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Episode 14: Connecting Numbers to our World - An Interview with Anna Gifty

Updated: Mar 29, 2021

Desiree Harrison 0:00

While news about the economy might enter conversations and daily social media feeds, who are the economists making these decisions and informing these reports? What experiences have they had which led them on this path? And are these experiences representative of the people and society that they inform? Do they hold everyone’s best interests at heart?

I remember teaching supply and demand during social studies units while I was in the classroom, but I don’t remember emphasizing just how crucial the understanding of economics will be in one’s adult life and I definitely do not remember making connections to economics during math lessons. These were definitely missed opportunities to expose children to a field that they might not be considering - and for me I know that it was because I myself had never considered a career as an economist. Today’s guest really pushes our thinking in order to ask the question of - what experiences do our child need in order to promote a path that might lead to a career in economics? We say all the time that math can change the world -it’s important for us to help our children consider this field of economics because it shapes our day to day life and even informs policy and procedure. We need to make sure that there are many different voices and people with varied experiences making these decisions.

In episode 14, our guest, Anna Gifty, shares how she found the field of economics and is using her passion for the field to encourage and inspire others to connect numbers to our world.

Desiree Harrison 2:21

So we have another special guest to the Kids Math Talk Podcast today, she is a graduate from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, and has a B.A. in Mathematics with a minor in Economics, she is a researcher, speaker and writer who has by lines and mentions in the New York Times, CNN, and, just to mention a few, and I would like to welcome Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman.

Headshot of Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman
Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman

Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman 2:50

Hi everybody! I’m so happy to be here! Thank you so much! (laughing)

Desiree Harrison 2:51

Alright, yeah, so, on the Kids Math Talk Podcast we are all about building and maintaining positive mathematical identities and people probably know by now that I’m a huge fan of Twitter and I connected with Anna during this Black in Math Week, um, extravaganza - it was pure joy! So Anna co-organized this, ah, this week long event and again it’s features the hashtag #blackinmathweek, so if you are on Twitter, you can go back and type in that hashtag to see all the wonderful threads. And I didn’t know about this event ahead of time, but I’m on Twitter all the time, so I saw, I started seeing the tags, and um, that first day it was all introducing yourself and the roll call, and it took me by surprise, but surprise in the most wonderful way because I was seeing so many scholars, so many black scholars, who I had never heard of, I never had the chance to connect with, sharing their stories, sharing their journeys, and, um, sharing their passion for mathematics. And we don’t always see that, so, it just reaffirmed my own identity as a black woman, and as a black mathematician, and, um, I was able to, again, have so much joy come from it. I shared it with so many people, and all of the wonderful threads that were happening. And then when I came across yours Anna, I was like - I have to have you on the podcast, I have to try to connect with you because you had so many wonderful and insightful. But one of them, or two of them, that really caught my eye was that you shouted in Twitter land - I am a black girl who loves math! Which, you know, always needs to be celebrated. And also that you never in a million years thought that you would acc-, that you would have this, um, math degree and that you would be on the journey that you’re on. So, can you share with us that journey, how it started, and, um, where you are now- how it evolved.

Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman 5:02

Yeah, well, thank you so much, um, for the wonderful introduction and just for sharing in our excitement. So Black in Math Week, I co-organized it with a number of individuals, who, I don't remember all of their names, there’s a couple of people, but, you know, shout out to them for really being sort of the backbone of the week. Um, and, yeah, I think, you know, my math journey really begins not with math, I would say, more so with kind of understanding politics? Which is kind of random, right? So growing up my, my dad and my brother talked to me a lot about what was happening in the country that I was born in- I was born in Ghana-and so, I spent a lot of time thinking about politics and at the time I didn’t know what it was called, but economics as well. Um, and then you know eventually I realized that I really wanted to learn a little bit more about, sort of, how the world works? Um, but I’m very much a logical thinker, so, I’m somebody who love when I’m right! Right, so math is one of those fields where I felt like, “Oh! Like, if I get this, if I work hard enough at this problem, I can get it right!” Like it's just a matter of time and patience, um, but oftentimes I would get frustrated, right, so that kind of growing up and thinking about, sort of like, how I performed in math classes - I wasn’t like the best student, but I wasn’t like the worst, right. I was the student however, that asked a lot of questions, um, and I think for me, it became a bit more comfortable as I got into sort of my middle and high school years.

And so essentially as like a middle schoolers, I finished with pre-algebra and that was actually the first math teacher who was a black person who had ever taught me, and he was okay, like he was not that bad of a teacher. But at that point, I like I kind of hate this class, cuz, I gravitated very much to my humanities courses, so history, English, um, that sort of, um, subject material, just because I’m somebody who loves writing. Um, a lot of the bylines that Desiree mentioned are because I like to write. You know, I like to writing, I like kind of processing my thoughts that way and so really for me what changed was high school. So I get to high school, and I’m in algebra one, and I hate it. Low key, okay. So, it’s like very painful, I, as I mentioned in my thread on Twitter, it was the class that taught me that no matter how hard I worked sometimes, I was gonna catch the L’s right, the losses.

Basically. For me, um, what has been key my entire academic journey is educators. I have such a deep respect for teachers - sometimes it moves me to tears because the teachers in my life have been so instrumental to my growth as a person and as a scholar and in this particular class, my teacher was Mr. Vassel (sp), he’s an old white guy, um, you had a tremendous amount of patience. And somehow, someway, believed that I could really do this work and do it excellently. And so, you know, even though I ended up with I think a B in his class, maybe a B-, I don’t know, he seems very convinced that if I kept at it that I’d be really good at math one day. And I was like, “I mean you might be trippin’, so” (laughing) “I’m just gonna go into my little history class and you know figure that out.” Um, and then I took geometry which I think was slightly better, but again, one thing that was really interesting was- I had a teacher who really thought I could do the work and even though I again ended up with a grade that I wasn’t too happy with, um, she still seemed like, you know, if you really keep at this, I really think you can do well. And I think for me, the class that changed everything was Algebra Two. Algebra Two, um, was taught by Mr. Chicajello (sp), who’s still at the school that I went to, and, he was and amazing math teacher. I had never connected with a subject more than in that class I think. Um, beginning with that class at least.

And so, he basically was like- he answered all of my questions- I had a million and one questions - every class. But like he was so patient and so excited to teach me the material and I was like, “Yo! This number stuff is dope!” (laughing) And so, you know, at some point, I remember I got my first exam back and I got an A. And I was like, “Wait, I’m, I’m good at this math thing!” It’s taken me a minute, but I might be good at it. And I noticed sort of a shift in how I approached the subject after that moment, where it was sort of like, I was now tutoring my friends and explaining to them, like, “Hey, here’s how you break down the problem.” And I had people telling me, “Yo, Anna you should be a teacher one day, or you should be somebody who sort of teaches the subject matter.” And you might be wondering, so where’s the politics and economics come in - it’s coming in.

And, so basically, with Algebra Two, I was so excited about the material and I remember when I was first introduced to imaginary numbers and I was just like, freaking out. I was like, “Oh my god! There’s numbers that aren’t real? Like this is amazing!” Um, and so, just kind of fast forward - at the end of high school, I finished with pre-calculus honors, and I had Mr. Vassel again and he was convinced that I was gonna be somebody who could really use the subject to make a difference. And so at the time, I have this conviction that maybe I should major in math. And at the time, I was taking a class, um, with a professor, well I guess not professor, excuse me, with a teacher, and you know, I left, graduated, come back to visit the school, and I mentioned to him - hey I’m thinking about majoring in math, like what are your thoughts? And he kind of laughed, he was like, “Ah, you know you ask a lot of questions.” And I was like, "ahh, I guess." He’s like, “Yeah, I also think it might be a little difficult for you.” And I was like, oh. ok. Maybe, cuz he was the last math teacher I had, so I was like, you know, in his class I did ask a lot of questions and it was difficult for me, but I got an 'A,' right. I did well in the class, and so, you know, that, actually, sorry, go ahead -

Desiree Harrison 10:56

Oh, well, I was gonna say, usually, especially in the environment that we are in right now where so many teachers are remote, there are teachers begging their students to ask a question - to say anything. So when you say that they're alluding to the fact that you might ask too many questions, that's a total, total 180 from what a lot of people are experiencing right now.

Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman 11:23

Yeah, exactly. And I think, you know for me, it was kind of like, I had received that, sort of, reception, in another subject from another teacher, and I was like, yeah, but I think my questions are questions that everybody has, you know, I just happen to be the person brave enough to ask those questions and not feel ashamed. And that was really because of Algebra II, where I asked a million questions and I was never shamed in any of that. And so, that made me pivot, right, so at this point I had been watching TED Talks, and thinking about, you know, at the time, I didn't know that I was watching economists, and for those that know, economists are people who basically marry math and social science and they use math to understand how the world works, which is really interesting. Often times bringing in elements of policy and sort of, finance and thinking about, like, a myriad of issues. And so, basically, I didn't know anything about that and, you know, I'm from Ghana, and my parents are immigrants, and so they were like - why not medicine. And, eventually, I went to biology, which was a painful, painful experience. But, I was introduced to research and when I was introduced to research, I was put on a data project. And I was like - wait a minute! They're using, like, numbers, or whatever, and at that time I had taken Calculus I and Calculus II, but basically, kind of going into when I was a biology major and put on this data project, I realized that I liked working with data. I liked asking questions about sort of numbers, and what they meant for the real world. And basically what I realized was, after to some people, was that math was gonna be the degree that got me there. Very serendipitous, right. And so I come back to this subject matter and I was just very convicted to change my major to math and I was like, "Huh! I wonder what I can do with this." Like, where can I go with this. I didn't go into math with any plans and that's where I kind of fell into economics and, kind of, everything that started with my dad and my brother, all of it started to make sense where it was like0 math was really being used to help me think about - how do I rationalize the world around me? How do I make sure that I'm using the data that's being collected in a way that really benefits the people that we're studying. And so, for me, the math journey has been really about finding my identity, but then also, creating identity in the world and trying to understand the world a bit better.

Desiree Harrison 13:49

That was a wonderful explanation and so things that I was just writing down from what you were saying is about the patience that your teachers had with you and how much that influenced you.

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