NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Rob Grant discusses the agency’s Black History Month theme: Building a Legacy of Achievement, Connection, and Knowledge.
In recognition of Black History Month each February, NASA celebrates accomplishments and contributions of Black Americans. From NASA’s hidden figures to plans for landing the first person of color on the Moon with the Artemis Program, Black Americans play a significant role in human space exploration. Throughout February NASA celebrates the rich contributions of Black Americans with agencywide events and sharing the stories of Black Americans who further the mission.
In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:
- Impactful opportunities for building a legacy of connection
- The effect of diversity on NASA mission success
- Challenges associated with applying soft skills in an engineering organization
Black History Month: NASA Honors the Stars of Our Past
NASA History: Honoring African Americans in Space
NASA People: Black History Month
NASA Strategic Plan for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility
Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue (APPEL-vCC)
The Best Teams: Introverts, Extraverts and Ambiverts (APPEL-vTBT)
Rob Grant serves as manager of the Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity (ODEO) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Grant is responsible for the oversight of Title VII civil rights, dispute resolution, reasonable accommodation, special emphasis, employee resource groups, and other efforts related to diversity and inclusive practice. He came aboard the NASA KSC ODEO as deputy manager in 2007. Prior to that, Grant was an Equal Employment Opportunity regional manager for the Department of the Interior U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He began his career as a soil technician with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service and held county and state agricultural management positions in Minnesota before beginning his formal professional education and training in diversity and civil rights. Grant has a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri.
Rob Grant: NASA wants people who are engaged and connected to the mission in a way that we never lose sight of who we’re serving and why we’re doing it.
We really focus on making sure as many people with different perspectives are at the table to make sure we don’t have the challenges that we’ve had in the past.
Deana Nunley (Host): Welcome back to Small Steps, Giant Leaps, a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast where we tap into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned and novel ideas.
I’m Deana Nunley.
February is Black History Month, an annual celebration of the achievements and contributions of Black Americans. This year’s “Black Resistance” national theme focuses on honoring the courage of Black Americans who break barriers and show resilience when faced with injustice and inequality.
NASA’s Black History Month theme is “Building a Legacy of Achievement, Connection, and Knowledge.” And joining us now is Rob Grant, Managing Director of the Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
Rob, thank you so much for being our guest.
Grant: Thank you for having me.
Host: From your perspective, what’s involved in building a legacy of achievement, connection, and knowledge?
Grant: Continuity and commitment would be the first steps I’d be looking for in the legacy of achievement, connection, and knowledge. And the vehicle we use to do that currently is Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Accessibility, our DEIA strategy. Using that, we try to blend all of the elements necessary to recognize the diversity and differences among our workforce, and not only to point them out, but to celebrate them and take advantage of them in a lot of ways from the different perspectives, different experiences, different life experiences of the employees we’ve got to make sure we’re going in the right direction.
The way the agency started at the time it started in the ’60s, turbulent time that really we were reaching for the stars and working on just basic human connection from the American public standpoint. So, the challenges were part of the NASA mission. Kennedy set the target to go to the Moon, and he wanted everybody to be part of it. So, when they established the 10 NASA centers, they put them in rural areas and made sure there was opportunity for employment for African Americans and for minorities. And that even continued with Lyndon Johnson, who thought that the racial issue was tied into poverty, and going to rural parts of the country where poverty was really excessive and giving minorities positions and jobs and the ways to earn money to make them more equitable as citizens was what he thought was part of the solution set.
Now for us, after that 50, 60 years of that experience where we see equity now, we’re in the workplace now and we’re focusing on making sure those things continue and that the equity proposition for employees still resonates and continues to strengthen and grow. So we don’t know where it’s going to end up, but we know where we started. We know where we are now. That’s a good place to be.
Host: So how does putting these principles into practice affect task management and achievement?
Grant: Well, equitable and inclusive practices are just good solid management practices. If you have a team of individuals, as a manager, the best thing you can do for yourself and for your task is to get as much input on much feedback from the team of experts you have at hand. So inclusive practice, just make sure that everyone has skin in the game, for lack of a better term, to the solution sets and that their voices are being heard and they’re part of the solution set that you’re striving for. Having an employee that is not engaged because of whatever reason is just a loss that a manager can’t bear. We’re working with tighter budgets, smaller groups of individuals, and all hands on deck is just a needed factor in getting tasks done and getting missions accomplished. So, everybody who’s at the table is going to have to be contributing. And as a manager, it’s your job to make sure that happens.
Host: In terms of building a legacy of connection, where do you see impactful opportunities?
Grant: We really use, and this is for Kennedy Space Center in particular, Employee Resource Groups. We call them ERGs. These were groups that were formed out of a necessity for communities within communities. So, communities within the workforce that have the same networking opportunities, the same growth and career development opportunities, and the same business awareness that other folks were getting in more common means. But because there weren’t numerical quantities of African Americans, and they may have been dispersed all over the center, building these small communities of people who are like-minded and like-experienced, provided that opportunity for people to network and grow and to share knowledge and to have the comradery that they may not have been getting in their home organizations or in these isolated pockets they were established in.
Host: The third component of NASA’s Black History Month theme is knowledge. What are some ways you see the agency building a legacy of knowledge?
Grant: The agency is fundamentally an engineering organization and knowledge is king. So, sharing that information and making sure successful everybody from getting the best out of your employee standpoint is really the coin of the realm here at NASA. The respect is for the math and for the engineering and for the design, for the contribution. So when it comes to this type of work, the merit really shows in what you can produce and what you can do and what you bring to the team. So, NASA’s legacy of knowledge is on the results. It’s a results-driven organization, and especially at Kennedy, which is an operations center where your successes are made real, physical to the touch. Knowledge being the coin of the realm and being the ultimate goal in the work we do is a driving factor. You can’t separate NASA without including knowledge.
Host: Rob, what are some of the challenges you’ve seen with applying the human touch in an engineering organization?
Grant: Some of the characteristics of engineers, people point out, some of them ring true. So, people have an affinity for numbers and technology and things that are within their control are really evident here at the agency. And it’s a good agency and it’s good people and people mean well certainly, but some of the softer skills and the appreciation for other people’s perspectives can be found lacking. It’s not through a lack of trying, but just having the tactile sense of soft skills. And even though I can’t give huge details, it strikes me as odd as somebody who has to communicate things that people who have those innate soft skills would know or in tune immediately or be aware of. Putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes really seems to be the most effective way of me communicating to engineers and technical people how to navigate some of the trickier aspects of human management.
And it’s as much easier to sit down and do math and engineering than it is to understand why somebody does something the way they do or why somebody perceives things the way they perceive them. But to be an effective manager, not only do you have to get the task done, but you have to keep your team and group together. And understanding that human element and the potential perspectives from the outcomes of your decisions really can be challenging.
So, the thing is that makes NASA a departure is most people are willing. Most people are game, and they understand that although we’re dealing with math and engineering and science, the payloads that we put together are ultimately meant to transport people. So, keeping the human element in the forefront may be easier here than it is in other places, but it’s still a challenge.
Host: Do you see that fitting in with this legacy of connection that we discussed?
Grant: I do. As long as we keep the fact that not only the people that we work with, the astronauts that we put the vehicles together for, the folks we support in ISS are all vital and we’re concerned about their success, then we can look closer and be concerned about our personal success and our personal connection with one another and developing those relationships. The final analysis is that NASA wants people who are engaged and connected to the mission in a way that we never lose sight of who we’re serving and why we’re doing it.
Host: How do you think diversity at NASA affects mission success?
Grant: Well, our business case for diversity is that because the problems we’re trying to solve are so complex and difficult to sort out the Gordian Knot of engineering design and building rockets and building spacecraft, the complexity is amazing. And so having a team built with individuals with diverse perspectives, diverse experiences, different types of knowledge, different ways of looking at problems and coming to solutions really is key to having innovative solutions to difficult challenges. In particular, we could say that one of the finest moments in NASA history was Apollo 13, recovery of the vehicle that was having trouble was in crisis. And in that room, the problem solvers came together with diverse knowledge. But all those problem solvers had a similar perspective. And even though they’re successful, our business direction is that maybe a more diverse team would not have had the problem happen in the first place. So, we really focus on making sure as many people with different perspectives are at the table to make sure we don’t have the challenges that we’ve had in the past.
And really that’s where inclusion comes in too. You, you’ve mentioned diversity, but inclusive practice is more important in a lot of ways because not only are people at the table, we’ve created the environment at NASA where folks can speak up at any level at any point to point out issues or concerns that they have from their perspective. A janitor could stop a launch here at NASA because safety is preeminent. And we’ve learned from our mistakes in the past that when agency culture has been sheltered or occluded, and inclusive practices weren’t put in practice, things go unaddressed, and knowledge is not shared enough to resolve problems and sometimes with incredible tragic results.
Host: You have a lot of experience with helping NASA implement its DEIA strategies. How is strategy implementation progressing at the center level?
Grant: Ironically, the strategy implementation of DEIA is really hitting acceleration point at NASA, KSC, at least I can talk about my center in particular, and it’s really due to the leadership direction. There was a time in the last administration where we were told through OPM to cease and desist all activities related to DEIA, and the leadership team here took a different approach saying they did not want to lose the ground they had gained and understand the importance of the workforce and the level of engagement they have from DEIA practices. They hit the accelerator, which was a surprise to our community and we weren’t going to relent.
Now so, at Kennedy, we have executive champions for each of the 11 ERG Employee Resource Groups, teams we have, so that’s 22. We have a champion and a co-champion at the senior executive level, SES level. In addition to that, each of the 17 directors has designated a diversity champion from middle management or middle staff. So, we integrate DEIA in almost all of the practices and areas of approach, areas of attack that the center has, and some do it better than others. And with that, it was when this started out, when they embarked upon this, it really was like herding cats, getting a lot of different people at a lot of different levels to implement DEIA practices. But when a group of engineers puts their mind to a task, the task will be achieved. And you’ve got these innovative creative minds coming at DEIA in a way we’ve never done it before.
My tool of tricks is based on human relationship and connections, things like that from my past and my experience. But now we have 17 directors and 22 senior executive leaders all putting a lot of brain power to DEIA purpose. And what we’ve come out with is an area and a result we would not have reached using traditional practices. So, I’m enthused by what we’ve done and certainly optimistic about what the future holds.
Host: What resonates most with you about NASA’s celebration of Black History Month?
Grant: I like looking to the past because it reminds us of what we have really pushed against to be where we are. I work in an environment where I don’t have nearly the challenges of the people that came before me. And yeah, a couple of years ago, the movie Hidden Figures came out, and in my role as a diversity manager, Director of the Office of Diversity Equal Opportunity, it hurt to see that this situation persists in a different way, but still the same, but I also can see there has been real progression.
And ultimately, I’m a nerd, science nerd at heart. So, I read Asimov and Ray Bradbury and Jack Chalker and all the books that really made me think of the future. And I think one day NASA’s ultimate goal is to make sure that the human race is a space faring race, and we populate the universe. And I really truly believe that the work we’re doing now, the fundamental work we’re doing now is going to end up being populating the universe. And when we’re on those generational ships, what is it we want to take with us? Do we want to take our hubris or racism, misogyny or ill will, or are we going to take something better out to the stars?
Host: Well, Rob, this has been really interesting. Thank you so much for joining us today on the podcast.
Grant: Thank you. Thank you for having me. It was interesting too.
Host: Do you have any closing thoughts?
Grant: Yeah, just that the struggle is worth it, and there are people out there struggling, but we have more allies than we have enemies. It may not look that way. There are people who are never going to change and that’s fine, but the people who are willing to change or wanting to engage and willing to understand that when you are at a NASA center, you are on a different type of terrain. You do not not represent the American public. But because we’re all focused on a mission together, we’re united in a way the American public doesn’t seem to be right now. And I hold onto that, that helps me sleep at night.
Host: Rob’s bio and links to related APPEL courses and resources are available on our website at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast along with a show transcript.
If you’d like to hear more about what’s happening at NASA, we encourage you to check out other NASA podcasts at nasa.gov/podcasts.
As always, thanks for listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps.