The problem with the education system is how it leaves many students lost in the real world after they graduate high school. The school has become so far away from what is happening outside it that it doesn’t really help students fulfill their dreams and have the dream job they want. It is time to take charge of your education and have it serve you the way it should—prepare students for life outside it. In this episode, Robin Colucci sits down with someone passionate about empowering kids to take on their own education. She is with Deborah Olatunji, a Philadelphia-based writer, storyteller, igniter, and talk show host of The Voices of Disruption Podcast. Bringing her book published when she was still in high school, Deborah shares with us the wisdom from Unleashing Your Innovative Genius, where she provides a guide to redesigning the education system that will help kids thrive to achieve. She also talks about how she was able to get her book out while still in high school and what she is doing now to keep her book sales moving amidst the pandemic. Join today’s conversation to hear more of Deborah’s tremendous insights into education and how we can ignite our students of today and tomorrow to become curious innovators.
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Unleashing Your Innovative Genius: Redesigning The Education System With Deborah Olatunji
We have with us Deborah Olatunji. She is a Philadelphia-based writer, storyteller, igniter, and the talk show host of the Voices of Disruption Podcast. Deborah is a freshman and a Nursing major at the University of Pennsylvania. She connects her passion for creativity and advocacy on her platforms by sharing her stories of personal growth, advancing change, education reform, mental health awareness, and racial justice. She is the author of the book, Unleashing Your Innovative Genius: High School Redesigned.
Deborah will share with us some of her incredibly fascinating and tremendous insights into education and how we can ignite our students of today and tomorrow to become curious innovators. One of the reasons I wanted to have Deborah on is because she published her first book when she was in high school, which is a tremendous achievement. I hope our readers will take this as an inspiration that this is an attainable goal for anyone who has the passion, drive, and follow through to get it done, as Deborah has clearly demonstrated. I hope that you enjoy this episode.
Deborah, welcome to the show. I’m happy to have you with us.
Robin, thank you for having me. I cannot wait to have this conversation with you.
I’m excited about many things about you and about having you on the show and so far, you’re definitely our youngest author guest. I’m going to have a lot of questions about that because the fact that you are a published author in your senior year of high school could be so inspiring to many young readers or maybe their parents. Before we get to that, I wanted to go back a little bit before you decided to write the book and when you got ignited about empowering kids to take on their own education. Pardon my borrowing of your favorite word. It’s a great word. What were you observing or experiencing that sparked that flame for you?
If I could trace it back, there isn’t that singular moment because I feel like with the way success is, nothing is linear. I can’t point out like, “This was the exact thing that made me think the way that I do.” When I went to this camp called the ACLU Summer Advocacy Institute in 2018, I was bombarded with so many new ideas and perspectives. There were over 1,000 high school juniors and seniors from all across the country. Coming from a small town in Delaware, I’ve never experienced anything like this before.
I was floored with the opportunity to meet new people. We had little pods and homerooms of 30 or more people so we can get to know other students on a deeper level. It was in this place that I realized how audacious and bold my generation is, and then the number of viewpoints that there was refreshing to me. Honestly, that’s where it started. We had conversations about advocacy in different areas from immigration to education reform, gender equality, and things with the election because we were getting close to the midterms.
The 2020 election is just two years away. Thinking about that in 2021 is crazy. The thought of being before the election, that was the time period that we were in. My high school and even many high schools across the country often talk about social studies, history, and English in a more academic sense instead of looking at things from an advocacy-based level. That was where the word advocacy was introduced to me and the idea of canvassing. We were marching on Capitol Hill and we had signs and posters and everything.It's one thing to study how laws are made. It's another thing to write one. Click To Tweet
It was at that moment that I realized that if I care about something or if there’s a problem that I want to solve, I can go for that thing. There’s going to be a community of activists who are already doing the work in this area that I can plug into and learn from so that the things that I want to do, I’m supported on both sides and can be supporting other people who have been doing this work. That was around the pre-book time because it was in July 2018.
It was 2 or 3 months earlier in April or May, that was when my older sister had reached out to the publishing company that we ended up going with, New Degree Press. She was working on getting an assisted publishing with them and I reached out. I had this idea and I was like, “Let’s change education. It will be the secret sauce and whatnot.” They were like, “We’re not working with younger authors at this time period. High school isn’t our focus.”
Three months after my ACLU experience in October of 2018, the professor that runs that program reached out to me and he was like, “We’re trying to find high school students who want to write books. We want to help you guys and give you the support that you need.” The pieces were all falling together and I was like, “Do I want to do this?” Once I started getting into the interview stage of asking questions and even discovering what parts of education that I wanted to change, that was when my spark ignited.
I was recalling something I read that you said at some point, which is that it’s one thing to study how laws are made and it’s another thing to write one. You could say the same about writing a book or anything. Probably the most common analogy is riding a bicycle. You can study that all day long, but you won’t be able to ride a bicycle unless you get on a bike. You were talking about finding community and finding support inside your community. When you decided to write a book, what was that navigation process like for you? Where did you find support along the way?
My older sister was a big source of support because she ended up publishing a book in September of 2019. I knew someone who’s known a little bit about the industry to break into it and to explore this new field that I had never done before, but I also had a mentor, my AP Lang teacher who’s a big support for me. We had a team of editors. My marketing editor became one of my closest friends and I still talk to her to this day, and then even just better readers.
I was reaching out to some of my friends and also high schoolers from other areas to ask them, “Will you read this book?” Yes, there are adults who are revising and there’s a copy editor who’s out of my age range. It would be so much more beneficial if I had a real audience that I was trying to connect to read this book, and even talking with the state senator. Her interview was in the book. From doing that, I realized that there was so much in education.
There was a large gray area in terms of what I thought I was interested in when I first submitted that proposal at the end of May 2018 to where I was when I finally started writing in January of 2019. What I realized when I was in this writing process is that if we could boil down this huge topic of education into a couple of words, it’s that, “It needs to become a system where students feel empowered to create and connect with one another with their diverse interests. Also, in creating a world where everyone feels like they can connect and create with each other.”
That’s not what our education system is doing. There’s so much of a push towards perfectionism, competition and toxicity, and no one’s talking about their feelings or emotions or what any of their experiences mean to them. When I took a step back and realized that, I noticed that I had a real interest in mental health advocacy and having more conversations on representation, especially as a black student in a predominantly white school. These were not conversations that were being had.
I took it on myself as almost the onus to start the conversation and to keep it rolling. Even if that was going on towards pre-pandemic, most of the comments I was getting from students was, “I feel so empowered and inspired by you because this is a conversation that I wish we were having and you’re having it.” That shows me that we’re getting into the building blocks of things and I have a place in this conversation.
That’s such a powerful thing. The earlier in life you can help people realize that, the better because a lot of times, it takes many years of trying to play the game, do things the way that they’re done, and fit into the mold of what a good student looks like that ends up holding people back.
It’s a continuous amount of effort also. I relate this to that experience that I’m having. I had an existential crisis and I was like, “Am I in the right major? Did I choose the right thing?” We need to have conversations on creating and connecting and not being in the mold and finding our own path, but also understand that it’s not going to be linear. There are going to be moments when you doubt yourself and you doubt the things that you’re able to do. Having a community and knowing how to search for one, that’ll help pull you out. That’s how it pulled me out. It will help pull you out of that crisis and get you right back on track.
Also, sometimes, that feedback you get is trying to tell you that maybe there’s a refinement to the track or maybe there’s more clarification. I’m finding in your author journey that there was a great deal of clarification that happened from the first time you proposed your idea to the time that you were writing the book. What did you experience as you were writing the book in terms of finding and clarifying your ideas?
In a publishing company, the way that it works is that you start from an idea. This was something I’d never experienced before. Usually, in traditional publishing, you have a manuscript and you submit it. The idea involves. From the start, I was writing this textbook and I was noticing that. I was like, “I don’t like this. It reads like a student who is looking at education policy instead of personal development and empowering students.” That was when I had a phone call with Aaron. He’s the person who leads the program. I was like, “I’m thinking about the activity period.”
That’s something that we had in our high school where you had 30 minutes in the day to do a club and that was the time block that we had. We didn’t have any after-school activities other than sports. I was like, “What if we had 30 minutes of every single day in our classrooms to do whatever we want? Not clubs. Just exploring our interest. How can we add to that? Why does it have to be 30 minutes? Why can’t it be the whole school day where students are being able to leave and connect with people however they want? Similar to what Finland is doing, build a curriculum that they’re excited to go to school about.”
Once I got into that idea, I was like, “I need to add a call to action, more student stories, and space in the book for students to write and put their feelings down.” It was completely different from what I thought I was going to write. That’s the beauty of the book writing process. With traditional publishing and even smaller publishing houses, there is so much flexibility and growth from the first idea that you have and acknowledging that. That’s even more beautiful from the moment when you’re holding your book. It’s realizing, “I grew so much and this book was something way before what it is now.” It’s this incredible story that I get to continue to share with other people.
For clarification with a traditional publisher, you submit a proposal usually with summaries of the chapters of what you think you’re going to write. It’s the same though. There’s still an iterative process and there’s a lot of clarity that comes in the development of the idea and getting to that final product. One of the things that I’m finding in what you’re sharing that is universally true is that it’s the process that you go through of writing that transforms you into an author. It’s not having the book in your hand. I can tell that you experienced that firsthand, which thrills me to see. How did you feel different? When you have the book, it is that moment of recognizing the process that you’ve been through. Share with us a little bit of some of your internal experiences when you had that moment.
Honestly, it was a month before the pandemic took its toll. I was enjoying the moment. I was celebrating with my friends and family members. I have a video where I react to myself opening the package and seeing the book because we didn’t have author copies where you’re editing them. This was the first time I’ve ever seen it in binding and everything like that. The first thought that came to my mind was, “You can’t have this crazy idea in your mind or something that seems very big like a project that is almost out of reach, but with the community, asking questions, finding resources, and then sharing those resources with your community, you can make this thing happen.”
At that time, I was excited to have the author party, signing books, and continuing to tour, and then the pandemic happened. That was in that moment when I realized over those past few months from March to August 2020 that was a real struggle, honestly, because I kept pushing it back. I’m like, “Finally in August, I’ll be able to sign copies. Finally, in October, I’ll be able to sign copies. Maybe in March of 2021,” and we’re still in a pandemic.Education needs to become a system where students feel empowered to create and connect with one another with their diverse interests. Click To Tweet
At the end of August, that was when I realized that moment that I had opened my book for the first time was magical. The growth and the personal development that I had were undoubtedly from the experience of writing the book. Even though I don’t get to celebrate it the way that I thought I was going to because of the pandemic, the person that I’ve become is even more like something to celebrate instead of a three-hour event where I’m signing books and talking about the story of it.
What have you done since the pandemic? One of the things that we promised our readers are great tips and tricks on how to succeed as an author. What kinds of things have you done since the pandemic to keep the book on people’s minds, keep your sales moving?
One of the biggest things was transitioning and pivoting to the virtual space. That’s not something that any of us were taught about. We just got into it and hoped for the best. That’s what I did. I ended up going on twenty-plus podcasts over the course of the summer, and then went to a couple of youth conferences and did a virtual event. I also went to an international conference virtually for the first time. It was hosted in Myanmar, but they were also virtual. That was a lot of fun and I enjoyed it. I met a bunch of other speakers. That was the moment of momentum. I was realizing that even though I can’t physically go to schools, there’s a real opportunity to connect with audiences like I never had before. For starters, I’ve never been out of the United States.
For me to have spoken at conferences based out of the United States, that was inspiring to me because I was like, “Even though you didn’t get what you thought you wanted, this is even better because you’re getting to reach more people. You’re going to hear more stories and you’re getting to connect with more students, educators, politicians and policymakers.” That’s what you want it to do ultimately. It’s not about the vehicle that we got to go to where we want it to be. It’s just the pivoting and mentally making that switch in your mind like, “I don’t know when this pandemic is going to end, but I can’t wait for it to end for me to continue to share the story of the book and the experiences and connect with the readers that I have wanted to touch with my words.
One of the things you pointed out that turned out to be better is that you’ve gotten to reach an international audience instead of just a US audience. Were there other things you noticed that you’ve been able to leverage that are maybe more advantageous than what you would have done?
I realized the value of building relationships with people who I was talking with on podcasts. For example, with us, I’m going to continue speaking with you because I love sharing and love learning more about your story. That was something that I didn’t realize before becoming an author. The way that we’re talking about networking and even connecting with other people is that you talk about what you like and what you want, and you’re done and you move on to the next thing. What was inspiring and powerful for me and having to slow down and pivot was taking the time to build a relationship beyond the interview. Ask more questions about how we can connect, and then also see to where the past of our humanity aligns.
I’m an author, but I also love music, painting, and dancing around. Those are things that are not seen as professional, but they’re key to who we are. One of the biggest things that I took from the pandemic and having to pivot was reminding myself of the humanity that comes into it. Oftentimes, when we’re in the hustle culture, we just want to get things done. We want to have 50 podcast interviews and 1,000 appearances, but if you’re not connecting with the people you’re sharing that message with, then you’re missing out on what the beauty of having conversations like these are.
It’s true and wise. Our readers are going, “She’s so wise beyond her years.” You’re clearly a powerful, confident woman and at the same time, being a high school student writing your first book and working with professionals in the industry. I have clients who are well-established experts, powerful and 2 or 3 times your age who sometimes feel intimidated in these conversations with a publishing house editor. They might feel like, “Is it okay for me to ask for this? Is it okay for me to reject this?” Did you have that experience at all in your process? If so, how did you handle that?
Most definitely. If I said I didn’t, that would be a lie and that would be a disservice to you and your readers. I had moments where I was like, “Should I send this email? How can I rephrase this?” Oftentimes, I would even go on Google like, “How to ask for this,” or “How to pitch,” whatever I was asking for. I’m going to different Facebook groups. That was a powerful community for me and asking these questions because if the person you want to ask the question seems intimidating, “I’m not the only person you can ask that question to.”
That was oftentimes when I would turn it around and I ask my siblings and other people who I knew were in the field who I saw, as confidants, colleagues, and friends. I ask them, “How do I make this request? Can you look over this pitch?” They were like, “Yes, of course. I’ll look over it.” Oftentimes, it’s realizing that they were also in that seat that I’m in, so they have the expertise and they’re more than willing to help me get into that mindset of saying, “No, this is something that I want. This is how I want to say it. I’m hoping that the connection goes. Here’s what’s going to happen if it doesn’t go the way that I want it. Here’s what’s going to happen if it does.”
Of course, we can’t predict these things. Just getting yourself out there and start it is something to applaud yourself for. Once you ease yourself out of the fear or as the phrase goes, “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” Know that there’s also a supportive community around you who has felt that fear. If you just ask and you make that request, they’ll be able to help you and maybe talk through the root of why you have that fear in the first place.
Few people think to ask. I was thinking of a book I read a few years ago called The Third Door about this stuff. Have you heard of that book?
I’ve heard of that book.
If you haven’t read it, you must read it. I’m going to spoil one part of it for you. The author ends up interviewing Tony Hsieh who’s the CEO and Founder of Zappos. He asked if he could just not interview him. He said, “Can I just shadow you for a day?” He said, “Sure.” They’re walking around. It’s clear to Alex Banayan, the author, that some of the people who work at Zappos seem a little miffed that he gets to shadow Tony Hsieh. None of them have ever shadowed him. That’s what it appears. Alex asks him, “Have you ever had anyone on your team shadow you?” He could sense the bad vibe. Tony Hsieh says, “No.” He goes, “Why not?” He said, “No one ever asked.” Think about that.
It’s usually a daunting idea but no one else is doing it, so you might as well be the sore thumb or whatever.
If you don’t ask, you will not receive. Another thing that is occurring to me from being a few generations ahead of you is I’m thinking of the future workforce. “Who do I want to be hiring? Who do I want to be leading my teams down the road?” What I’m finding in this education model that you’re proposing where it’s more self-generated is a much better qualified, more resourceful, and potential to have a workforce that is way more productive and resourceful. One of the most frustrating things as a business leader is if you have a bunch of people who are just waiting around being told what to do next, which is exactly what our education system generates. I’m curious to know your thoughts on that because that’s something that’s popped into my head.
If you think of a conversation on the future of work, everything is being robotized. Everything is becoming more automated to do the work for us. It’s scary because people are realizing that teaching people things that you can find online isn’t going to work in the future of work that we are building. Unless we are redefining the education system and rebuilding it from the ground up to talk about core values like vulnerability, authenticity, credibility, creativity, and a desire to connect, and even confidence because people are waiting for people to tell them what to do.
In the future of work, we’re envisioning a place where people don’t need to be told what’s next. They’re already hoping and they already have it in mind and their trajectory of, “This is what I want to happen. These are the things that I’m going to take to do my best so that it does happen. Honestly, it’s moving past the classroom whiteboard and pushing students to create their own vision boards. To have reflection boards as well so that they’re constantly in a state of critical thinking, self-analysis, personal development, and then asking their friends questions that go beyond the surface level.If you're not connecting with the people you're sharing the message with, then you're missing out on the beauty of having conversations. Click To Tweet
That’s honestly something that fascinates me about the friendships that I’ve been able to create in college, and even the way that I’m navigating the world after thinking about how we can change the education system. I’m finding common ground and finding a real sense of community and connection with people who are also doing the inner work for themselves and defining what that inner work means. As a community, we can work towards building and investing in each other in an intentional way. Unless the education system pivots towards that and having more conversations, especially on American history because you can’t find your root if you don’t know the roots. It’s like, “This is a conversation we need to have.”
I was about to go there because that’s the other thing that is massively dysfunctional about our educational system. It’s a whitewash of history and it completely downright contradicts the facts of our actual history. I’m curious about your vision of education. How are we “teaching” history? I remember feeling so cheated. It was years after I finished high school, by the way, before I even started to get an inkling of the actual history of how we treated African Americans and Native Americans to the extent.
I felt cheated out of having had that understanding. I felt like I was lied to. We were lied to. You enter the adult world with a completely messed up worldview that you don’t even know the world you’re in. I’m curious, what is Deborah’s self-generating educational model? What does this look like when it comes to reconciling our history? I’m curious to know about that. I know there’s going to be some fluidity to it, but I’d love to know your thoughts.
Honestly, it would be first in here, I want students to want to learn, and then acknowledging that what we’ve been taught is a lot. Until the education system says it straight like, “We have been telling you lies for years ever since you started in this education system,” that would be a great place to go. Even in the conversation on education reform, you will tell people, “We need to make all these changes.” If they’re in a mindset of, “Nothing’s wrong. Why do we need to fix it?” We then can’t even talk about the progress that we need.
It’s the same thing with history. If people don’t realize that it’s a lie and that there are so many pieces of the puzzle that have been forgotten, they’re going to be like, “You’re destroying American history and you’re trying to add things that don’t exist.” It’s like, “No, these things exist. You were told a lie and you were only told half of the story. That’s why we need to get you caught up on everything else that has been going on that you neglected to acknowledge.” The other part of it is realizing that the effects of history affect the people who we are now.
I always hate this memory. I was in a world history class or any history class in my high school and the only time we talked about black innovators or creators was during Black History Month and it was the same one every single time. When talking about black history, it was only about slavery. It’s like, “You’re not telling the story of before slavery. You’re not telling the story of the Harlem Renaissance. You’re not telling the story of black Americans now and the struggles that still exist.”
2008 is still history, but we’re not learning about it because this is where we have to start. We have to acknowledge the effects of slavery are still affecting black Americans, and then have a conversation with younger students about what it means to be represented, feel visible, and feel seen. Also, how to create a sense of belonging and connection in the classroom to the point where I can ask questions about my history and get answers because people have taken the time to study it.
This is another huge point. You have to have teachers who understand the history, at least enough to have to get a conversation going. In my opinion, the only way our country can become truly great is by acknowledging these long and dark shadows that we have in our history and confronting them directly and definitely in the educational system is a place that we need to be doing that. It sounds like so much of what you’re advocating for is self-generating. I’m imagining, do you ever get pushback like if you don’t give them assignments, they won’t do anything? Any thoughts like that you do?
Yes. People always say that, “We’ve been taught to follow the rules all the time.” When you tell kids, “Do whatever you want,” what are they going to do? I always try to bring it back to this family psychologist. He goes by the name MrChazz on Instagram and TikTok. He talks about how creativity is, honestly, the root of how all of these problems that we have in education exists. When you stifle the creativity, students don’t have an idea of what path to take because they’ve never had to think for themselves. The thought has already been given to them.
He was talking about how whenever you buy something for your child or if you have a toy and there’s a box, instead of letting them play with the toy, give them the box and see what they do with it. He was showing videos because people have said it. It was such a magical demonstration of how these young children which are 3 to 5, are turning the boxes into little kitchen sets. Instead of buying kitchen stuff for your kids, let them make it out of boxes. Acknowledging the root of where all these problems start is how we can get better. Saying, “What are the students going to do because they’ve always been taught? We have to keep doing it this way because they’re not going to want to do.”
That doesn’t help us get closer to the solution. That moves us even further away from the goalposts because it continues to deny generations of children the opportunity to create and connect and to understand the fullness of their humanity. Instead of math, algebra, English, and history, these are all the things you have to do to be a successful person and not, “These are the ideas that I want to explore and these are the topics that sound interesting.” From a five-year-old, it’s probably not going to sound like that. It’s probably just going to be coloring and wanting to play. Let kids play. Let young adults play. Let adults play because that’s been robbed about for so long.
There’s so much good stuff in there. My mind is going, “Which one do you grab?” This is silly, but I’m thinking back to when my kids were young. One of the things that I did was we had no external television from a lot of their formative years from age 3 to 8. If they came to me and announced that they were bored, I suggested that they could find something to do or I could find them a chore, and it’s amazing what they found.
My mother used to say that.
I’m like, “You can play. There’s laundry that needs folding,” or “The bathroom could use a clean-up.” One of the things too, that people struggle with is when they’ve been so pigeonholed, especially at such an early age. It’s hard to create a fulfilling life when you’ve been disconnected from what you want and what your natural inclinations are. That’s an element where the education system plays a role, but also, parents play a role. Do you have any commentary on where parents fit into a picture like this?
I even did a chapter in the book where I interviewed my mom to talk about her thought process for raising five kids because I’m the 4th of 5. In that conversation, I learned a lot about my mom that I didn’t know before, but I started to realize when I was looking back at my childhood. A big part of it is being a cheerleader and allowing your kids to play. My father was the complete opposite. He was more education-driven. My mom cared about academics too, but she cared about extracurricular activities.
She would ask us if we wanted to be in chorus and band and encouraged us to play the violin, piano, and clarinet. While there are some things that I don’t do anymore, I’ve had many extracurricular activities at my disposal and as a college student there, I still understand that I can have a lot of interest and still be focused on my academics at the same time. It isn’t one or the other. It’s both of them working together. You don’t raise children who find their value and find their worth in grades or numbers and points. Instead, find their value in the things that wakes them up and gets them excited about the world.
I’m fascinated by the world of graphic design, photography, music, and how artists put tracks together. That’s not a major, but it’s an interest that I’m into. Whenever people talk about it, I get excited because the way that my mother raised us was, “You can have interests that are outside of the education system. Culturally the three careers that people usually go into, which are being a lawyer or a doctor or an engineer. I’m Nigerian-American. I’m not going to tell you that these are the things you have to do. I’m going to give you the motivation and be like a cheerleader with whatever path you decide to go into instead of saying, “It must be this and nothing else.”
That is an incredible privilege and gift that I have because parenting, of course, is a big part of the way that we see our world and the way we navigate things. There are even some conversations that I’m having with a therapist on healing my inner child and finding in my childhood where I wasn’t necessarily allowed to have that creativity or felt the pressure of trying to get into a competitive high school. I’m doing well in middle school and trying to make sure that my grades were still up to par while pursuing these different interests and connecting with my siblings. Also, finding a sense of community and understanding what that word meant to me, to begin with.Stifling creativity is honestly the root of how all of these problems that we have in education exist. Click To Tweet
There’s a lot there and it’s hard. A lot of parents are looking at it from a well-meaning point of view. I’ve seen many kids, even some of my kid’s friends either in high school or college where their parents had specific ideas of what they should do with their lives, and usually, it was these kinds of careers that are supposedly secure. It’s a shame because I don’t believe that that’s where security comes from. It comes from doing something that you want to leap out of bed every morning and get going on because then, you’re unstoppable and of course, you’ll succeed. It’s when you feel like you have to drag yourself to the office every day that it’s going to get rocky, to say the least.
That’s directly related to the mission statement of my podcast. I don’t know if I mentioned it, but I started one called the Voices of Disruption Podcast. The whole question is for members of Generation Z to step into their power because when you lay it out plenty like that, not only does it sound empowering, but it’s realizing, “This is something you already have within you. It’s under the surface. You’re uncovering it. You are already the person who you are becoming. It just takes work to get there.” Once we allow students to realize the securities and know who they are and know the person that they want to be, there’s no career, amount of money, and person who’s going to make you feel secure in yourself but you.
The idea of having an entire generation that gets that makes me want to live an extra 30 years just to hang out with them.
We’d love to have you.
Beyond 80, I mean.
Let’s talk a little bit about how has authoring your book helped you to spread the message of your work? What are some of the differences that you notice pre-book completion and since?
The biggest part was in the messaging because I had an Instagram when I was in sixth grade, but I didn’t use it. I only started using the platform in the summer of 2019 right as I was about to start having pre-orders. My twin sister created this Instagram account for me. She was running and accepting people to follow me and whatnot, but there weren’t any posts on there. I was known as someone who didn’t post on Instagram. If you ask my friends, that’s totally different from how I approach social media now. When I was first starting on social media, it was like, “Buy my book. This is the book. It’s not only about Deborah’s. It’s the book. This is the most important thing.”
That was before I started having conversations with my mentor who was like, “You’ve got to engage first and sell second. No one is going to go on a page and want to be bombarded by the message of a book and there’s no humanity behind it. It’s just a product. When you’re building a brand, you’re building you.” It’s like, “What do you represent? What do you care about?” I have archived some of these posts and some of them are still there on my Instagram. I was even noticing the different language in my passions and the responses that I’m getting now from the way that I approach social media than when I was just trying to do it from a selling standpoint. Also, seeing people who follow me as customers instead of community members.
As I was making that shift in my mind like, “Yes, I’ve written a book, but I’m not just an author. I’m also a human being who has an interest. I can share those interests and I can share parts of my personal life.” That’s what people want to see because writing a book is no small feat. It’s not something that people can just pick up a pen, send it to a publishing house, and they’re done in 24 hours. It’s an intimidating thing. When you can relate with people’s humanity and allow them to see you like, “I wrote this book, but it’s not all I am. I’m also somebody who loves art. I’m interested in different areas and there are so many ways where we relate and connect.” That’s when they’re interested in, “She wrote this book. I’m going to check it out.” Instead of, “It’s a girl with a book.” That was a big issue.
It sounds harsh when you say it out loud, but the sooner you realize it, the better.
I had a guest who is a social media expert who said the exact same thing. You’re absolutely correct about that. It’s great to know an author who gets that so deeply because that is important. You’ve got on Instagram, and then you’ve been doing the speaking. Have you seen new initiatives sprouting in different classrooms? Tell me a little bit more about what’s going on with your community.
Before I’d written my book, I started a club called the Student Leadership Initiative Program and it’s still running in the high school that I went to school in, and then another school in Tennessee. I’m not sure what the vision for that organization is anymore. That was honestly the first idea of student agency and community that ended up inspiring me to write the book because I didn’t want it to touch twenty kids in my high school. I want it to touch students all across the globe. That’s an organization that’s running.
There’s another program called The DICE initiative. One of my friends, Howie Jenkins, started this. I’ve seen many more initiatives and more agencies coming from my community around student voice and representation. Not just to see the table anymore, but also the ability to vote and write some of these bills that we’re talking about. We’re not there yet, but having that conversation of, “Students need representation. We don’t just want to sit here and listen. We also want to be able to give our voices and to be taken seriously.”
I learned a lot of that from my twin sister. None a fun fact having an identical twin. Her name is Dorcas and she was the first student representative on the State Board of Education for Delaware. Having somebody in that position while writing a book on education was awe-inspiring because I was seeing the beginning parts of the message being told, but also hearing feedback directly, not from a watered-down perspective of I get to be in this position of power and get to be a voice for a lot of students, but there are many areas that need to change and there’s no one checkmark that they need to do in order to get a student’s voice. It’s a continuous effort and it’s a continuous moment of impact. Unless we’re listening and the conversation goes into action, that’s when we can say the initiatives are doing the work, and adults are finally listening and taking action on what we’ve said.
The next time the Secretary of the Department of Education position becomes available, can we nominate you?
I love it. Youth Secretary of education, I can see that. Having a person who’s in your age group and Gen Z’er as the Secretary of Education, that’d be so powerful.When you stifle creativity, students don't have an idea what path to take because they've never had to think for themselves. Click To Tweet
Gen Z is such a bad rap. Let’s assume that there are some old fogies reading this show? What do you want people who are judging Gen Z to know about Gen Z?
Honestly, the biggest thing I want them to think about is back to their childhood and back to their time being a teenager. Think about the differences generationally of the challenges that we’re facing and the challenges that they face. We have social media, people say that we’re lazy and we’re on our phones all the time. People were making fun of TikTok in 2017 and 2019. I was somebody who was like, “I don’t know if I’m serious in this. A lot of my friends are into it.” It’s there. It’s not going to go to a whole other app because it doesn’t seem like it has as much potential.
We could see Gen Z in the same way that we see TikTok. There are a lot of similarities. Not a lot of people thought that Gen Z had a lot of potential. Especially when I was fourteen, all I was hearing was, “All you guys do is you’re on your phones. You’re not saying anything of substance.” It’s like, “You’re just judging us from the early stages.” You have to have those moments of ignorance in order to grow. You have to have those moments where you’re figuring things out like the TikTok platform was and the onset of the product that it eventually is now.
Even the progress it’s going to keep making years and years from now because I don’t think TikTok is going away and neither is Generation Z. It’s going to stay. While you may see our generation as people who don’t know what we’re doing, we’re figuring things out. That’s a part of our growth and part of our journey. Instead of tearing us down and saying, “You’re doing lazy on time,” why don’t you join? Get on the caboose. Join the club and help motivate, encourage, and inspire us because the way that I see it is that you have so much to learn from us and we also have so much to learn from you.
When we get to that conversation, then we can work together in creating the world that we want instead of continuing to throw jabs, whether that’s Gen Z, Millennials, or Boomers. We don’t need to do that. We don’t need to have more generational conflict than we already have. If you’re part of Gen X or Gen Y and you’re reading this, I encourage you to make friends with a Gen Z’er. We will blow your mind. I can assure.
I wrote a blog post about why you need to hire Gen Z to save your business. I personally believe that Gen Z, if you want to stay leading edge in your business and stay relevant, you need to have at least one Gen Z’er on your team. I have a few on my team. People have to realize you guys are on your phones and you’re on the internet but nobody’s asking what they’re doing. Don’t just assume that they’re on their phones screwing around because, in my experience, they’re reading, researching, learning, and doing their own self-directed learning. It’s because you figured out that the world is in crisis and no one’s coming to rescue you, so you better do it yourself.
I can see that that’s what’s going on. This generation, and who knows the next one, hopefully, will be even more innovative and independent. We, older folks, need to recognize that we should be grateful for these innovative outside the box, outside our old box thinking people because you all are the digital natives. The reason why you’re on the phone all the time is because your mother handed you one when you were eighteen months old. Whose fault is that? I’m not saying your mother in particular.
I remember seeing two-year-olds playing on iPads while their moms were getting their pedicures. This is many years ago so here we are. This seems like your message is coming out at the exact right time for when we need the most of this idea of empowering kids to create their own education. How do you do this inside of a traditional school model? If we’re going to wait for the politicians to fix it or the school boards to fix it before we can receive these rewards, then we’ll be waiting forever. How do you recommend that both kids and educators embrace this without necessarily having to wait for permission?
If you want an even longer answer, you can read the book because that’s the central question that I answered. One of the biggest things is acknowledging and affirming your students for the ideas that they have. Not having such a rigid curriculum. I remember one of the ideas that I proposed was asking your teacher. If you may have a rigid syllabus or what you’re going to do for this semester, come up with another idea that resonates with you. Maybe you’re a visual learner and you want to present the information that you’ve been taught in that way.
That’s a big way to take a pivot from the traditional way of educating with pen and paper and always having to write essays. Not everyone is a strong writer because they haven’t been able to get the root of what they want to write about it. Maybe instead of having a broad English class that has state-aligned curriculums, why don’t we have a creative writing class where students can explore the many different kinds of writing and writers that look like them, first and foremost? Connect with each other on the work that they’ve created and maybe have a poetry slam at the end of the year. Maybe that’s their final instead of a written exam.
It needs to move towards a more hands-on and visual education, almost thinking like an engineer. The problem is that students are engaged. The solution is that the students know how to be engaged. Ask us the questions, listen to what we have to say, and then implement that into the curriculum and know that it’s something that’s continuing to change. What works for a group of students one year might not work for the next group of students next year? Honestly, have those conversations and definitely read the book.
Give us the title of the book again.
Continue to ask questions, and then come from a place of wanting to understand that we’re not machines. We have mental health. Some people have mental health struggles. Everyone has mental health as something that should be a priority as much as physical health, and including that in the education system instead of overworking students. That’s something that we can do on a traditional level and start having conversations and take action so that we don’t have to wait for politicians. Even honestly, from a student activist perspective, we’re trying to do the work, especially with a race-based curriculum. It’s going to take time, but we can start having those conversations and the action right now.
What are some parting thoughts that you would like to leave our readers with? We covered so much. I’m going to give you the floor. What is present for you that you’d like to share?
One of the biggest things that I’ve been learning from my freshman college was that it was clear that I’d publish the book when I was seventeen and I’m a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. The biggest thing that I’ve been working on and in continuing education is understanding that college is not for everyone and that’s not a taboo thing to say. Some of my friends took gap years and some of my friends decided to go directly into work. That’s a path that they want to choose for themselves. No one has the same path and if we all did, it would be boring and we get bored of each other.
There’s so much growth that exists outside of the institutions that we go to. The validation that I seek is never from the name of where I go to school. While the reason why I ended up applying to Penn, to begin with, was because I’m a Nursing major and I connected with the faculty here and the community. What I’ve been benefiting from and getting a lot of value is having a moment to take steps back and think of who I am in this space. What stories do I want to tell? What stories am I not listening to or am I not giving attention to? What stories have I heard for a long time that I need to put back on the shelf?
I see every single one of my friends as a storyteller. I see them as the incredible and beautiful souls that they are. I honestly try to affirm their humanity in every single conversation that we have because it’s something that we all need on a daily basis and something that we need to continue doing as community members. The other thing is to check up on the people around you. With the pandemic, people are not doing well in terms of their mental health. We’re spending even more time alone. While there are benefits to that, there are also downsides. No one is positive and negative all the time, but having a space to talk about those feelings is also a big place that we need to go towards in terms of education and even just in the way we navigate through the world.
From a Gen Z standpoint, understand that not every Gen Z’er here has the same aspirations. Not every Gen Z’er wants to be an author, artist, or TV producer. Every single person has their own path and their own form of power. Allowing them to fully step into it in however way that they want is progress. Not pushing your student to do X, Y, and Z because it worked for this student. “They’re doing amazing. I want you to be the exact mirror of them.” Allow the people in your community to be who they are in the fullness of that, and then continue to create and connect with people that you meet.
I have a feeling, Deborah, that we’re going to see more books. Thank you for sharing with us.
It was such a pleasure to speak with you and I’m excited to continue to connect with you and your journey.
Me and with you as well.
- Deborah Olatunji – LinkedIn
- Voices of Disruption Podcast
- Unleashing Your Innovative Genius: High School Redesigned
- ACLU Summer Advocacy Institute
- New Degree Press
- The Third Door
- MrChazz – Instagram
- TikTok – MrChazzMrChazz
- The DICE initiative
- Instagram – Deborah Olatunji
- Blog post – Take A Chance On Gen Z: Why Hiring This Generation Can Save Your Business
About Deborah Olatunji
Deborah Olatunji is a Philadelphia-based writer, storyteller, igniter, and the talk show host of the Voices of Disruption Podcast.
As a freshman and nursing major at the University of Pennsylvania, she connects her passion for creativity and advocacy on her platforms by sharing her stories of personal growth and advancing change in education reform, mental health awareness, and racial justice.
She is the author of the book, Unleashing Your Innovative Genius: High School Redesigned. To join her community, you can find her on Instagram and TikTok @deb_olatunji and on her website, www.deboraholatunji.com.
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