Native Americans bring leadership and heritage to technology
Numbers are still low, but groups like AISES are helping to connect eager companies with Native American tech pros and students
Many Native Americans use their heritage as a guide in career planning and in the workplace
By Angela M. Hutchinson
Like many minority groups, Native Americans are working to increase their numbers in STEM fields. Groups like AISES help. Since 1977, AISES (American Indian Science and Engineering Society, www.aises.org) has worked with more than 200 tribes to “increase the representation of American Indians and Alaskan Natives” in STEM fields, “as students, professionals, mentors and leaders.”
Corporations and government agencies understand that a diverse workforce generates diversity of ideas and yields innovative solutions, and most include active outreach to Native Americans in their diversity efforts.
Recruiting from the Native community
The recruitment strategy at 3M has included AISES for more than twenty years. According to Rhonda Graves, chief diversity officer, “3M partners with AISES’ university chapters to create a pipeline for future talent.” The company also has an active Native American network that focuses on employee development, community outreach and employment branding.
ORAU (formerly Oak Ridge Associated Universities) draws on a variety of sources when recruiting diverse professionals, including social media platforms, special interest groups, professional organizations, targeted newspapers and trade journals. According to Daniel W. Standley, vice president of human resources, “When seeking to fill professional or technical vacancies with a Native American or candidate from another minority group, ORAU’s recruitment strategy includes making the vacancy known through our usual sources, as well as tapping into our workforce’s networking expertise, leveraging our Science Education Programs partnership with minority institutions, and more.”
The U.S. Air Force, along with other military branches, focuses on recruiting interested and qualified professionals from all backgrounds to serve the country. Chief Master Sergeant William Cavenaugh says, “Our professional recruiting force builds mutually beneficial relationships in diverse communities throughout the United States and abroad.” The Air Force also recruits through experiential and event marketing. “We educate whole communities, not just community members qualified to join, but the influencers and leaders who interact with them, on the opportunity and the benefits of Air Force service,” says Cavenaugh.
Navajo Tommie Lee is a 3M manufacturing site plant manager
For the past twenty-four years, Tommie Lee has worked with 3M. He manages the company’s manufacturing site in Sanford, NC. It makes products for the electronics industry that control static when electronic products are manufactured and shipped.
“I manage the overall operations for the site, and ensure that we are making high-quality products, and being productive and safe,” says Lee. “This includes being out on the production floor and working on projects to improve the operations.” Lee works on both short, quick improvements and projects that involve more time and people. “My job also involves implementation of Lean manufacturing throughout this location,” he says.
Lee grew up in Shiprock, NM on a Navajo reservation, steeped in Navajo language, traditions and history. That has allowed him to introduce his background to his co-workers. “When I was growing up on the Navajo reservation, we had a very high percentage of Navajo people in my community, so I did not see myself as a minority,” Lee says. He believes his upbringing has helped him work easily with people of all backgrounds.
Setting the bar high for “zero issues”
“I have not experienced any barriers during my time at 3M because of my Native American background,” he says. “Any barriers that I have experienced were in relation to my own career goals that I set for myself. In every role I’ve had, I expect to make a difference and perform at a high level.” His business leaders and mentors have helped him feel comfortable about his work, he says.
In 1989, Lee graduated from the University of Oklahoma (Norman) with a BSME. “My engineering degree along with my early experiences in process engineering at 3M helped prepare me for my current role as plant manager,” he says. “I was able to work in the 3M laboratory and manufacturing environments during the early part of my career.” During those years, he scaled up products from concept to full production. He also learned how to manage operations in different 3M businesses like sorbents, film products and products used in the electronics industry.
“The most challenging part of my job is keeping people safe and keeping product quality up, since the expectations are very high,” says Lee. “Striving for ‘zero issues’ is challenging since we do not live in a perfect manufacturing world and we have to stay ahead of the competition every minute.”
In the team environment at 3M, Lee believes, diversity is key to effectively solving problems. He says, “Since technical industries are global, diversity is very important to developing products and processes.”
Lee enjoys working for 3M because the company emphasizes innovation and makes products that are sold and used worldwide. “This type of success happens by involving people from many different backgrounds and experiences,” Lee believes.
NRL senior research scientist Dr Joan Gardner, Choctaw, works for the warfighter
Senior research scientist Dr Joan M. Gardner is a geologist for the Naval Research Laboratory in the Marine Physics Branch of the Marine Geosciences Division (Washington, DC). Her job is to pursue research that can aid warfighters.
“As a research scientist, I am responsible for determining what I can do to help the warfighters do their jobs faster, better, safer and cheaper,” says Gardner. During her twenty-year NRL career, she’s been involved in research for sea floor mapping and characterization in support of Navy anti-submarine warfare programs as well as multi-sensor data collection from airborne and oceanographic platforms. “I have experience with data acquisition and processing of airborne radar altimetry, LiDAR, photogrammetry, Multiband Synthetic Aperture Radar (MBSAR), gravity, magnetics and hyperspectral data, which was used for mapping economic resources in Afghanistan,” she says.
Gardner grew up in Los Alamos, NM, where her father was employed as a physicist at what is now Los Alamos National Laboratory. “I grew up surrounded by mostly Caucasian scientists’ kids since the main employer in Los Alamos was the laboratory,” she says.
Her mother’s parents are Swiss immigrants who settled in Southern California, and her father’s family is Choctaw from Oklahoma and Texas. Gardner grew up surrounded by science and nature. “This mixture of a strong science influence and access to the mountains and outdoors were great influences on my desire to become a geologist,” she says. “In terms of my own ethnicity, the community of Los Alamos was not very ethnically diverse, but the nearby city of Santa Fe, along with several active Native American pueblos and reservations, exposed me to diverse populations.”
Pros and cons of minority status: one perspective
Gardner reflects, “I think that being underrepresented as a woman and Native American in my field affects me both positively and negatively.” Respect has sometimes been hard to come by in the technical world. “On the positive side, I think being underrepresented has caused me to work harder and remain more focused in my work and job throughout the years.”
In 1983, Gardner earned her bachelors degree in geological science from New Mexico State University-Las Cruces. In 1992, she received an MS in marine science from Moss Landing Marine Laboratories at San Jose State University in California. Nine years later, she got her PhD in geology from George Washington University in Washington, DC.
Gardner has two children and finds that the most challenging aspect of her position is balancing family and work. “My research takes me out in the field for extended periods of time on a regular basis. This is very hard on my family,” she says. Her occasional reluctance to travel, she feels, may have slowed her career progress.
At NRL, Gardner is often faced with the need to find solutions to problems as they arise, “whether it’s helping to figure out how fast the ice will melt in the Arctic or mapping the ocean floor so submarines can safely navigate,” she says. “I’m pleased that the job makes me think outside the box.”
Gardner says NRL encourages active mentorship to provide a supportive environment for the minority science population. “I think any industry benefits from having a diverse work group. The differences in our backgrounds, both educational and ethnic, shape how we approach a problem and how we solve a problem,” she says. “We need to understand and appreciate all perspectives.”
Cheyenne Romona Seminole Carrasco is a senior program specialist at ORAU
For the past fifteen years, Romona Seminole Carrasco has served ORAU in various capacities. She’s now a senior program specialist based in Oak Ridge, TN, and is training liaison and technical lead for webinars. “I communicate with clients to develop manuals and other instructional materials used in training classes and workshops at universities, national medical, environmental and disaster preparedness meetings, K-12 STEM training classes and websites,” she says. “In addition, I provide logistical support and coordinate event and meeting planning activities. I even do contract negotiations.”
Guided by heritage
Carrasco is a Northern Cheyenne from Montana. “In my tribe there is emphasis on listening and reading body language. So in meetings I tend to stay silent. There is more to what someone says than their words,” she says. “The business culture sometimes interprets that as being passive, or worse, ignorant.”
She had to learn to look people in the eye when addressing them. “I have also had to accept that when people first meet me, they want to know about my culture. I may be the first Native American person they have met, so I allow time for, and even encourage, personal questions,” says Carrasco. “Getting through the curiosity wall helps to form a personal bond, which allows the person to relate naturally to me and puts more focus on the business at hand.”
Carrasco graduated in 1986 with an associates degree in pre-law from Miles Community College in Miles City, MT. “What affects my career the most is not my ethnic background but the fact that I do not have even a bachelors degree,” says Carrasco. “ORAU is an institution based on education, and in a system like that, the higher your degree, the higher your position.”
Her education may be a limiting factor, but her Native American status is not. Diversity is continually showcased at ORAU. “ORAU doesn’t just focus on racial diversity but on all aspects of people’s uniqueness, such as cultural and religious diversity, gender, social status, education. The list is endless,” Carrasco says.
Linda Benson Kusumoto, Tsimshian: manager at SSC Pacific
Linda Benson Kusumoto is the business and force support portfolio manager for the U.S. Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific (SSC Pacific, San Diego, CA). Kusumoto has served four years with the United States Navy and fourteen years as a government civilian. She provides leadership, management, direction, support and technical advisory for the SSC Pacific Business and Force Support portfolio.
Kusumoto is an Alaskan Native, a member of the Tsimshian Nation, Killer Whale Clan (Gispwudwada). The Tsimshian tribe is located in the town of Metlakatla, Alaska. “My ancestors originated along the Nass River in British Columbia in the township known as Old Metlakatla, and in 1880 half of the tribe moved to New Metlakatla in Alaska,” she says.
Her father was a leader in the federal government’s Department of Finance, and Kusumoto started her career working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a computer specialist. She wrote original programming for the Division of Forestry and Natural Resources. Kusumoto studied computer science at Portland State University (OR). She also studied business management at the University of Phoenix (San Jose, CA).
Challenges in “a man’s world”
“I think I experienced more challenges and barriers related to being a woman in the technical workplace than being an Alaskan Native. That’s because I joined the technology workforce back in the early 1980s, and there were not a lot of women in STEM fields,” she says. “As I moved into the early days of the Silicon Valley high-tech environment it was really a man’s world. As a network engineer and computer specialist, most of my peers were men. I tried not to think of this as a barrier. But at times it was challenging as I moved up the corporate ladder into IT management and executive roles.”
Kusumoto describes SSC Pacific as the IT technical authority for the U.S. Navy. “We have a unique culture of innovation to support the warfighter,” she notes. “The SSC Pacific team is a perfect fit for me personally. I spent many years developing IT solutions for industry at several Silicon Valley high-technology corporations,” she says. “It is an honor for me to bring my experience to a Navy command as a government civilian.”
Kusumoto enjoys bringing new ideas to the command. For her, the challenge is rapidly deploying the latest cutting-edge technologies. “It’s critical that we first evaluate, test and ensure security for each technology that we consider,” she says. “This slows our ability to deliver new technologies. But we must use those processes to ensure that our warfighters have the technology they need, when they need it, and that it’s secure.”
For Kusumoto, diversity in technology means that different viewpoints are voiced, greater breadth of experiences is brought to bear, and varying backgrounds are included in daily activities associated with delivery of key technical solutions. “Diversity highlights cultural differences, which helps enable possible innovations,” she says. “A diverse talent pool can offer opportunities, foster collaboration, and strengthen the values of an organization.”
Alaskan Native Staff Sergeant Hayli Ward is with the U.S. Air Force
Staff Sergeant Hayli Ward has been an airman for four years at Lackland AFB in Texas. She works at Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center in the Air Force Medical Laboratory performing diagnostic testing. “I am a generalist lab tech, meaning I can work in any section of the lab,” she says. Currently, she specializes in microbiology. “I identify bacteria that cause infections and determine which antibiotics will be effective,” says Ward. “I also run tests to determine if a patient has various diseases.” As a staff sergeant, Ward is also responsible for supervising airmen and has other duties that keep the lab running day to day.
Ward took dual-credit college courses from Vernon College (TX) while she was in high school, which allowed her to join the Air Force with advanced rank. In 2012, she got her associates degree in medical laboratory sciences from the Community College of the Air Force. She’s pursuing her bachelors in medical laboratory sciences from Weber State University in Utah.
Ward says the government is constantly finding ways to improve patient diagnoses. “Each patient is unique and presents unique situations to the lab. Our work is crucial to the correct diagnosis of the patient,” she says. Ward stresses that her job requires flexibility and the ability to rapidly adapt to change.
Air Force: welcoming to all
Ward is an Alaskan Native, likely from the Inuit tribe. “My mother and her brother were adopted in Anchorage, Alaska and their lineage is not completely known. My grandparents adopted them while my grandfather was serving in the Air Force in Anchorage,” she says.
Ward is proud of her heritage, and finds that people are often curious about her background. “That sometimes makes me feel like I am in a spotlight when people first meet me. But once they understand my background, I always feel accepted. I never feel like an outsider because of my ethnicity,” she says.
Ward never feels judged or singled out due to her heritage. “Sometimes I’m asked goofy questions, like have I ever lived in an igloo or been ice fishing, but that doesn’t bother me. I am judged based on my merit and work ethic alone,” she says.
Without diversity, Ward believes the workplace would be a less creative place. “People from different backgrounds have different perspectives,” she says. “This means many different ideas are flowing throughout the workplace. With an open mind, we can embrace these ideas to find ways to improve processes.”
Ward feels fortunate to be a part of such a diverse group. “The Air Force includes people from many ethnicities, religions and even different countries. The Air Force as a whole is very welcoming to all,” she says. “We are all airmen, and we are viewed as equals regardless of ethnic background.”
Air Force Captain Amileah Davis is a rotating clinical psychology resident
As a clinical psychology resident with the U.S. Air Force, Captain Amileah Davis is training at Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center to provide top-notch mental and behavioral healthcare to service members and their families. She’s had three years active and one year reserve experience.
Psychology residents at Wilford Hall are trained in the outpatient mental health, clinical health psychology, neuropsychology, and family health clinics at Joint Base San Antonio in Lackland, TX. Davis just completed a four-month rotation in clinical health psychology.
“We served as behavioral experts in consultation with other providers to care for individuals who may benefit from behavioral interventions to better manage their medical concerns,” she says.
Inspired by tradition
Davis’ heritage is American Indian (Métis) and African American. She is originally from Milwaukee, WI, and most of her family lives in Wisconsin. Davis explains that she was raised in a community that honors its warriors. “My family’s tradition of military service goes back to the American Revolution and earlier. I can remember being in awe of the warriors who were honored at feasts and powwows growing up, and decided after 9/11 that I would pursue military service,” she says. “Healers are also valued in the community, so when I struggled to find a major in college, it seemed natural to combine my interest in serving with the healthcare profession.”
In 2009, Davis graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a bachelors in social work. After graduation, she attended New Mexico State University’s counseling psychology doctoral program in Las Cruces, NM. She’ll complete the requirements of the PhD at the end of her residency in 2013.
“It’s difficult to pinpoint how being a member of an underrepresented group impacts my daily work or career path,” she reflects. “Being far from home and family is not ideal, but that was a sacrifice I was willing to make in order to pursue this career,” she says. “Religious accommodations for different traditions can be initially difficult to navigate. Getting familiar with the base chaplain has been very helpful when I participate in religious observances such as fasting, or need to leave on short notice for ceremonies or use certain sacred medicines. Participating helps me connect with other Native people.”
Davis has organized Native American and African American Heritage Month activities at three bases to honor airmen’s diverse backgrounds.
The rewards of being an airman
“Joining the Air Force has broadened my experience to a global perspective. Our mission involves coordinating with other services, international militaries, the civilian community, and beyond,” she says.
Working with others who are equally motivated to keep airmen “fit to fight” has been a rewarding experience for Davis. Although she faces challenges daily as an officer and a healthcare provider, she thrives on creative problem-solving. “Occasionally, working with individuals who are going through difficult times in their lives can be draining, but my peers and supervisors work hard to keep each other motivated and committed to those we serve,” she says.
Leaders speak out on diversity’s role
According to Rhonda Graves, 3M’s chief diversity officer, the company’s goal is to reflect the diversity of its global customers, suppliers and channel partners, and build on each employee’s abilities to achieve greater customer satisfaction and accelerated growth. “To remain competitive and meet the changing needs of our customers and employees, 3M cultivates diverse perspectives, and works to develop an open and inclusive workplace that leverages the creativity of our global employees.”
ORAU vice president of human resources Daniel W. Standley says, “ORAU is convinced that attracting people with various backgrounds provides a variety of experiences which enhances approaches, methods and innovations that contribute significantly to the organization’s achievements and competitive advantage.”
Captain Joe Beel, commanding officer at the U.S. Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific, says, “Engineering is a very creative field. Diverse perspectives allow us to provide more creative solutions for the warfighter.
“Diversity is important, and it should be celebrated. The sharing of ideas and experiences by personnel of various backgrounds ensures richness in collaboration and communication across our workforce, inherently bringing out new and innovative ideas, which are vitally important to our work,” he notes.
Chief Master Sergeant William Cavenaugh is the command chief and senior enlisted advisor to the Air Force Recruiting Service commander. He explains, “Our mission is to inspire, engage and recruit the brightest and most diverse young men and women for service in America’s Air Force.” Cavenaugh, who oversees the professional development and well-being of more than 2,300 enlisted men and women assigned to the Air Force Recruiting Service, summarizes, “The Air Force, like any organization, benefits from diversity of thought and experience. This is especially true in our technical fields where collaboration is critical to innovation.”
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