Through 'Hidden Figures,' Pittsburgh students get glance at what could be
Some 200 Pittsburgh Public Schools students will mark Presidents' Day by seeing a movie about three African-American women who helped send NASA astronauts into space.
Melinda Angeles started a GoFundMe page with the goal of raising enough money to send low-income kids to see “Hidden Figures.” She said she got the idea from Washington-based Women Who Code, a nonprofit dedicated to inspiring women to excel in technology careers that was sponsoring a similar screening.
“I used to live in Maryland and was involved in a lot of different tech groups there,” said Angeles, a Shaler native. “I thought this was such a great idea and wanted to bring it to Pittsburgh.”
She contacted the Pittsburgh chapter of Girl Develop It, a nonprofit whose mission is to provide opportunities for women to learn web and software development. They were happy to help, she said.
“When Melinda approached me, I thought was a great idea. I wished I had come up with it myself,” said Marylou Lenhart, co-chapter leader of Girl Develop It Pittsburgh.
The film tells the story of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson, three African-American mathematicians who worked for NASA and helped John Glenn's space launch. “Hidden Figures” is nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and was the top-grossing Best Picture nominee of 2016.
The movie highlights the underappreciated contributions of female scientists and has inspired conversations about race and gender roles in science fields. Former First Lady Michelle Obama held a screening at the White House with cast members for middle- and high-school kids in December.
The GoFundMe had a goal of $2,070, which it surpassed in the first day. As of Wednesday, the total was approaching $3,400, and Angeles said she was discussing possibly adding a second screening at SouthSide Works Cinema, which agreed to host the students.
The money will pay for the cost of tickets for kids and chaperones, popcorn, a drink and candy for each child, and additional funds will be used to cover the cost of transportation.
The stated goal of the GoFundMe was that all in attendance “leave with inspiration from the movie and resources to pursue Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields.” A panel discussion of tech groups in Pittsburgh will follow the movie, with final details still being sketched out.
Angeles works for Allegheny County, so she contacted the Department of Human Services, which helped her connect with Pittsburgh Public Schools, to identify eligible students.
“I thought it was going to be hard identifying people who would attend, but I didn't have to do it by myself,” she said.
She had scheduled the movie screening for Feb. 20, thinking the students would have the day off from school for Presidents' Day — but they don't. However, the district told her that it could authorize a sponsored field trip for the kids to attend.
Lenhart said it's key for kids, especially those from underprivileged environments, to see what's available when they consider their future.
“If a kid enjoys math, it's OK to enjoy math because it leads to something; it's not just hard work for nothing,” she said. “It's so easy for kids to get discouraged if they don't have someone to look up to.”
Angeles said SouthSide Works Cinema was enthusiastic to help. Marketing director Dave Huffman said the theater was “thrilled” about being involved with the project.
“While this true story about finding success even in the most challenging environments is inspiring to all viewers, it is especially empowering to young women,” he said in an email.
Angeles said she's been heartened at the positive response and hopes the kids — boys and girls — who see it will feel motivated.
“This isn't just any movie. This movie could inspire them to know that they can work through societal challenges,” Angeles said, adding it's not just about the learning experience. “Kids deserve to have fun and go see a movie.”
Kim Lyons is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.