Teen Mindset Magazine had the honor of interviewing, Deborah Olatunji, who a young writer, award-winning poet, activist, public speaker, and author! Read through the interview below to discover more about Deborah and her fight for reform in the education system!
Who is Deborah Olatunji?
Deborah Olatunji is a writer, award-winning poet, activist, public speaker, and author of Unleashing Your Innovative Genius: High School Redesigned. She is intensely passionate about being an igniter and catalytic force in the education system. As the founder of the Student Leadership Initiative Program (SLIP), she and her peers help other high school students to navigate their interests and passions through this mentorship-fueled social venture. It is a space where students can gather to share ideas, encourage and support one another, and tackle projects they believe will help and improve their communities. Deborah is also one of nine board members nationwide for a youth-driven, New York-based non-profit organization called GripTape; its mission is to provide youth decision-making control over what and how they learn and the resources to do so.
Deborah has written Unleashing Your Innovative Genius because of her strong desire for students to realize and actualize their power to transform education. In her spare time, she loves traveling to new states and countries, having impromptu photo shoots in interesting places, and watching The Daily Show with Trevor Noah on a regular basis. Her book will be available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo on February 21st. You can follow her journey on Instagram and Twitter @deb_olatunji and get updates from her website: http://www.deboraholatunji.com!
In what ways do you believe the education system should be reformed?
“I believe that our high schools are doing youth a disservice by not investing in unleashing student potential.
We should be focusing on experiential learning which would allow students to build skills like cooperation, collaboration, moonshot thinking, problem-solving, and professionalism. Our current and traditional classroom lessons are not equipped to help students find purpose and passion
The practice of rote memorization isn’t helping anyone. The material in schools needs to be based on relaying context rather than completing content. By the same token, our curriculum does not represent the students in the classroom. We need to be reading and learning about the diverse people who make up our world. Focusing solely on the victories of European culture creates a dissonance in the understanding of self and self-worth for Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American students.”
Why do you think the educational system should be reformed?
“Education, as it is, does not adequately prepare students for their next decade or their entire lives. Focusing mainly on getting students from high school to college is foolish and morally wrong. We must give students the flexibility to love learning again and discover who they are before they throw their caps up into the air at graduation.
The rules that are set in place were not created around students needs, rather they were created to please people who are not in the classroom
Teachers continue to be at the mercy of a system that doesn’t respect them and allow them to have flexibility in their classrooms (which hurts students more than you think)
It’s not different from the “innovation” of classrooms 200 years ago. On the cover of my book, the image of an exploding lightbulb captures the sentiment of this statement well. We are being held by 18th-century innovation and calling it novel to the present times. In order to break through this lull of backward progression, we must be willing to shatter these ideals and redesign an education that strengthens 21st-century learners.
Pushing the notion that college is the end goal of high school is narrow-minded and harmful. Students should know that there are other options and not be shamed for choosing a nontraditional route that works for them and their learning.”
In what ways have you/ do you wish to advocate for educational reform?
“I work for an education nonprofit, that is backed by Wend Ventures, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the Margulf Foundation, called GripTape. Our signature program is a learning challenge that allows youth to pursue their passions. The GripTape Learning Challenge is a call to action to youth ages 15–19 years old to design, create, and execute their own learning journeys. What is an idea, topic, or skill you’ve always wanted to learn? At Griptape, we give students the resources to understand the beauty of experiential learning and to answer that question. I have learned the importance of student agency and personalize learning through the work we’ve accomplished at GripTape and people that I have met along the way. I have been a board member for almost two years now.
I also rally alongside my state senators on issues that matter to me. In fact, I interviewed one of my senators for my book, where we talk about the impact teachers have on students and what is missing from the traditional classroom. I analyze why having a teacher who looks like you can make a world of difference in your education experience as well why it is important for white students in particular to have a person of authority who doesn’t look like them in front of the room (since the majority of teachers are white). That kind of representation affects students on both ends of the spectrum. My big goal for education reform is to ignite students to want to communicate with their legislators to enact education policy change. I would love for more of my peers to take on the actions of an education activist and empower others to seek this change as well.”
What advice do you have for students who also want to see something change in the education system?
“Talk to your peers. Discuss what ways you can work together to remedy the problems and find solutions.
Communicate your concerns with teachers. Create a plan to solve the issue. Teachers often don’t know if there’s a problem unless it is expressed. If you want more experiential forms of content in the classroom, find solutions and propose them to your teacher! If you feel like there’s a missing class in the coursebook that would really stimulate your mind, request from your guidance counselor if you can create an independent study class. With this self-driven learning class and a teacher advisor to be a person of support, there are no limits to how beneficial independent study classes can be.
The most important one is speaking with your school and state authorities in education. With a Senator or School Board member, for example, ask if you can meet for coffee or talk on the phone about the kind of change you seek and what your peers think about the change. They could end up cosponsoring a bill that you wrote!
Start with something specific. Education is an incredibly broad and complex field, so pick a specific problem to focus most of your energy on. For me, my “education concentration” is creating stories that are more diverse and updating history books to include the history of more than one peoples.”
In what ways could changes in the educational system have impacted your life?
“If I had the experiential opportunity to pursue my passions from the onset of my freshmen year, I would have experienced more fulfillment in my education. The idea that we don’t get to choose what classes are on our transcript until junior year baffles me. Even so, I was allowed only one or two of those classes to freely choose on my own. If I had the opportunity to truly redesign my high school experience, there is no doubt that I would feel even more connected to helping my community grow and working on my daily mission to collectively empower those around me.”
What is your ultimate dream? How is the education system allowing (or preventing) you from achieving it?
“For students to wake up and go to school and be excited about it. “School is to boredom as the church is to worship and quite frankly, we need a revival.” (Introduction of Unleashing Your Innovative Genius: High School Redesigned.)
I want students to feel empowered by their education experience. I want them to truly connect to the material and feel compelled to learn more during their personal time. I want students to see school as a beacon of opportunity for connection, collaboration, ideation, growth, discovery, and excitement. I want kids to want to spend time with their peers thinking about innovation in the real world and using our community resources to make a real impact. I want high school to be the stepping stone for self-actualization and civic engagement. I want high school to mean more than just a couple of dances, lots of stress, and a diploma. I want education to be driven by what the students are interested in rather than what makes their school rank high on an irrelevant list.”
Why can’t this happen now/ isn’t happening now?
“Our minds have been trained to crave college because we know what it stands for. Social freedom. Academic freedom. Genuine connections with our faculty and peers. But why are we wasting these four pivotal developmental years? Why don’t they have those craved elements of college that some students won’t even experience? Because school boards are pining for higher test scores. School districts are demanding better assessments without assessing the real problem. National organizations are perpetuating the idea to principals and administrators that they need to make a ranked list to “look good.” They have never stopped to truly listen to what the students and teachers need to thrive and succeed. They have never stopped to ask the students and teachers where the state funding should be allocated towards…and it is continuing to ruin our school system.”
What leaders in our society are the key to evoking true change in the education system?
The Secretary of Education (in that order)
Thank you so much Deborah for sharing your voice with Teen Mindset! You are so knowledgeable and inspirational. You have definitely opened my eyes to reform that needs to take place in the education system and how it can be achieved. Thank you for being such a change-maker and helping your fellow youth!