Change Makers: A Podcast from APH

Black History Month

February 10, 2022 American Printing House Episode 46
Change Makers: A Podcast from APH
Black History Month
Show Notes Transcript

On this episode of Change Makers, we are celebrating Black History Month. We're talking to Denna Lambert who works for NASA headquarters in their Space Technology Mission Directorate, as their DEIA Lead. DEIA stands for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility.

Podcast Participants (In Order of Appearance)

  • Sara Brown, APH Public Relations Manager
  • Denna Lambert, NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate
Jack Fox:

Welcome to Changemakers a podcast from APH. We're talking to people from around the world who are creating positive change in the lives of people who are blind or visually impaired. Here's your host.

Sara Brown:

Hello, and welcome to Change Makers. I'm APH's Public Relations Manager, Sara Brown . On this podcast, we're celebrating Black History Month. We're gonna talk to one woman with an amazing story, and that woman is Deena Lambert. She works for NASA headquarters as their Space Technology Mission Directorate as their DEIA Lead. DEIA stands for diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. Hello, Deena and welcome to Change Makers.

Denna Lambert:

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Sara Brown:

First off, NASA. Wow! I'm sure you get that a lot. Can you tell us what you do there?

Denna Lambert:

STMD , uh, the Space Technology Mission. They decided that , um, they needed to, to some expertise and , um, someone to really dig in deep with their , uh , various programs and projects , um, to help them kind of move the, the needle or make some progress and ensure that our , um, our research opportunities, funding opportunities, grants , uh, prizes and competitions were open and barrier free to , um, as many researchers and innovators as possible. So , um, I was brought in , um, to, to lead that effort and it's pretty exciting because , um, STMD is very much an outward facing function of NASA , uh, in that, you know, a lot of times people will think of NASA as , um, you know, astronauts and, and space shuttles and, and that sort of thing. But , um, we have a very huge commitment and investment to research, and that's where it , um, people who are in who are students grad students can engage in the work, professors, academia , uh , small businesses can really , um, say, "Hey, we have a new technology that we would like to bring to NASA," or "we would like to apply NASA technology in this commercial or academic space." So , um, that's, what's really exciting is that it brings NASA's , uh , work home. That that's what I really , um, like about the work that, that I have kind of set out before me.

Sara Brown:

Okay. Now, switching gears, let's go back to the beginning. Can you talk about your childhood, where you were born and your family?

Denna Lambert:

So I , uh , currently live in the Washington, D.C. Area, but like most , uh , D.C . or DMV residence , I , uh, made my way here through Arkansas. So I originally was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. Uh, I am a only child to , uh , my parents who are now in their late seventies. My mom is sighted, but my dad is blind. And so that's where I was born, with congenital cataracts , um, and started out receiving , um , blindness related services , uh , even as a baby , um , because my dad and, and my mom were both advocates for me getting , um, a , a head start in my education.

Sara Brown:

So you say your parents advocated for you as a baby. Do you remember any of the ways, or the ways they told you how they advocated for you?

Denna Lambert:

Well , um, so I remember , um, my dad mentioned that , uh, his principal , uh , which, you know, this goes way back, his principal was , uh , Mr. Ewell, who was the , um, superintendent , uh , uh , for a period of time at the segregated School for the Blind in Arkansas, where he attended school, because back in the , um, the forties and fifties. Um , schools, even Schools for the Blind were segregated. But , um, so eventually , uh , his principal , um, Mr. Ewell became , uh , my piano teacher. Uh , but in that, in that , in between time, he kind of mentored my dad in , uh, making sure that I received early intervention services. So a , uh , Teacher of the Visually Impaired or TVI , uh, would, would come to my parents' home. And I remember them bringing, you know, toys and , uh , sensory objects and things , um, to my house. I thought it was a bunch of play time , but there was actual learning and skill development , uh, early on. And then when my parents had to consider what , um, uh , school environment would be , uh , best suited for me, whether it was a School for the Blind or a public school system , um, they engaged , um , the TVI, and other early intervention specialists to make a decision that , um, I would, you know, engage with the school for the blind, for like summer programs and, and , um, you know, some, some other , um, outreach activities, but that they chose a school environment for me, going from kindergarten through , uh , graduation from high school.

Sara Brown:

Now, what was it like going through school with a visual impairment and as a person of color? Did you have any challenges?

Denna Lambert:

Well, I think for a while, I kind of struggled in, you know, what, what parts of myself , um, were kind of more prevalent, you know, so in that my, one of the things that , um , my , uh , TVI , um , Paula Brown, she was amazing. She, she followed me from , uh , the time that I was three years old through, you know, high school graduation. And she knew which schools had the best , um, you know, technology and, and, and, and teachers and, and that sort of thing. Um, one of the choices that we made or that my parents made early on is for me to go to an elementary school that was , um, primarily located in a very , um, uh, affluential , uh, neighborhood, which at , at the time basically meant it was a very white neighborhood. So at the time when I started kindergarten back in, you know, the , the late eighties , um, I was the only black student, you know, in , in , in my class and, and for a number of years , um, until there was more integration that happened and, and more students were being bused from certain neighborhoods to the, these other schools. So that's where , you know, I , I know only had to kind of face, you know, well , what are, what are these, you know, feelings or differences that I see as a black person, but what are these things that I'm experiencing as a blind person? Because even in my only neighborhood , which was pre predominantly black, you know, I sometimes didn't feel like I fit in either because I was then faced with, you know, the , the fact of being blind. So a lot of times that's where , um , going to, to the school for the blind and getting chance to interact with other , um, students of color , um, who were blind, that's where I felt like I was more like socially accepted. And then, you know, as I kind of grew older, you know, different parts of myself that I was starting to explore of being, you know, identifying as, as a black woman and taking pride in , you know, my, my, you know , natural hair. Um , and then how am I gonna take care of that natural hair? Or , um, am I gonna , um, utilize a , a , a white cane or a guide dog, you know, as you grow as an , as an adult, a young adult to an adult. You know, you , you kind of , you know start to figure out various layers of yourself, versus, you know, so like for me, it was being, you know, a black woman with natural hair and not being accepted more so in a professional environment , um, to "do I use a white cane or a guide dog?" And , and do I, you know, take on more of the identity of being , um, kind of visibly blind and , and using those non-visual techniques , um, versus trying to pass as sight . Um, and, and then entering into the technology space, which traditionally had been , um, white male. Learning how to , um, you know, to speak up and to , to also be confident in the skills and experiences that I do bring. Because it , it, sometimes it's very easy when you are kind of the, the a first one or the only one in , in many spaces to kind of doubt your, your, you know, you know, ability to, to , uh , bring value. And, and so, you know, I know , um, for myself now, I'm , I'm kind of always having to be my own hype person. Um, as I'm taking , be on this new role of leading out a , a , a portfolio for space technology. That "hey, this is a new field. And, you know, yeah, my, my 20 years of experience at NASA, you know , is, is gonna help me do the best job that I can do," and that I have just as much of a right to be there just as , as , as anyone else. So , um, yeah, it, it, I think the, the phrase that people , um, hear more of is intersectionality and, and that's very much the case for me as a , uh , blind , uh , woman of color. Particularly in the , the space , um , space, field , or space industry.

Sara Brown:

And what was it like when you graduated? What was your job search? What was that like? What obstacles did you face?

Denna Lambert:

So , um, uh, oh my goodness. Um, so I graduated , uh , with a , um , actually I graduated a business degree and a , a minor in math. I originally started in , uh, college as an Electrical Engineering major. Um, and , and , and that's a whole story of itself. That, you know, that I will say I , uh, faced more obstacles as a, as a blind student. Um , but when you place , um , being one of the very few minorities in the Electoral Engineering program , um, I, I think I, I often say that I let other people's doubts as to of my ability become my own doubts. And that is one part of my life that I wish I had had, you know, been able to stay the course and, and complete my engineering degree, but thankfully I still ended up at NASA and, and involved in, you know, innovation and, and, and great things there. But , um, so when I graduated with this business degree and, and, you know , um, you know, doing the job search, I would wear the, you know, the, the big padded shoulders that would , you know, those were the, the big trends at the time was to, you know, have a , a blazer and very, you know, corporate like. I would go to, you know, interviews and I had my white cane, or I had my, my guide dog and, you know , um, you know , they, it , it , it was discouraging to , um, go into those interviews with, you know, a lot of hope , um, about, "hey, this, this, I could be landing my next job," but then come back home and see a job description change to requiring a driver's license. And , and, and that would be kind of an out, for many recruiters to , um, disqualify me from , um, you know, the , the , the job, because I , I couldn't, you know, I didn't have a driver's license. Um , and I, I didn't have either the willpower at the time or the skill to, to fight those , um, rejections, you know, I just kind of kept going. So that's where I did receive , um, more of a positive outlook when I plugged into , um, a network called the, the Center for Opportunities and or Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities. And they had partnerships with private , uh, companies , uh, NASA was included who was actively and intentionally looking for , uh , people with disabilities. Not in, let's say the, you know , customer service , um, oriented positions with HR that is a career feeling of itself, but sometimes people can feel very boxed in, into those kind of positions. But they were looking for engineers, they were looking for it specialists. They were looking for procurement specialists. So when I was at their conference, I met a representative from NASA who asked, would I be willing to move from Arkansas? And, you know, I was like, "yes. I was like, yes, I will ." Cause at that point I had gotten to a, a state of, you know, pessimism, maybe that I was ready to leave the, a job search and go back to school for a grad school degree. It really didn't matter what degree I was getting. I just wanted to be doing something other than, you know, beating the streets every week and getting rejection letters. So , um, so I , I , at that point, yeah, Arkansas was ready to go just about anywhere. If they had said Antarctica, I probably would've said no, but you know, D.C. Was, was just fine. So , um, I interviewed , um, thankfully , um , by having NASA being committed to diversity and, and, and accessibility , um, they, they did have the support systems in place. Uh, traditionally the Federal Government has been a very welcoming space , uh, to people with disabilities. There's certainly a lot of work left to be done, but , um, it, it , it certainly was a step up from what I was experiencing with, with other companies at that time. And I think those same companies , um, uh , like Walmart, like Enterprise, like a couple other places that were recruiting in Arkansas, they are, you know, moving forward with their , um , various Diversity and Inclusion efforts. But , um, so I, I interviewed applied and applied, interviewed and was selected as a Contract Specialist in , uh, 2004. And , uh, that's when I began my career with Federal Government.

Sara Brown:

So now you're at NASA. Can you talk a little bit more about your job duties there?

Denna Lambert:

Sure. U m, so I am the, u h, Lead for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility for Space Technology, u m, which, you know, it's pretty awesome. I t, all of the, u m, ideas and innovations and technology that goes into, u h, s ending up satellites, s ending up instruments, sending up, you know, astronauts, u m, all of that culminates into t he, these larger missions that we h ear a bout like J ames Webb Telescope or, u m, the international Space Station. U m, there are hundreds and even thousands of technologies that are, you know, kind of serve that pipeline. So what my role now is, is to make sure that we are opening, u m, that pipeline t o a ny, u m, researchers and, u m, innovators and entrepreneurs who would like to, u h, play a part in that. U m, but NASA is a large agency. We, we deal with aeronautics, we deal with, u m, human exploration. We deal with science missions. Um, so there were, there a re a lot of s kill s ets that are needed to, u m, accomplish o ur, o ur, o ur goals. U m, so I started out as a Contract Specialist, u m, which basically is someone who, u h, establishes agreements or contracts with, u h, private industry, u m, based on t he, t he, the needs that we have, and that can range from, u m, to trash and removal services, janitorial services to actually building flight hardware. U m, so, u m, that, u h, that was my starting point and being able to grow and develop into a Project Manager, u m, a t a , you know, couple years back and get the, you know, retooling and retraining, u m, to take on that role where I was leading a team to, u m, renovate one of our, o ur research buildings. And I had to work with architects and interior designers and scientists and, and it folks. U m, and then, u h, now I 'm, I'm leading this team, u h, i n, i n Space Technology, which is, is pretty awesome

Sara Brown:

Right now. I feel like companies are starting to acknowledge their discrimination against minorities, you know, whiskey brand, Jack Daniels. They had Nathan "Nearest" Green. He was a former slave who taught young Jack Daniel, how to make whiskey. NASA was in a similar situation years ago with a particular movie that originated from a book, "Hidden Figures." What are your thoughts about that?

Denna Lambert:

You know, a couple years ago, I think it was maybe five years ago, the , um, hidden figures , um, book and ultimately movie was shown , um, NASA had to wrestle with its own kind of , uh , skeletons and its own barriers of, you know, discrimination , um, that, you know, have, have had to help us, you know, ultimately evolve into a , a , a better working environment where, you know, it , it , it should not matter , uh , what your skin color is and, and it should not matter what your disability is that, you know, if, if you have a skill or a talent or an idea, then, then yes, come and be a part of, you know, the work we have to do. Um, so yeah, NAS , NASA's great, but we've had to do a lot of work along the way as well.

Sara Brown:

Overall, what challenges have you faced as a black woman with a visual impairment?

Denna Lambert:

I think , uh, I, I, I can't remember if it , it was Helen Keller, but the sentiment is that the , "the greatest disability there is to actually having a disability not so much of the, the condition or vision loss itself, but it's more of the attitudes that , um, that the public may have about disability." Um, so , you know, for instance , um, you know, I , I , if I'm out, you know, shopping , um, actually I I'll give you a specific example. Um, I needed to replace a, you know, my dishwasher, you know, in my home, the home that I actually own and pay a mortgage to. And, you know, so my neighbor who is cited , uh, she, you know, is a , a white, older, white woman. Um, she helps me out with, with driving and , and that sort of thing. So we have a , a , a great relationship. I help her out with IT services, and she helps me out with transportation. So , um, we went shopping for a , a dishwasher and the sales people would, would go to her , um, assuming that she was the customer, and we would repeatedly have to tell them that, no, I am the customer. I am paying for this. And the , this is for my home that I actually own. And sometimes that can get really that , that can get really exhausting when you're having to kind of push the envelope of what people think you're capable of. Um, you know, that it can be like, you know, if , if they doubt whether I own a home, or hold down a job, then can I become a parent? Can I live that dream out of becoming a parent? And then actually, you know , um, came to be that, you know, the , the route that I chose to become a mom was through adoption and the way that most private adoption work is that an expected family chooses the adoptive family, that they would like their , their child to be raised in. And I know I had to have some real deep internal conversations with myself to really say, "Yes, I, I can do this." Um, even though, you know, there were folks along the way , um, that were really scared and hesitant about how can a blind woman , you know, raise a child, even though we know good and well that there are , um, blind women and blind men who are great parents , um, those and the authority may doubt that. So I really had to kind of , um, you know, kind of get right with myself and , and boost my own confidence , um, to be able to say, "Yes, I can be a, a wonderful parent, a responsible parent for a, a , a future child." And, you know, it turned out that actually, it , it wasn't so much of a factor , um, that went into , um, my, my son's , um, birth mom , uh , you know, decided when she, she selected me. Um , it was more of the, the interest that I had, like Girl Scouting and robotics and stem that she wanted for her , um, at the time unborn child. Um, it wasn't so much of, "oh my goodness, she's blind." Um, though we did have conversations about it . Um, but it wasn't, you know, the , the make or break thing for, for her. Um, so I think it , it's definitely not allowing the skepticism, the doubts, the concern to become our own. I think after I went through that experience of switching my major, which was a career choice , um, to , to move away from engineering, by training , um, I, I kind of vowed to myself that I would , I would never do that again. I, I would never let someone else's doubts, become my own. Um, so, but to , in order to do that, I needed to surround myself with , um, very wise and confident black women that can speak to , um, the experiences of a black woman. I, I needed to find great , um, blind mentors, people who could help me along the way and answering the questions that are, you know, specific to blindness of how to, you know, how am I gonna teach my little boy, how to potty train, if I can't see what he's doing? You know, those sort of things. Yeah . But , uh , you know, it , it's, it's like I needed to build a village for myself , um, to be able to speak to the , the whole person of who I am as a blind woman of color, if , if that makes sense.

Sara Brown:

Wow. No, it all makes sense. And you've got.. It's, it's one of those situations where you do, you have to surround yourself with the right people. And find your tribe. That's all the thing to say, but that it's so true. Beucase when you find the right people that understand you and have maybe gone through it and can speak with some, you know, with your best interest, then you can, you can go anywhere and you can do anything.

Denna Lambert:

So , yeah. Yeah. Cause I , I , I definitely , um, want to , it's one of those things, I , I , I know it's like, you know, one , one of "wanting my cake and eat it to ," I don't know if that's the right analogy in that. I want someone who can empathize and understand and, you know, know, you know, the struggle that it is to be, you know, a blind person navigating in a mostly sighted, you know, work environment, or as a , a black woman navigating in a predominantly white work environment. But at the same time, I want somebody who can call me to the carpet as well, and, and can say, "Hey, Denna, you need to get over yourself. You need to really, you know, either take accountability for something or, Hey, no, stop making up excuses, go after it." Um, and, and, you know, that's what, you know, having a good tribe, a good village, you know, a good community, or whether we call it a network, that that's what it is. And I think those things are really important. U m, i f, if you're talking about, u m, you know, growing into a person that can hopefully, u h, bring change or influence to other people, y ou, you gotta have that, that support, you know, kind o f, you know, being able to stand on somebody else's shoulders. So

Sara Brown:

Looking back on everything that you've done, where you've been places you've traveled just life, what are some of the things you look back on with sheer awe?

Denna Lambert:

Um, so , uh , so, okay. Um, I, so before I, I became, you know , I , I made a decision at, at 36 that I wanted to be, You know, be a mom. And, but I wanted to, to live my best life. Do as much fun stuff that I could do as a , as of a single person, you know, child-free. So I decided that I wanted to travel the world and I, you know , um, I found this company, you know, it was primarily just through internet searches , uh , called you know, Traveleyes. And I, you know, I picked one of their, their holidays or their trips that, you know, we , we were gonna do a cruise to, from , um, Athens to, oh my goodness, where did we end up? Uh , um , can't remember where we ended up, but , um, it was, it was to Greece and Croatia and other couple other countries. But on my way there , um, I, my plane was delayed, so I could not meet up with the group in Manchester, in the UK. So I had to figure out as a blind person and a country, it was Lithuania , um, how to get connected from Iceland to Lithuania, and then ultimately to Athens , uh, in a , a space where , uh , surprisingly English was, was available. But of course, navigating as one of the very few black people that, you know, goodness others had seen and Lithuania landing at like two or three o'clock in the morning there , it was a pretty wild experience , um , to , to say the least that, wow, I kept it together. I , I called my neighbor and , and was kind of frantic. She was like, "you wanna go to Athens? I was like, yeah, you wanna go on your cruise? Yeah. She was like, well, you gotta keep your stuff together. If you don't, they're gonna haul you off any of those things ." Um, so looking back, that was kind of a crazy time to, to end up thousands of miles away from home in a country that was not my own and in a place that I had never been before for "how do I use my orientation and mobility skills?" "How do I ask for what I need and ask for, you know, usable information of where to go" and even something as simple as I didn't realize in other countries, they had, they use a different style of keyboard, you know, than , than what we use here in the U.S. Um, and so I had to have somebody help me with just using a keyboard. So that was pretty wild. Uh, and, and I kinda , I , I , I kind of tucked that away as kind of the wild, crazy stories that I'll, I'll be able to share with my son, but I look back on that and say, "I could not have kept it together if it not have been those lessons learned or those mistakes that I had made that I had to learn from , um, prior to that point," that, that ultimately helped me to have the, the , the Hupa the confidence to actually, you know, live through that.

Sara Brown:

What do you want anyone that's listening to know about the obstacles that you faced and conquered?

Denna Lambert:

I think this will probably ring true for, for many of, you know, blind folks that, you know, have had the , to live through , um, you know, this, this pandemic global pandemic that many of us were, were living, you know, pretty normal lives, you know, going to work or going to school , um, you know, doing our thing. We had our systems or of support in place, and then the pandemic it comes and it , uh , roots everything. And then blindness becomes much more of a noticeable obstacle because now we're having to figure everything out again, of something simple of simple as "how am I gonna get groceries?" "How am I gonna , um, get sighted assistance if I need it?" And I think, I don't know if it's as much of overcoming, but knowing that blindness does not have to be insurmountable, but it is an aspect of my life that I will have to manage, you know, I will have to, to , to face it. Um , and you know, not just with, let's say the pandemic in how I , um, may approach different developmental stages with my son, you know, how much independence do I let him have, you know, and, and still keep , uh , him safe. Um, but also in the , the workplace when I'm , um , you know, dealing with , uh , a it system that isn't accessible, you know, how do I manage my need for accessibility , uh , with my responsibility to lead a team? You know? Um, so I, I would say that having that, that, that framing of knowing that blindness is not the, you know, the , the full stop barrier, but it is something to, to kind of have to, to manage , um, as part of just living life and knowing that , um, it's , uh , sometimes I've struggled with as, as a , a , a blind mom that believing that my son is, is gonna miss out , um, by, by having a blind mom, I've had to kind of reframe that to say, wow, what experience in life will he have? Because he has a blind mom. In that as a blind person, I'm having to always think of adaptations and new ways of doing things that are gonna , um, you know, reinforce that skill of adaptability and resilience. And, you know, he may not have gained those skills, you know, in the same way as you would at , as living with someone who's blind. Um, so instead of it being a detriment, I've had to, you know, really see how it can be more of an asset. And I think that can transfer over into , um, the workplace and our personal lives and our relationships. It's, it's really important how we see it within ourselves that helps to kind of project it out towards others. All right . What advice would you give to that little girl who looks like you, who might be listening? Oh my goodness. Um, so definitely if, if I had to go back , um, to, to my younger self back in the, you know , whether it was the eighties or nineties, I, I , um, would probably say, you know, for her to take heart and , and know that, you know , um, things do have a way of, of working , um, itself out. It's not a , a , a permanent state , um, that, you know, the, the circumstances or things that I'm experiencing , um, will, will hopefully help and shape , um, who I am as an adult in a way that hopefully makes me stronger, that has made me stronger , um, or more confident, or even more like , um, humanistic in , in just being able to experience empathy to, I would say the , to the , the young person who, you know, is a person of color and , uh , with a disability now, I would say, wow, we have made so much more that your experience as a person of color, or as someone with disability, or even both is gonna be so much different that we we've had that evolution of experience that, you know , um , that my, my dad was in the generation of having to just fight for survival, you know , um, as a blind person, you know, I get to experience what it's like to , um, progress. What I hope for the much, you know, younger generation is they can push that envelope further in just thriving. You know, and, and, and really , um, get to get a chance to celebrate, you know, being blind or b eing black, or being a person of color or being whatever it is, whatever characteristic it is of you, that you get to celebrate that and have others t o be able to celebrate along with you. Um, a nd, and i t seen as a, a value, u m, and not, you k now, know something as a , I think i n, in my generation, it's, it's been kind of like a, you know, diversity number or a quota. I think we're, we're past that point. We're, we're now embracing individual identity and how that, you know, is a form of human expression.

Sara Brown:

And is there anything else you'd like to say?

Denna Lambert:

Um , oh my goodness. I mean, black History month, I mean, it , it definitely is a month. We, we, we, you know, I , I think definitely it's, it's a time of reflection , um, that we can, you know, there's so much , uh , reflection that, and , and richness that comes from learning from, you know, our elders, our, our ancestors or people who have gone, you know, before us , um, in the blind community , um, in own , uh , cultural communities. And I, I would say, you know, let's, if we can use this month to step back and hear those stories , um, but also the rest of the year to , um, you know, to, to celebrate those stories and our own stories as well. So it , it it's, I , I don't think Black History Month is, is a container by any means, but a place that we really, you know, you know, pull together our energies to, to take us through, you know, the rest of the year , um, and you know, to continue on. Um, so, so yeah, I , I would say definitely , um, take the time to dig deeper in the information that we, we have. Um, let's say Dr. Martin Luther king was one of them. We have many, many, many examples and our blind community of Change Makers that we can honor and celebrate and learn more about and figure out the lessons that they learn that we can incorporate in , into our , our own lives right now. And I , I think that's where we get a chance to go deeper , um, in , in this month .

Sara Brown:

Denna, thank you so much for joining me on Change Makers today.

Denna Lambert:

Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

Sara Brown:

And as always be sure to look for ways you can be a changemaker this week.