Illustration by Rebecca Ustrell
During the same summer that two billionaires made private space travel a reality, NASA announced an $18M investment in STEM diversity. But what’s it look like behind the headlines?
NASA’s investment in STEM diversity signals that the importance of recruiting, training, and maintaining a diverse workforce has risen in priority. This is a positive sign following a year that saw our nation wake up to the realities of injustice and inequality and their effect on government public service (law enforcement in particular). With government agencies under a microscope in the wake of an embattled and racially charged Presidential transition, we were grateful to have the opportunity to sit down with Edward Gonzales, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion lead for Heliophysics at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, as part of our series Driving Change from the Inside.
Eddie describes his childhood in West Covina, California as something like “Leave it to Beaver,” the idyllic 1950 tv series. However, he says his neighborhood started to change when he was about eight due to a growing gang – and police – presence. He describes it as going “from crayons to handcuffs in a very short time.” When he was 13, his father passed. Then, just months later at age 14, he was heading home from baseball practice when he heard sirens. Suddenly, police cars were everywhere and he knew something bad was going down. What he didn’t expect was to end up brutalized and handcuffed in the back of a police car.
Turns out the suspect they’d been chasing was a 6’4″ blonde haired 30-something. Given his treatment at the hands of the police, his family filed an accusation of police brutality. He describes that as game changing; it ruined his life at the time.
“When I walked to school, I was harassed by the police. When I was old enough to drive, I was pulled over probably about five to six times a week. Most times, they’d make me late for school. Try to explain that to a homeroom teacher. They never believed my reasons for being late because a lot of teachers, families, and students saw what happened that day and assumed that I deserved it and must have done something wrong. No one would listen to me. It really had a domino effect. That one day of being harassed and complaining about it. I paid the price for it throughout my high school years.”
Right out of high school, he got his girlfriend pregnant and worked multiple jobs to support his young family. But a neighbor who believed in him suggested he take a job at an LA law firm in the mail room. He did. And like an American dream, he worked his way up from the mail room to coordinator, then supervisor, then manager. He credits much of this to his father instilling a work ethic in him at an early age.
And – though he passed decades before Eddie took his first role at NASA – his father was instrumental in that move as well. When Eddie was five, his father brought him into the house and said,
“I want you to see this. It was Apollo 13. Not the movie. The actual Apollo 13 when it was happening for real. And for those of you that are unaware of Apollo 13, I encourage you to Google it. These astronauts were on their way to the moon. They ran into an anomaly, and not only were they not gonna make it to the moon, there was a good possibility that they weren’t gonna make it back to earth. But the flight director, Gene Kranz, and the amazing people that worked at NASA as a team brought those astronauts home safely.”
Beyond the clear fact of introducing a young Eddie to the otherworldly idea of supporting missions to outer space, he says it shaped his thinking in a way that persists today. “Failure is not an option. Let’s come up with solutions … watching that whole thing take place, I thought, I want to work for NASA. Not as an astronaut. But as some sort of problem solver. And if I could help people, that would be my dream.”
He joined NASA in 2001. His 20 years there has seen him in many roles. However, from his first day on the job he found himself naturally drawn to the role of mentor and connector. Yet it was not until 2018 when his title first recognized his passion as Principle of STEM Engagement for Underserved and Underrepresented. And just this year he was named Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Lead. In a wide ranging interview, Eddie describes his early childhood, the persistent cultural forces, and the work journey that led him to the role he has today. He also outlines the evolution of NASA’s equity journey – both highs and lows.
Here are a few highlights from our conversation (full transcript), which should be helpful to any individual or organization seeking to create a safe space for employees of all backgrounds, orientations, races, and abilities to feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm.
1. Inclusion takes active leadership
Listen and learn
“One of the things that I’m really excited about is our leadership. Not just in Heliophysics, my division, but as a center. They want to make a difference. They want to make a change. I mentioned to them that conversations are going to be uncomfortable, and if they weren’t uncomfortable, then we’re not talking about diversity. So they’re in it. I’ve seen a lot of changes already. I’m excited about it.”
“It’s gotta come from our leadership. They have to be champions of this work, and they are. It also takes community. I love celebrating the role our affinity groups play. Using the AISES group as an example, which is a Hispanic, Latinx affinity group at Goddard, they are amazing at not only taking care of “their own,” but supporting others who are moving to the area and in need of advice. The types of advice that make people feel important, make people feel safe, make people feel equal. The affinity groups are playing a huge role. Whether they’re an ally or whether they actually belong to that affinity group. I think that plays a huge role in being successful. Having a place where people feel equal, important and safe.”
We hear it all the time: change starts at the top. But the reality is that leadership comes from every point in an organization. Not only do we need to see diversity reflected in all levels, we need to actively infuse our management and hiring processes with the tools to empower leaders to do more than set goals, but to achieve them.
2. Say it loud, and outloud
Listen and learn
“In 2008, a memo went out to everyone at NASA Jet Propulsion laboratory. In that memo, it said, if you have any piercings, if you have any tattoos, if you’ve got pink, green, purple, whatever color your hair is, we want you to bring your personality to work. We are eliminating the dress code. Now, as long as it’s not of a sexual nature, or it’s going to offend somebody, feel free to be who you are.”
Maybe your organization doesn’t yet reflect the diverse picture you imagine. Maybe there are issues of diversity you’ve not yet considered. From “professional hair” to “business attire” we create limitations on who can (or “should”) belong in our organizations. Making a clear statement that everyone is encouraged to openly express who they are, to truly be who they are, opens a door to diversity.
3. Active listening is essential
Listen and learn
“When I went to NASA Goddard in 2018…if you will recall, after Rodney King there was George Floyd, may he rest in peace. Because of that, our Center started having listening sessions. People would talk about different things that have happened to them in their childhood.”
“The people that work at Goddard, specifically, the white people, if you will, don’t take the approach of making all these necessary changes. They’re here to listen. “What is it that we can do to be a better ally for you?” They’re not trying to overstep, saying, “Okay, I have a Mexican friend, so therefore I’ve got this all figured out. No. They’re really in it to win it. And they’re doing all of the necessary things. I believe. It starts with educating yourself. Figuring out ways to do that. You could then go to some of the affinity group meetings and listen. You could go to different listening groups and hear the challenges that under-represented groups may go through, that they may not have ever gone through.”
From coffee carts to moderated chats and regular listening and discussion sessions there are many ways that organizations can create discourse among different employees. And differences range from race and class to job titles, departments and divisions. Organizations that encourage open communication foster a level of understanding that will fuel compassion and creativity.
4. Mentorship is a valuable investment
Listen and learn
“Our network is our net worth. It really is. There are non-traditional ways of bringing in people of color from underserved, underrepresented communities. They just need the opportunity. We want to make sure that we create and tell them about those opportunities.”
“NASA continues to collaborate and partner with organizations to let them know that we’re here and we’re going to let them know about internship opportunities, early career hire opportunities, mid-career opportunities, and so on. If we are looking for a specific engineer, say, in Computer Science, that knows how to use a specific coding software program. We can go to minority serving institutions, HBCUs, and so forth and ask them to pull resumes that match. We can provide resumes that NASA may not have been able to see or have access to…. We’re letting the lab chiefs and people in decision making positions know that these organizations exist.”
“When I mentor students, they ask me, “Eddie, what can I do to pay you back?” And I always say “pay forward.” Mentor the next generation of leaders that are coming. If somebody asks you a question, respond. Respond to your emails. If you do a presentation at a school or an elementary school that you used to go to, notice if there’s a child in that room that really needs help. Help that person.”
Identify organizations, universities, and community groups with which you can partner to open new pathways to success. Recognize that excellent employees come not just from “top universities” but may well have had to attend night school or community college while supporting a family and being an excellent employee at several part time jobs. And, as an individual, invest your time and energy in conversations with new hires or information seekers. The investment will pay dividends.
Watch or listen to highlights of Michael and Eddie’s conversation:
About the author
Michael Tennant is a founder, writer, and movement-builder dedicated to spreading tools of empathy and helping people find their purpose. Before founding Curiosity Lab, Tennant spent 15-years becoming a media, advertising, and nonprofit executive, and delivering award-winning marketing strategies for companies like MTV, VICE, P&G, Coca-Cola, sweetgreen, and Oatly.
Tennant founded Curiosity Lab in 2017 and created the conversation card game Actually Curious. Actually Curious became a viral sensation in 2020 during Covid-19 and the rise of the racial justice movement for helping people build meaningful connections and to tackle the important topics facing our world.
He has channeled his business success and momentum into a sustained movement supporting BIPOC and other underrepresented communities through speaking, writing, leadership, mentorship, consulting, partnerships, and talent-pipeline programs.