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During Solve at MIT, Solver Jessica Hubley of AnnieCannons had the unique opportunity to learn more about her organization’s namesake. Annie Jump Cannon, a pioneering American astronomer, mapped and classified stars at Harvard College Observatory from 1896-1940.
Today, Harvard College Observatory is part of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, where Hubley had the chance to meet Lindsay Smith, Curator of Astronomical Photographs, and learn about the incredible work done by Cannon and her little-known women colleagues. In this interview, she tells us about the experience.
What inspired you to launch AnnieCannons?
Survivors of human trafficking often have limited access to resources—and only a small percentage goes toward their reintegration into the workforce. Of those resources, the vast majority prepare survivors only for low-skilled, low-paying work—underestimating their economic potential. Reintegration programs don’t teach them the skills they need for an economically sustainable life, and unfortunately, shelters often house the same survivors several times.
To begin with, victims most often fall into human trafficking as a result of circumstances that are completely out of their control. They were looking for work, or they needed someone to trust, and ultimately, they were exploited. To escape this vicious cycle, survivors need a way to resolve this vulnerability. That requires more stable and lucrative work.
Meanwhile, tech jobs grow at a rapid pace. Software developers jobs are projected to grow 26 percent 2016 to 2026, compared to an average of 7 percent for all occupations. Yet there’s a well-known pipeline problem in the tech industry, and companies struggle to make the industry more diverse.
We have these two gaping needs—job opportunities and skill availability. Why not solve them at the same time? To fill this gap, we use the coding bootcamp model to provide human trafficking survivors with coding skills that will actually make them money.
Why name your company after Annie Jump Cannon?
One evening, I watched an episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, the Neil Degrasse Tyson documentary series, and learned about a group of women led by Annie Jump Cannon. They made all these fundamental discoveries about astronomy and astrophysics and paved the way for the modern study of astronomy. Yet they weren’t acknowledged by the scientific community; their work was amazing, and they got no credit.
To date, much of the trafficking movement has been based on the idea of rescue. But survivors need sustainable empowerment—not a rescuer. They’ve all had these extremely challenging experiences—ones that have made them stronger and more resilient. We wanted to conceptualize survivors as innovators who deserve more credit. It's not about their past; it’s about what they’re doing now. They can do things that change the world, just like Cannon’s team.
What did you learn during your visit to the Center for Astrophysics?
My team has been talking about Cannon’s story for a long time. We’d seen three big, old images of these women working with various devices, but we didn’t know what those devices were.
I was blown away by the things they showed us. Visiting the lab helped me understand Cannon’s day-to-day work and allowed me to immerse myself in their working environment. We learned about their robust scientific method, detailed annotation system, and the photographic technology they used to gather information from the telescope. We finally got to put faces to names of these heroines.
There was one unexpected thing I learned that was incredibly meaningful. Get this: for all their discoveries, Cannon and the rest of the women weren’t allowed to touch the telescope. Instead, they had to rely on men to do all the critical image gathering work. They were rarely even allowed to see the device! It’s a perfect example of the struggle of women—they’ve worked so hard, but imagine how much more they could do if given access to the right resources.
What do you think Cannon would say about your work today?
I think she’d say, “Keep it up.” Cannon worked incredibly hard. She stayed at the lab as long as she physically could. She never felt like her work was finished. All of these women at the Center for Astrophysics dedicated their lives to their work. They dismissed the then-popular notion that getting married and having children should be a woman’s only contribution to the world. I know they’d be proud of our contributions today.
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Jessica Hubley, Founder and CEO of AnnieCannons (left) with Lindsay Smith, Curator of Astronomical Photographs, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. (Photo credit: Tyler Jump / Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)