In aviation, a field where the odds, resources and bias (unconscious and overt) are stacked against them, Carrie Zimmerman and Jennifer Aupke have thrived. For years, Zimmerman and Aupke suffered in silence, while never relenting in the pursuit of their dreams. And what started as a casual, poolside conversation between two pilots — one for the United States Air Force, another NASA — trading stories became a call-to-action. They wanted to empower young girls following in their footsteps and galvanize the support of others who feel equally as strongly about breaking down barriers for underrepresented groups — this is the origin of The Milieux Project.
I connected with the co-founders to uncover what fuels them to do this critical work, which continues to evolve, as The Milieux Project grows its board of directors, and launches new projects with several foundations and partnerships with like-minded organizations, while exploring the viability of diving into aviation instruction.
Carrie Zimmerman: We were sitting on the side of my pool in Valdosta, Georgia getting to know each other. We realized our paths were similar and the challenges that we faced were similar. Jen and I come from similar backgrounds in the Air Force, although she flew amazing HH-60 helicopters and I flew C-130s and search and rescue. Yet, despite our somewhat common career paths, we didn't know each other. We started sharing stories and [wondered] how we could share them with others. [We thought], maybe what we went through could help them or we could find a way to build this community of people to share thoughts, ideas, and challenges and how to get past them and overcome them.
Jennifer Aupke: We realized when we were sharing stories, just how tragic it was the men we've worked with, who are amazing humans and my brothers through and through — [that] their unconscious bias was the same. We felt we had to disrupt it. Because we knew of women who were going through the same exact thing that we've gone through. We wanted to give those women different tools.
We [also] were really surprised by all the support we got from men; they were really supportive of us getting out and sharing some of our ideas.
Jennifer Aupke: We started formalizing everything when we started our blog. We [thought], let's put this on the internet and see [our] reach or what people want to hear more about. Carrie and I started writing what we felt. And when some of our peers and classmates read our articles, they started reaching out, [asking] “how do we support?” “What can we do?” One of them wanted one of us to come be in an air show MacDill Air Force Base was putting on; he really wanted Carrie and I and the Milieux Project blog to come out and be present.
Jennifer Aupke: When we devised a name for Milineux — it was the French word for atmosphere and environment. We see aviation as a vehicle to give girls an opportunity to discover their confidence and independence. It is truly much larger than just an experience with aviation; we really want to change the dynamics and the conversation around gender.
Carrie Zimmerman: It’s beyond empowering [women and girls]; we've already got that strength. It's already within us. We already know we're capable of great things. But it seems like the older a young girl gets, that messaging to her starts to clamp that down. We want to awaken that.
Jennifer Aupke: Bessie Coleman was the first Black female pilot and [Native American] pilot. She refused to accept that she wasn't going to fly. It was not in her DNA. She had to go to another country to do it, but she did it.
Jennifer Aupke: We are an aggregator of other nonprofits. We interview girls, talk to them and connect them with whatever aviation opportunity we think would be suitable for them. [It’s] something that we do that's different compared to a lot of other nonprofits; they offer a one time experience and then they put it back on the girl to find her way back into the community.
Carrie Zimmerman: There are so many underrepresented groups in certain career fields, and aviation is definitely one of them. We don't have all the experiences for all the people and all the possible biases, obstacles or barriers out there. So it's important to work with all [groups] that are trying to reach those spaces and identify those barriers and bust them down.
Carrie Zimmerman: I learned that you go into some scenarios because someone has sought you out to be their mentor, and you end up being mentored by somebody as young as ten or eight. We always say there's so much left to learn. It's been pretty humbling. I expected to open the eyes of others. And in return, my eyes are being opened even wider; [I’m] seeing more possibilities and opportunities.
Jennifer Aupke: I've learned, most recently, how passionate I am about this [work]. I've given thought to, maybe I need to walk away and allow this organization to continue to grow without me. And that almost brought me to tears. There's so many young ladies that are working so hard. And I don't know that we give them the full credit for how hard they're working to get involved in aviation careers. And that's not just flying; it's engineering, management, logistics, avionics. [Yet], the bias is still so strong. And in a lot of places, it’s unconscious and unmeant. But in other places, it's definitely intended and it brings me so much passion to try and break down those biases.
Carrie Zimmerman: Jen and I feel so strongly about [this work]. Yes, it's hard. Yes, it's challenging. But it's also exciting and it's worth it. And we are capable of doing it, we can do hard things.
Other Groups to Follow
Legacy Flight Academy: legacyflightacademy.org, IG: @_legacyflightacademy
PreFlight Aviation Camp: preflightcamp.com, IG: @preflightcamp
Tuskegee Next: tuskegeenext.org, IG: @tuskegeenext
Conrad Challenge (The Conrad Foundation): conradchallenge.org, IG: @conradchallenge