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Glenda Hairston

Before she began her position as Science Programs Outreach manager at the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center in 2014, Glenda Hairston was an outreach educator who traveled to schools to deliver STEM content. Walking into a 4th-grade classroom full of children who were excited to meet the “special science visitor,” she set up her materials while the students were distracted finishing an assignment. When the teacher called the students to attention and introduced her, a young African American girl raised her hand and said, “Wait, YOU are the scientist?” Unsure of how to respond because she didn’t consider herself a scientist, but rather a science teacher, she confirmed that she would be leading a science activity with the class. With that confirmation, the girl nodded and said, “Oh!” as a big smile spread across her face.

It was at that moment that Glenda understood the question. Having had several science and math teachers who were African American when she was growing up in a small, rural town tucked into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it never occurred to her how fortunate she was to have the experience of seeing someone who looked like her leading a class. “The brief conversation with that one student gave me a glimpse into what I now know as the underrepresentation of specific groups in STEM.”

She’s applied that knowledge to her work at managing Morehead’s statewide outreach science education programs. Tasked with managing such community programs as no-cost STEM summer camps at public libraries, afterschool science enrichment programs at Boys and Girls Clubs, mobile planetarium events, and more that are designed to serve under-resourced and underserved communities, Glenda is diligent in designing with inclusive best practices. She values equity and access in terms of program availability to ensure that every young student can be introduced to the wonders of STEM and see themselves as a potential leader in the field.

“I see myself as a small piece of the puzzle as I continue the work Dr. Crystal Harden (director, Programs & Inclusion Initiatives) started with outreach programs and hopefully adding my own touch to what she started,” Glenda says humbly. “I think my colleagues would agree that we try to think of our programs from a holistic viewpoint. We want to make sure that our audiences see themselves represented in Morehead programs from the perspective of who is delivering the content to incorporating culturally relevant content that builds on our audiences’ prior knowledge and backgrounds. We want to learn from and learn with our visitors.”

What were the family dynamic and the community in which you grew up in like? Was it a diverse neighborhood? Did you feel that your self-identity was embraced?

I grew up in the Preston community of Henry County, Virginia which is a quaint area. My neighborhood was a close-knit one where everyone knew each other. My parents knew my bus driver and at least one person who worked at the schools I attended until I graduated from high school. At that time, there were many families with children who were my age and I have maintained most of those relationships over 20 years later. [There were] varying degrees of diversity. It was primarily populated with African American families; however, there was a wide range of people of different ages, backgrounds, and socioeconomic statuses.

[But] When I consider the community where I grew up, I think of multiple communities: There was my neighborhood where my childhood friends and I spent time together, my school community and my church community. For the most part, there were strong connections between my neighborhood community and my school community. My friends and I attended the same schools until we graduated from high school. My school community was more racially diverse compared to my neighborhood and church community. I was raised in a small church in an adjacent neighborhood, and it played a key role in shaping who I am. I have fond memories of talking with the elders of the church and absorbing as much wisdom as possible. Wisdom that I still lean on during tough times.

How did your lens of diversity and inclusion form? Can you recall any specific moments when you realized there was a disparity?

My lens of diversity and inclusion has grown over time. My earliest memory of microaggressions happened when I was in 5th grade. Comments about being articulate or people touching my hair and noting how “soft” it was were common and made me uncomfortable. I referred to being a part of multiple communities in the previous answer and while navigating those spaces could be challenging at times, I’m thankful I belonged to certain communities where the similarities outweighed the differences.

Glenda (center) with friend Jevonda Perkins and her daughter Makaila (left) and her twin sister Gladys (right) at Kenan Stadium for the annual July 4th fireworks celebration.

What was the message you received from your family regarding higher education?

My family was supportive of higher education. However, we did not have conversations about pursuing post-secondary education and I think that was largely due to the mystery of going to college, the rural area where we grew up, and a fear of the unknown. My parents always encouraged us to do well in school, but there were so many nuances we had to figure out together (college application deadlines, financial aid assistance, admissions processes, etc.). Thankfully, my twin sister and I had an invested assistant principal and guidance counselor who helped us navigate that experience. The assistant principal is the reason I applied to 4-year schools instead of enrolling in community college first. My sister and I were honor graduates and she encouraged us to challenge ourselves by applying to schools like the University of Virginia. With their assistance and unwavering support from our family, my sister and I became first-generation college graduates. (Go, ‘Hoos!)

You earned a BA in Psychology from the University of Virginia. What sparked your interest in Psychology?

I entered my first year at UVA without knowing what I wanted to study. I took classes that explored a variety of disciplines – anthropology, astronomy, history, etc. During my second semester as a first-year, I took an introduction to psychology class and absolutely loved it. I loved how multifaceted the field was and really enjoyed learning how the brain works – more specifically how people learn.

You began working in either education or science-based museums, beginning in 2007. You are currently one of the few Black women in leadership in the field of museum-based science education. How did you make the leap from psychology to this field?

After I graduated from UVA, I worked with middle school students who had learning disabilities. I worked with a teacher who had an incredible way of pushing students to rise to expectations beyond what they imagined for themselves. I enjoyed working with students who had learning differences and was inspired by their humility and tenacity to learn. About a year later, I shifted to informal science education as an educator at a natural history museum. Several years later, I moved to NC to work at Morehead.

What issues concerning diversity, equity, and inclusion did you recognize needing attention at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center… and how did you address them?

A few years ago, I became the Science Programs Outreach Manager where I work with a team of educators who travel across the state to deliver science and STEM content. Two examples of my responsibilities are hiring educators and overseeing content development. In late 2019/early 2020, I began having conversations with my team about designing experiences for people who have varying learning and physical abilities in an effort to ensure Morehead’s content is thoughtfully designed for broad audiences. Because we are so busy traveling the state, it has been hard to focus on this worthwhile task. However, as challenging as the pandemic has been, it provided time for us to take an in-depth look at our programs and find ways to strengthen areas that were not as inclusive as they could have been. There’s still a long way to go but starting is the first step.

Additionally, I am always thinking about how to increase the diversity of our educators. When recruiting new staff, I try to think of underrepresented groups of people who may not use typical platforms as they seek employment opportunities. Because the benefits of recruiting and hiring diverse talent are plentiful and will enrich the Morehead experience, I spend a significant amount of time searching for organizations and people who will support the goal of diversifying Morehead’s workforce.

How do you integrate DEI best practices into the many K-12 programs that you provide throughout North Carolina?

I cannot take credit for how equity and inclusion are embedded into [those] programs. All that Morehead has accomplished is due to a team of people who are committed to serving NC through innovative and engaging programming. For example, Dr. Crystal Harden, the director of Programs and Inclusion Initiatives launched many of the programs that travel to NC’s 100 counties with support from Dr. Todd Boyette, the director of Morehead. Jonathan Frederick, the senior manager of programs and strategic partnerships, is doing valuable work leading his team as they produce the NC Science Festival which provides programs in every NC county during the month of April each year. Whit McMillan, the science programs manager, who focuses on experiences that occur onsite at Morehead, trains staff on inclusive interpretive practices. Additionally, Morehead has a talented group of educators who work diligently to incorporate inclusive practices into our programs. Serving the state is possible because of everyone’s commitment to Morehead’s mission.

One of your key programs is the STEMville Science Symposium series, a quasi-science conference for kids, complete with a keynote presentation and small group sessions for children to interact with and do hands-on science with real STEM professionals. How do you ensure that the groups of scientists leading the activities are diverse…and use best practices in their sessions?

The Symposium is a product of a collaborative effort and we are very intentional about who the participants interact with during this program. Through a program under the leadership of Jonathan Frederick and Tamara Poles, Morehead has developed a pool of diverse scientists across the state who are trained in public science communication. In addition to designing age-appropriate and engaging activities, the scientists are encouraged to personalize the experience by sharing their stories to make connections with the children who attend. This program gave scientists ample opportunity to learn strategies to effectively communicate their work to the general public. Also, the STEMville Symposium coordinator, Carla Robinson, hosts a training where the scientists can share their activities and receive feedback to enhance their ideas in preparation for the conference. In addition to ensuring the presenters are diverse, we also provide scholarships for participants who are interested in attending but may not have the resources to do so. We have worked with a school in central NC for several years to ensure our audience is diverse as well as increase our marketing efforts in underserved communities.

You are a founding member of Morehead’s Inclusion and Diversity Committee and instrumental in developing Morehead’s strategic plan for inclusion and mission statement. What kind of successes have you had with this committee? What do you hope to tackle next?

I have learned so much since this committee was formed. We developed a comprehensive strategic plan that is foundational to who Morehead wants to be now and in the future. Morehead staff has participated invaluable and challenging conversations through internal and external facilitation. The committee explored inclusion and diversity through the lens of race and ethnicity in the first couple of years of its inception and has been focusing on language and accessibility until now.  A few examples of our work include creating gender-neutral restrooms, producing a percentage of our curriculum in Spanish, upgrading assistive devices, and collaborating with partners to conduct programs for audiences who speak Spanish.

I think we have only scratched the surface with the topics that we’ve focused on to this point. There is still an opportunity to focus on accessibility by working more with people who have disabilities – vision, hearing, mobility, etc. I would like to see inclusion and diversity principles become more embedded in every area of Morehead from business operations to public-facing experiences. Also, I’d like to see Morehead work with its student staff to understand their perspective to further the organization’s commitment to inclusion and diversity.

If you could wave a wand to make a significant positive change regarding DEI at Carolina, what would that change be?

I have been thinking a lot about mental health. The state of someone’s mental health directly affects every aspect of their life and their mental health can be shaped by their lived experiences – good and bad. I would like to see a significant investment in developing consistent structures of support that holistically considers students, staff, and faculty.

What gives your work great meaning and resonates most with you?
I am energized by seeing Morehead educators executing innovative and engaging programming where they enjoy the experience as much as their audience. Each semester, I schedule time to observe educators leading programs in schools and community-based organizations. I enjoy seeing hundreds of students excitedly walk into their school auditorium where they are captivated by live science demonstrations. Conversely, I have witnessed how a well-crafted activity can shift a child’s perception of science in a positive direction. I have seen students reluctantly attend learning opportunities because their caregivers signed them up for the experience; however, by the end of the session, the student is bubbling with enthusiasm and an unlimited number of questions. Captivating an audience and seeing a paradigm shift for the person who is convinced that “science may not be for them” is the result of hard work, creativity, thoughtfulness, and thorough planning. Providing accessible learning opportunities for communities (particularly communities that are historically marginalized and underserved) makes the work sustaining and I’m proud to contribute to it.

Written by Adrianne Gibilisco, University Office for Diversity and Inclusion

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