Maybe your first introduction to Sonequa Martin-Green was as Courtney Wells on The Good Wife. Or Tamara on Once Upon a Time. But it was her roles on The Walking Dead as Sasha Williams and, now, Star Trek: Discovery as Michael Burnham (the first Black female captain in the franchise’s history) that likely cemented her status in your head as one of the fiercest women on TV. Today, the mom-of-two is a sci-fi icon — something she doesn’t dare take lightly, given the women sharing that title who’ve come before her.
Considering that context, Martin-Green’s latest project seems especially fitting: She’s teaming up with Frito Lays for the return of their Back-to-School Blast Off campaign. In partnership with STEM Next’s Million Girls Moonshot, they’re sending 16 girls from all over the country to NASA’s Space Camp in the hopes that it helps inspire a pipeline of future female space explorers. Martin-Green even got to share with the girls that they’ll have ceremonial stars named after them.
When Scary Mommy had the chance to chat with Martin-Green about this unique collaboration, her excitement was palpable. “[The girls] are going to have a fully immersive experience: They’re going to get to eat the food and have zero gravity to feel what that’s like. They’re going to be talking to real astronauts. They’re going to be living, sleeping, eating space!” she tells us. “So, for these girls who envision having careers in STEM, hopefully this will set them on their path and help encourage them in that way.”
The mission feels particularly important in light of the available data about women in STEM. “There’s such a dearth of representation of women and of people of color in STEM careers. It’s about 10%, which is really sad. I feel like STEM careers are the future … I think they’re just going to continue to increase, so there really needs to be representation in those fields,” she says.
Being able to relay that to a younger generation is monumental for Martin-Green. “I hope that I get to meet the girls sometime soon, at least virtually, because right now, with where I’m sitting — standing on the shoulders of Nichelle Nichols and wanting to further her legacy, this is just one opportunity to do that,” Martin-Green shares, visibly emotional. “So, I’m very grateful.”
Our conversation with Martin-Green came shortly after word broke about the passing of Nichols, a Star Trek alum and trailblazer in every sense of the word. Encouraging young girls to pursue STEM careers is a beautiful opportunity to pick up Nichols’ proverbial torch and run with it, so I ask Martin-Green how she hopes to continue that legacy.
“I think it’s important to think outside of the box, because that’s very much what Nichelle did ... Being an actor is great, but she went beyond that. She sort of set her dreams as an actor to the side and said, I’m going to dedicate myself to my community, and I’m going to dedicate myself to progression, and to the future and to the world, really,” Martin-Green shares.
She continues, “From 1977 to 2015, [Nichols] was working tirelessly to establish these programs with NASA. Her company, Women in Motion, was affiliated with them, and she was responsible for the first female American astronaut, Dr. Sally Ride; she was responsible for the first Black male astronaut, Guion Bluford. She was responsible for so much; it’s really hard to quantify what she did.”
Martin-Green understands the enormity, then, of Nichols’ legacy — in representing Black women as Lt. Ohura on the Star Trek series and movies, and in her efforts to “actually change the world” by integrating NASA and making programs like the Back-to-School Blast Off campaign possible all these years later. So, when it comes to the question of how she might pick up that mantle, the actor emotionally admits she doesn’t know… yet.
“I don’t know what exactly I’m going to do, but I do know I want to do whatever I can,” she says.
It’s also impossible, we acknowledge, to talk about pioneering women in STEM without addressing the fact that, although tragically not given the credit they’re due in history, Black women in STEM are behind some of our most impressive advancements. Yet, research shows that the number of Black women earning STEM degrees is estimated at less than 3%. How do we start moving that needle forward now, while our daughters are younger?
Martin-Green sighs the kind of sigh that carries the weight of all mothers and the ways we wish we could change the world for our children.
“I think a lot of it is exposure because visualization leads to actualization,” she says. “I think it’s teaching our daughters from the very beginning that the world of STEM is available to them as well. And maybe teaching them from the very beginning that it’s something that they can look to — that in the pot, in the stew, that’s an ingredient as well.”
I think a lot of it is exposure because visualization leads to actualization.
It’s about teaching our kids to look further when thinking about what they want to pursue as a career.
Elaborates Martin-Green, “If I can teach my daughter from the beginning, and my son as well, that it’s something available to her, the barrier will never be there for her to have to break through. It will just be reality for her. Like, Oh, yes, of course if I want to be an astronaut, I can be. Of course I can! If I want to serve in another capacity in NASA, if I want to be an engineer, then absolutely I can. That, I think, would be a great way to build up our daughters coming up. Because the absence of the barrier might be the key for them.”
Martin-Green mentions, at one point, growing up in the South — she was born and raised in Russellville, Alabama. And, as another woman raised in the rural South, and someone who is now raising her own daughter here, I point out how being from this region is a complex matrix: of history, emotions, culture, pain, beauty. And it still doesn’t always seem possible for little girls here to imagine their dreams can come true, especially in the absence of certain privilege.
Sadly, that’s a truth that surely strikes a nerve with mothers everywhere: finding a way to help our daughters overcome systemic hurdles. When asked what she would say to these daughters and their mothers, Martin-Green answers the question in what seems to be her way: honest, vulnerable, and straightforward.
“I think there are lots of things that need to be said and lots of things that need to be taught; there are lots of ways that you can encourage girls and their mothers. But I think what’s coming to me now is that we need to teach our daughters that what they hear is a lie,” she says. “Because I know for me, growing up in the South, it took me a long time to understand that what I was told about being Black and being a woman — that I was less than cause I was Black, and I was less than cause I was a woman — it took me a long time to really believe that’s a lie. For the longest time, I just had to accept that was the case. I had to say, ‘Well, OK, if I’m less than, then what do I do now?’”
That’s one of the most insidious things about racism and sexism, she laments: “It just makes you go internal. It makes you internalize toxicity. Then you have this deep within you, so now you’ve got to uproot it and encourage yourself and teach yourself it’s not true.”
We need to teach our daughters that what they hear is a lie.
Where do we start, though?
“I think we start off not denying that it’s there. Because we can’t deny that it’s there; we can’t deny that they are going to be met with resistance. But I think we have to teach them that resistance is a lie. That you are not inferior. That you truly are equal. That this whole system is based in ignorance and greed,” offers Martin-Green.
“And teaching them how to rise above that so when they see it — when they see the walls (she gestures her hand as though pointing to a wall) — they go, ‘Oh, that’s a lie.’ Then they’re so much more equipped to pass through it,” she adds, emphasizing through tears, “Hopefully, we build them up so high that they don’t actually break through it, but they just step over it.”