movement would undermine the efficacy of the movement and thus offered to step aside.  King supported Rustin’s move to step aside.  As much as I respect and honor Dr. King, I wish he would have shown more support for Rustin.  Let us not forget that it was Rustin that organized the March on Washington.

Sally Ride: Sadly this is also a posthumous award. The world lost a shining light last year when Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, died from pancreatic cancer. She was only 61. She received a bachelor’s degree in English and physics from Stanford and went on to get a PhD in physics, studying astrophysics and free electron laser physics. She responded to a newspaper ad recruiting for the space program and became one of the first women in the program in 1978.

She became an integral part of the space shuttle program and in 1983 became America’s first woman and, at 32, the youngest American in space. Over her NASA career she logged over 340 hours in space. She was the recipient of numerous awards including the National Space Society’s von Braun award. She retired from NASA in 1987 but remained active in education and science. She taught physics at UC San Diego and was director of the California Space Institute. Ride’s most powerful legacy is Sally Ride Science, the program she launched in 2001. The mission of the organization is to

make a difference in girls’ lives, and in society’s perceptions of their roles in technical fields. Our school programs, classroom materials, and teacher trainings bring science to life to show kids that science is creative, collaborative, fascinating, and fun.

Sally Ride also wrote a number of science education books.  I am exceedingly grateful that I had the opportunity to have met Sally Ride.

Gloria Steinem: I have to say that Gloria Steinem is one of the reasons why I wanted to become a social worker.  Steinem is an icon of social justice for women, the LGBT community,  the disenfranchised and all marginalized and targeted populations. Steinem has dedicated her life to creating a level playing field for women, while at the same time embracing and working on issues for all marginalized peoples. In my humble opinion, Seinem’s voice is one of the most important in the 20th and 21st Centuries. My first reading of Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, spoke to me as a gay man and how institutionalized oppression can take its toll and how we must unite to speak our own truth. As most of you know, Steinem co-founded Ms. Magazine and helped a culture learn about the power of words: Miss, Mrs. and Ms. I have heard Ms. Steinem speak three times and each time I left in awe and inspired. I don’t understand any of her detractors, for she speaks with such love and compassion. Listening to Steinem, one realized how fully she understands deep rooted patriarchy, misogyny, and oppression. I dare say, her detractors have never heard her speak, nor have ever read anything she has written. Yes, she supports a woman’s right to govern her own body–a controversy that would not exist if there were legislation trying to control what men could do with their bodies. I applaud Gloria Steinem for her courage and for her contributions to social justice, she encourages and inspires us all to understand more about the intersections of oppression.

Besides these personal heroes, three other honorees are particularly notable for their roles in social justice.
  • Oprah Winfrey has used her power and wealth to work hard for women’s rights and education; she is also a champion of the LGBT community. The fact that one of the most powerful, wealthy and recognizable people in the world is a woman of color is of great value in itself.  She is still creating an amazing legacy!
  • Sen. Daniel Inouye also receives a posthumous medal. He served nearly 50 years in Congress, elected when Hawaii became a state; he was the first Japanese American to serve in either chamber. During his long service he was a tireless champion of human rights, supporting civil rights for all including the LGBT community.
  • Patricia Wald is a well-respected appellate judge and a pioneer. She was one of the first women to graduate from Yale Law School. She was also the first woman appointed to the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, where she later served as Chief Judge.  She also served on the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague and currently works for the Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

It is truly wonderful to see such champions of social justice receive this great honor.

Farewell Sally Ride, Astronaut and Inspiration

24 Jul

The world lost a shining light yesterday when Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, died from pancreatic cancer. She was only 61. She was born in Encino, CA in 1951 and was passionate about science and tennis in her youth. She received a bachelor’s degree in English and physics from Stanford and went on to get a PhD in physics, studying astrophysics and free electron laser physics. She responded to a newspaper ad recruiting for the space program and became one of the first women in the program in 1978.

She became an integral part of the space shuttle program and in 1983 became America’s first woman and, at 32, the youngest American in space. Over her NASA career she logged over 340 hours in space. She was the recipient of numerous awards including the National Space Society’s von Braun award. She retired from NASA in 1987 but remained active in education and science. She taught physics at UC San Diego and was director of the California Space Institute.

Ride’s most powerful legacy is Sally Ride Science, the program she launced in 2001. The mission of the organization is to

make a difference in girls’ lives, and in society’s perceptions of their roles in technical fields. Our school programs, classroom materials, and teacher trainings bring science to life to show kids that science is creative, collaborative, fascinating, and fun.

Sally Ride also wrote a number of science education books.

An intensely private person with a vibrant public persona, Ride encountered some real sexism even while she was celebrated. Early in her career, a journalist asked her if she was prone to crying when things went wrong. I bet they never asked John Glenn that question. While she celebrated her role as a pioneer, this scrutiny left her cautious about her personal life. As a result, no-one outside of her family knew she had cancer until her death. She was also very quiet about being a lesbian, although her partner, Dr. Tam O’Shaughnessy, worked closely with her. They were together for 27 years.  Sadly, Tam O’Shaughnessy will not receive any Federal benefits such as social security, as heterosexual married couples do.

Black History 2012: Nichelle Nichols

10 Feb

Today we honor and celebrate a woman who has made her mark on television, space travel, and equal rights, Nichelle Nichols. Best known for her role as Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek series, Nichols has parlayed that initial cult status and eventual superstardom into a platform for making the world a better place for everyone–a true champion for social justice. She started her career in the brief lifespan of Oscar Brown, Jr.‘s civil rights musical Kicks & Co. Although the stage was her first love, she accepted an early television role from Gene Roddenberry. When he was casting Star Trek, he insisted on adding her to the cast as the communications officer.

As an equal officer on the command deck, Uhura was unprecedented: an African-American lead character who was not a servant. Nevertheless, feeling that the character was not as fully developed as her peers, Nichols planned to leave after the first season to return to Broadway. As she later recounted, she was encouraged to remain at the program when a fan of the show approached her at an NAACP function where she was speaking. That fan was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When she told him of her plans, he replied,

STOP! You cannot! You cannot leave this show! Do you not understand what you are doing?! You are the first non-stereotypical role in television…Nichelle, for the first time, not only our little children and people can look on and see themselves, but people who don’t look like us, people who don’t look like us, from all over the world, for the first time, the first time on television, they can see us, as we should be! As intelligent, brilliant, people! People in roles other than slick tap dancers, and maids, which are all wonderful in their own ways, but for the first time we have a woman, a WOMAN, who represents us and not in menial jobs, and you PROVE it.

Remaining on the series, she went on to be part of the first-ever scripted mixed-race kiss on television when Uhura and Captain Kirk were forced to kiss by telekinetic aliens. After the series was cancelled, she realized she had been bitten by the space bug. Along with her continued support of the NAACP, Nichols reached out to NASA. She participated in a number of their civilian programs and became a spokesman for the agency. She had started a company to further women’s rights, Women In Motion, and agreed to use that company to help recruit women and people of color to NASA. Her efforts were very successful, helping bring in such luminaries as Sally Ride and Charles Bolden, the first permanent African-American NASA Director.

Nichelle Nichols has gone on to act in all the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast, eventually seeing Uhura promoted to Commander. She has acted on Broadway and in other movies and television. Not content to be famous as an actor, however, she has made an important mark on the world stage, boldly going where no African-American television actress had gone before.

Celebrating Women’s History Month: March 20

20 Mar

Honoring Sally Ride

Today I would like to honor and pay tribute to Sally Ride. Ride is probably best known as the very first woman (and at that point youngest person) to enter space. Ride joined NASA in 1978 and in 1983 explored space on the Space Shuttle Challenger, helping break the gender barrier for astronauts. Ride helped to design the robot arm on the space shuttle.

I was fortunate enough to meet Ms. Ride while she was putting together Sally Ride Science, an educational program fostering both boys’ and girls’ interest in science, with a focus on drawing out girls in the field of science. She toured the Atlanta Girls’ School in 2001, the same year she founded Sally Ride Science. I honor Sally Ride for her work for gender equity in the field of science.

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