The Transformer

Marianna Zoellin attends the same school as a white student who displayed a mock gun and Confederate flag, and apologized in 2021. His actions were racist, Zoellin says, “whether he intended for them to be harmful or not. The idea of shock humor in that way contributes to the racism and microaggressions that run rampant in our community.”

It turns out TikTok can inspire social activism.

A year ago, now-17-year-old Pacific Grove High School student Marianna Zoellin saw a post by Diversify Our Narrative, a new California nonprofit founded by two Stanford students of Asian origins interested in changing the school’s English curricula to include writers of color. The organization has been mushrooming around the state, where it has 200 chapters, and the nation, bringing the total to 800 chapters.

There are 6,000 organizers like Zoellin who take over a fight for racial justice in the educational system after a few introductory sessions. The response they get depends on their community.

Often, their teachers and other staff are delighted and helpful, but occasionally parents express concern at school board meetings, insistent that things be left the way they are, fearing that anti-racist education means further division and social hatred.

Zoellin is familiar with remarks like that, and cannot understand how people can’t see the obvious. “The racism is out there, it’s a fact,” she says.

Her chapter meets once a week with about a dozen active members. The actual activity of DON can take many forms, from preparing resolutions to be voted on by school boards to gathering funds to purchase new books – more African-American classics by the likes of James Baldwin and Maya Angelou, but also younger writers, such as Native American writer Tommy Orange or Dominican-American novelist Junot Díaz.

Zoellin thinks about going to college at UC Berkeley to study political science. She said Berkeley students have strong beliefs and “get things done.” She is particularly interested in exploring political philosophy, international relations and gender. Her goal is to understand how the world works and how great concepts, such as feminism, are born.

Weekly: When did you first feel affected by the issue of race?

Zoellin: I first noticed people of color don’t have representation already in elementary school. I was also aware that there was no Latina Disney Princess, and I really wanted to have blonde hair. You know, Cinderella is blonde and I thought that being blonde is so great. Now I think it was sad.

I’m a Brazilian-American and I have a cousin, who is also of Brazilian origin, but she’s lighter. I remember once we were told to pick a doll and I would pick the one with blonde hair. My family was like: “You are so weird.”

What role do books play in all that?

My mom has a lot of books. I was a big reader as a child and I think that’s when people often read the most. I was obsessed with the Harry Potter series and Warriors – you know, the series about fantasy warrior cats [laughter].

Yes, what you read stays with you and it’s important. I definitely felt that minorities were not represented in what we typically read in school. I remember one book by a writer of color that was assigned to me in elementary school. [A novel about the Chinese-American experience, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.]

Tell us about your time at P.G. High.

There are so few of us [minorities]. I had been involved in civic engagement before and I was looking for a new project. Once I heard about DON, I was like wow, that could definitely solve a lot of our problems.

Did it work?

The response has been really great, really positive. We have been working together with our teachers. We have a club at school and weekly meetings that we hold even during summer break. There are so many discussions. Jenna Hall [a teacher at Pacific Grove High School] is our adviser and we have the whole English Department showing up sometimes. Many teachers are already reworking the curriculum themselves.

In March, we had a chance to present DON’s goal and proposal to the Pacific Grove Unified School District board, and we hope to return with a resolution.

What are your influences these days?

There are a lot of people on TikTok that I like, exploring various topics such as feminism or LGTBQ issues. I’m also very much inspired by professor Angela Davis from UC Santa Cruz. [Davis is an activist, philosopher, academic, scholar, Marxist and the founding member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. She wrote over 10 books on class, feminism, race and the U.S. prison system.]

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