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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

School Climate & Safety Opinion

How A Texas Teen Turned Bias and Body-Shaming into Advocacy and Action

By Jinnie Spiegler — August 21, 2022 4 min read
Image of woman with a "Together We Rise!" sign.
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Who is Olivia Julianna?

Olivia Julianna (who uses only her first and middle name publicly to protect her privacy) has been an activist for several years, advocating voting rights and reproductive-health care. Like many in her generation, she found the political side of TikTok where young people post about important issues facing them. Olivia is involved with Gen-Z for Change, a nonprofit organization leveraging social media to promote civil discourse and political action on a variety of topics including COVID-19, climate change, systemic inequity, foreign policy, voting rights, and LGBTQ+ issues.

The online targeting of Olivia started after she criticized an elected official who, at a student-action summit in Florida, called abortion-rights activists disgusting and overweight and said, “No one wants to impregnate you if you look like a thumb” among other offensive comments. After Olivia denounced these comments, the politician then posted a photo of her on Twitter next to an article that referenced his insults. That picture went far and wide to his million-plus followers. In addition, she received hateful and biased private messages.

Online hate and harassment are all too common, especially for those in marginalized identity groups like Olivia who is a queer, Latina woman—identity groups that are often targeted in digital spaces. While ignoring, muting, blocking, documenting, and reporting are all options, Olivia decided to address the bias and offensive comments directly. That’s when she engaged in a public social media battle with the elected official, who continued to double down on body-shaming and belittling her.

Fundraising campaign raises millions

As a result, Olivia announced she would be supporting a fundraising campaign for the Gen-Z for Change Abortion Fund, which splits donations across abortion funds in all 50 states. This story instantly exploded on social media. Although the number of offensive comments she received increased, she also received overwhelming support, so much so it also brought more criticism but also helped Olivia raise $2.2 million—which is still climbing. She’s inspired people in Texas, elsewhere in the U.S., and beyond. She says, “I’ve been mocked, ridiculed, and harassed for most of my life. I will not tolerate that kind of behavior anymore. Don’t mess with Texas women and don’t underestimate Gen Z!”

Teachable Moments for Educators

For educators and those who work with young people, especially as we return to school in what promises to be another challenging school year, what can we take away from Olivia Julianna’s experience and story?

  • Teach young people about current real-life activists and others who take action about bias and injustice. Even better if those activists are young people themselves because people like Olivia Julianna can serve as important role models. Civil rights activists of the past are icons in history, and we should teach about them. However, if we also highlight current activists who are young, they will be able to see themselves in that advocacy. You can use children’s literature, current events, and social studies text to explore activism with young people.
  • Help young people consider what problems and injustices they currently see in their world. Then, as Olivia did, help them transform those concerns into actions. As Bellen Woodard, who dubbed herself the “World’s 1st Crayon Activist” at 8 years old, suggests in More than Peach, her new picture book, “Instead of asking kids what they want to be when they grow up, ask them what they want to change.” What we can learn from Bellen, Olivia, and other young activists is how vital it is we talk with young people early and often about how they want to make a difference in their world.
  • Don’t just tell young people to challenge bias and bullying—show them how. This means helping them understand and identify what bias and injustice are and then providing tools and practice for them to address and challenge the injustice. Discern the difference between addressing it in person and in digital space because young people are increasingly facing bias and harassment online. Teach them the skills of allyship and the many ways one can act as an ally, advocate, and activist.
  • Explore with young people the myriad ways they can engage in activism. Olivia showed us a variety of strategies, from educating to organizing to fundraising. Many young people, and adults, are taught that activism is only about protesting. It’s important to show them that as there are many ways to be an ally, there are many ways to engage in activism such as educating others, running for office, raising funds, advocating legislation, and more.
  • Remember that many young people will not take action when faced with bias and bullying. In fact, many young people will turn inward and may not tell anyone. Young people are reluctant to report bias and bullying to adults, and that reluctance increases with age. As a school staff, explore how you can be more approachable so that students are more likely to tell you when something is happening. Make sure your school’s bullying, harassment, and nondiscrimination polices are current, reflect district and state guidelines, and include clear definitions and consequences, incorporating online behavior as well.

It’s a difficult world out there right now. From health care to climate change to racism to gun violence, young people are facing many issues in their lives, issues that are sure to challenge their future. We can help them navigate these choppy waters by showing them and inspiring them to do something about the injustice they see in their world. Olivia Julianna’s story is instructive and can help show the way.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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