SpaceMami On Teaching Kids About The Universe
Educator Dominique Butler talks about being a NASA JPL ambassador, space travel and the new Jordan WMNS Fall 2021 collection.
Words: Elle Clay
Photography: Kanya Iwana
Space belongs to everybody. That’s the motto that Dominique Butler a.k.a. SpaceMami lives by. It’s also the driving philosophy behind her work as an advocate for space education throughout the greater Los Angeles area and online.
Dominique was born and raised in Pasadena, often referred to as the City of Astronomy. Her interest in space can be traced back to her first look at the moon, through a telescope purchased by her parents. That moment ignited a passion that led her to higher education focused on astronomy and space exploration. She quickly saw new opportunities to make STEAM education (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) more accessible, especially to marginalized communities, by uniting space and pop culture.
In 2017, Dominique became an ambassador for the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), joining a group of volunteers who organize community events. She started by visiting schools and programs throughout Los Angeles, appealing to students with her compelling curriculum. She often started with the Drake Equation, comparing the acclaimed rapper with American astronomer Frank Drake and his methods of communicating with extraterrestrial life.
Like many others, Dominique had to pivot her teaching practice last year. Unable to visit schools and connect with students IRL, she turned to social media, where she live-streamed herself reading books about unsung space heroes to young listeners beyond L.A.
We caught up with Dominique to talk about this season’s Jordan 23 Engineered collection, WMNS Air Jordans and how both representation and accessibility can help turn dreams into reality.
Dominique wears Jordan 23 Engineered and the WMNS Air Jordan XIV Low
You were born and raised in Pasadena, which is known as the city of astronomy due to its numerous science institutions. How did your upbringing influence your interest in space?
What’s interesting is that, growing up, I didn’t know Pasadena had that reputation. I learned that once I started studying astronomy at school in 2016. It feels like fate. I remember when I was younger, my mom ordered this telescope, and then the whole neighborhood came out to take turns using it. I was pretty small. We would also go to the Griffith Observatory all the time. It really feels like a full-circle thing these days.
How did you start your ambassadorship with NASA, and what does it entail?
I’m actually still an ambassador for NASA JPL, and we’re called Solar System Ambassadors. It’s a volunteer outreach position that people can do in their free time. I treat it like a job or an internship because I love what I’m able to do with it. I get to answer requests from schools and other organizations in Los Angeles to have people from NASA speak.
I’m thankful to have had a mentor at NASA JPL who grew up in L.A. and had an unconventional path to NASA. He’s half-Mexican and half-Native American and ended up running the student outreach and taking me under his wing. I started by going to all of the events and listening to what the engineers were talking about. I shadowed whoever I could. It was informal until I officially became an ambassador.
Can you talk about your vision of educating young people, especially in the inner city, about the intersection of space and pop culture?
I knew pretty early on that I wasn’t going to become a researcher. Initially, I’d sit in on astronomy lectures at CalTech, where I also found another great mentor to do outreach with. I had really bad imposter syndrome to get over.
Growing up in L.A., you see pop culture and entertainment everywhere. My mom was a model and an actress, as well as a nurse. She raised my sisters and me as a single mom. I saw her juggling everything and having a foot in each world. At some point, I just thought, “If I have one foot in space and astronomy and another in entertainment, can I bridge the gap between the two?”
How did you start “Storytime with SpaceMami” on Instagram Live?
“Storytime with SpaceMami” started at the very beginning of the pandemic. I had just transferred to Harvard Extension School to study astronomy and social justice online. I wasn’t able to teach kids at their schools anymore, which felt awful because it’s what I love. The energy is really unmatched, like when you see another little girl look through a telescope for the first time. I just felt really helpless, and I also felt sorry for all of the teachers trying to adapt to online teaching overnight. So that’s where it came from – this idea that I could continue educational programming on social media by reading STEAM-related children’s books. I would read stories about the Hidden Figures, Mae Jemison and others. The priority was for it to be diverse because I always want children to see themselves clearly represented. I got a lot of great feedback from teachers and parents, even if kids were only able to tune in for part of it.
What are your thoughts on the resurgence in society’s interest in space travel and space tourism?
To be honest, I have mixed feelings. Any interest in space and space travel is a positive thing. There have been times when people haven’t been as interested. It makes it that much easier to talk about space and teach people about it. People are naturally excited.
The only thing that makes me a little nervous is the access; so far, there are no signs of equal access to space tourism beyond very wealthy people. I want to make sure that all kids can say, “I can do that, too.”
Much of your work in STEAM education is about providing access to marginalized communities. How did that passion develop?
I just think about my childhood. I went to public school with primarily brown and Latinx kids. I never learned about any of this in elementary school. When I talk to different people, they’re like, “Yeah, if I had the exposure to this, maybe that’s what I would have gone into.” Other people knew they wanted to be scientists but didn’t know how to get through the door, so they never tried.
It’s just not fair that some kids have access to great STEAM education and others don’t. It’s not fair that only some people have a clear path to work in this field. Some people still don’t know about NASA or the Hidden Figures.
Space belongs to everybody. It belongs to all of us.
Dominique wears Jordan 23 Engineered and the WMNS Air Jordan IV
There are high standards of physicality for astronauts. Would you say that astronauts are athletes?
Absolutely, yes. They are definitely athletes. There are many examples of well-known athletes coming to NASA and being surprised by the rigor of the training. Recently, I spoke alongside a female astronaut who went to space in the early ‘80s, before the training was as intense as it is now. She started by running up high-altitude mountains in Utah.
Everything has to be working at an exceptional level for you to survive in space. There are all types of changes that the body undergoes. Some studies have shown that your DNA physically changes. It takes an intense toll on your body, and you have to be in tremendous shape to do it at all.
What do you think draws both astronauts and athletes to flying high, whether it’s from the basketball court or into outer space?
Astronauts, athletes and really anybody who works intensely on their craft has a shared understanding that space is actually infinite. That’s a major part of Einstein’s theory of relativity; he found that space is infinitely expanding.
I think that, as people, we have the same ability. Over time, we have limitless potential and the capacity to infinitely grow, learn and expand. From athletes to astronauts, people are always reaching higher to be better. I think that reaching for height and space is the definition of expanding one’s potential.
You’re rocking pieces from this season’s Jordan WMNS 23 Engineered collection and also the new WMNS AJ4 and AJ14 Low. How are you feeling the ‘fits?
I love them! They’re all really comfortable, and I feel very empowered and confident in them. As for the apparel, the structure is looser but still really flattering. You can move in it. You can be on the go and still feel put together and cool. When it comes to the sneakers, they’re feminine but also bold and laidback. I did ballet growing up, so the color of the AJ4 reminds me of a new pair of ballet shoes. They have history as retros but also feel very “now” and very “me.” When you put them on, you feel like they exist to help you do what you need to do.
When I go out to speak or teach, what I’m wearing plays a huge part in how I feel. If I don’t feel comfortable or confident, it might be hard for me to focus. These outfits excite me because I feel like they fit what I do and my love for sneakers, as well.
You’re very open about how you feel like everybody’s big sister, and you seem to be a natural mentor. What do you want your legacy to be?
Being everyone’s big sister would be a great legacy in and of itself! I think that ultimately, I’m just trying to be someone I could have looked up to as a little girl. This morning, I got an email from a teenager I had spoken to at an all-girls school right before the pandemic. It was the last school I spoke at, before the shutdown. I got emotional because she said that she’s getting into science and space because of me. That alone means everything to me – just making a difference in one student’s life. I helped a girl in New York apply for college over DMs. The ability to be a mentor is something I don’t take for granted. It’s a privilege that I’m thankful for.
Having a purpose-driven life is what gets me out of bed every day. As a science communicator and a woman of color, I hope that the path becomes clearer for the girls coming up after me.
The Jordan WMNS 23 Engineered Apparel collection for Fall 2021 is now available. The WMNS Air Jordan IV is available starting September 3 on SNKRS, Jordan.com and from select retailers. The WMNS Air Jordan XIV Low is available starting September 16 on SNKRS, Jordan.com and from select retailers.