It’s no secret that white men have historically dominated the STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] field, but Winnie Karanja and her team at Represented Collective are looking to change the conversation when it comes to who we speak of as legendary in the STEM fields. It all started with “Legendary,” a collection of cards that illustrate and narrate the story of women, especially women of color, across the history of STEM in a way that evokes inspiration and recognition, and opens lines of question into their experiences and contributions.
“What we wanted to do with Legendary was tell the stories of women, specifically women of color, in the STEM fields, and the journeys that they faced in navigating the STEM fields due to their intersectional identities,” Karanja told Madison365. “Through this card collection, we wanted to highlight both their challenges and successes as a way to really change the narrative on who belongs in STEM, to show how they push the status quo and push these different boundaries that they were facing in order to achieve that.”
The Legendary Exhibition appeared across eight different libraries in March in celebration of Women’s History Month and provided community members with insight into a side of the STEM field that has long gone under-discussed. Stories of the women of color across STEM were highlighted and conversations around what further progress could be made in STEM regarding representation and accreditation looked to provide the community with a new perspective on these fields, even if they are not often in STEM environments.
“What we wanted to do was then take the stories of these women and to do them on a larger scale for Women’s History Month and bring it out into the community,” Karanja said. “To me, it’s so important that you don’t go to traditional STEM spaces to experience STEM. STEM is everywhere, and it is important to bring the stories of women of color into our communities where kids can read them along with community members and patrons. To do it in public spaces with the libraries, we’re really fortunate to work with a number of Dane County public libraries in order to bring this forth.”
With funding from organizations such as WARF (Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation), CUNA Mutual Group, Dane Arts, and the Morgridge Center for Public Service, Karanja and her team were able to bring important conversations to the forefront regarding women of color in STEM fields. These are conversations that Karanja and the Represented Collective look to continue at an event tonight at the Goodman Community Center on Madison’s near east side titled “Legendary: An Evening of Celebration.” It will be a night of cocktails and conversation and commemoration of women in the STEM fields.
With a focus on women of color, the event will feature a group of panelists including Ana Hooker (Senior Vice President & Chief Laboratory Officer at Exact Sciences), Angela Jenkins (Technology Project Manager at American Family Insurance), Ponmozhi Manickavalli Sathappan (IT Manager at CUNA Mutual Group), and Dr. Jasmine Zapata (Chief Medical Officer for Community Health at Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Division of Public Health, and Physician and Assistant Professor at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health) who will lead a community discussion regarding issues of representation, professionalism, visibility, microaggressions, macroaggressions, and many other topics that affect the experiences of women across the STEM fields.
“Instead of having folks prescribe what they believe equity or inclusivity looks like, I wanted to have a panel where we’re hearing from different women of color from various backgrounds in strong leadership positions who give their insight to what it looks like,” Karanja said. “This panel is going to have very critical and real conversations.”
Along with being able to hear from the panelists, event-goers will also be able to partake in celebrating the accomplishments of Erika Bullock and Maxine McKinney de Royston who are both assistant professors in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education. This event is an important piece in what Karanja sees as an effort to explore important topics affecting women of color in STEM while also celebrating the achievements of women such as Bullock and McKinney de Royston much to the same effect of the Legendary card collection itself.
“It’s a starting point to me,” she said. “I’ll be able to read this and after you read a card on a woman, Google them, go get a book. This is just the starting point. I love this as an initial place to activate learning and activate growth. Also, realize that the continuation of this into the panel is showing that the things that the women endured and had to battle against, sadly, are things that are still prevalent.”
Conversations will range across the experiences of women in STEM, but the distinct experiences that each person faces based on their identity and role in the field will provide much of the nuance in the conversation to be had.
“I want to acknowledge the fact that we want to move equity forward, but the experiences of certain groups are distinct,” said Karanja. “People shift a little differently in their chair when we’re talking about certain groups … when we’re talking about Black folks, and when we’re talking about Black women. I want to be very clear, this conversation is about women of color in STEM, that’s the focus. We’re going to be identifying some key statistics that are driving some of the conversations about the underrepresentation of women of color in the C-Suite and STEM companies. It’s very tangible solutions and real raw conversation around how we address these different prejudices and also naming prejudices that women of color face in the STEM fields.”
The importance of what an individual can do to further efforts of representation, equity, and making space can start at events like Legendary: An Evening of Celebration. However, the continuation and implementation of the work is something that Karanja hopes to see carried on inside and outside of STEM.
“It depends on your role because we all have different responsibilities whether you’re looking at a corporation, a team, team leaders, or if you’re an individual,” she said. “Part of it is just a good understanding of the barriers and inequalities that exist and how you can help. How do you, in whatever role you sit in, dismantle that. I think everybody has learning to do. It’s the learning and conversation that leads to changes in practices and changes in policies. We’re going to be talking about some things in that space that I’m interested to have a conversation on because it’s something that we need to have a conversation on.”
The potential of these conversations is especially important in the future participation of women of color in STEM fields. Stories of legendary figures in the STEM field such as Alice Ball, Antonia C. Novello, and Katherine Johnson are something Karanja speaks to as inspiration in her own journey through the STEM field, and something that she hopes can do the same for young women who are also interested in the field.
“What we’re aspiring to is that the STEM environment can be a place where women of color can thrive without bounds,” said Karanja. “Without those invisible, and at times visible, boundaries that are created. That would be my goal. My goal would be that the environments are inclusive. That a Black girl or Latina girl would be like, ‘Yeah, I want to be in STEM.’ A space where they don’t have to deal with microaggressions and all that.
“That’s the ambitious goal that I think we’re all trying to get to in equity work,” she added. “In very practical and concrete places, we’re changing practices. Through this, people who are attending are learning and they’re saying, ‘This is how I’m going to do things differently. I didn’t realize this. I’m going to change a practice on my team.’”
The Legendary: An Evening of Celebration event will take place tonight at the Goodman Community Center Brassworks Building from 5:15-7:30 p.m. While the event will last just for the night, the continued celebration of women of color in the STEM field will take place in the work of Karanja and her team at the Represented Collective with the Legendary card collection as a strong starting point and impactful resource for those looking to continue the conversation in the spaces they are needed the most.
“The insight and the perspective that’s brought to this is so intentional that some of these things feel effortless when you engage with it because of the intentionality,” she said. “I like the idea that this is used in a classroom, and they can also be utilized in ERG [employee resource groups] groups. It can take place in so many different spaces.”