When you think about Zendaya, the actress's movies, TV shows, social media following, and wildly successful Disney projects might come to mind, but those closer to her might think of education.
Zendaya is the daughter of two teachers, but their classroom experiences couldn't have been more different. While Zendaya's father taught at a private school, Zendaya's mother taught in an underprivileged community where she had to work hard to get her students the supplies they needed—including computers. And Zendaya witnessed this struggle firsthand.
"There’s no reason why you should have one school that can experiment with coding and learn how to build robots and the other school doesn’t even have Wi-Fi," she told InStyle this week. "That doesn’t make any sense to me, but it’s a reality."
The actress attended the New York Film Festival to support the documentary Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America, presented by Verizon, which spotlights the tech-specific inequalities in America's education system. The film includes the story of a 10-year-old girl who had to type up homework on her mom's phone.
Verizon Chief Corporate Social Responsibility Officer Rose Stuckey Kirk was the executive producer of the film, and told InStyle that her motivation to take on the project and partner with Zendaya as a spokesperson stems from wanting to spread awareness.
"We see our students who are bright and wonderful and have the potential but what’s missing is the opportunity for them to actually demonstrate that as broadly as possible by having a technology curriculum," said Stuckey Kirk. "We wanted to shine a light on the problem and help America understand that there’s a huge opportunity for all of us to embrace each other and to really deal with this issue holistically."
Zendaya seems to agree. Read our full interview with Zendaya below to get her thoughts on the tech divide in schools, how she watched her mom create change, and why she uses social media to start important conversations—without letting it impact her positivity.
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How have you experienced the tech gap between schools in your own life?
Both of my parents are educators. My mom was a teacher in underprivileged communities in Oakland, and my dad worked in private schools in Oakland, so literally the difference between less than a mile was the difference between the amount of opportunities that these young people get. And I was very aware of that at a young age because I’d go to school with my dad, then I’d go to school with my mom and see how hard she had to work to get computers, and I had a computer lab. It wasn’t a thought in my mind. Those doors were open to me, so seeing the struggles my mom had to face to get technology in her classroom was very apparent to me at a young age.
It’s crazy to me that that’s still something we deal with. I don’t think that an area code or however much money your parents make should change your learning experience. I think every young person should have quality learning experiences and should have the ability to know about the technical world and the technical opportunities that are out there. There’s no reason why you should have one school that can experiment with coding and learn how to build robots and the other school doesn’t even have Wi-Fi. That doesn’t make any sense to me, but it’s a reality.
It’s what we’re dealing with, and these young people in these communities, especially in the world that we’re living in which is a technology world, you’re setting them up to fail because you’re not allowing them to have the same opportunities as these other children. They don’t know that this certain job exists that could be the passion of their life, but if they don’t know it exists, they’ll never be able to have that opportunity. I think it’s just about closing that divide and making education and the quality of education for every child the same, because that’s what it should be. It's just that baby step of getting people to know about it.
How did your mom push to create change in her school?
My mom would have to do a lot of fundraising, try to get a lot of grants, a lot of talking to people, and try to get people to donate to her classroom. It’s enough when a school has struggled to get pens and paper and that type of stuff, then on top of that adding what you think would be the foundation of learning in this era.
So yeah, it was very difficult. Watching her do that and succeed in many ways, but also all the blocks she had trying to get there, I learned a lot at a very young age about this school system and about how it’s set up. I’m glad this [documentary] really gets into that. It’s very honest about what we’re facing when it comes to our school systems and how it’s failing some of our young people.
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Why should people come out to see this documentary specifically?
Because it’s something all of us are dealing with. I think young people are the future rulers of the world. We are literally the future. And if you want a better future, then you have to invest in your young people. You have to listen to them, and you have to meet their requirements and their needs, especially in this day and age. And I think it’s not just good for them, but it’s good for us. It’s good for the world because to me, there’s no greater hope then young people. They are literally the future. You want a brighter future, then put your energy into this.
Social media is a way of using technology to connect, and it's something you seem to be particularly skilled at using. How do you run your social accounts?
I try my best to use my platform not just for posting selfies and stuff—which is fun, I love doing it—but also for things I’m passionate about, or just to start conversations and dialogue. I think sometimes even if you disagree or if you agree, it’s important that you’re having the conversation and that door is being open to begin dialogue and possibly get some change from it.
There's a lot happening in the world right now that can be draining. How do you stay positive in the social media era?
It’s tough, I’m not going to lie, it’s very tough with everything that we’re facing right now and everything that’s happening in our country and in our world. It’s difficult and it’s disheartening sometimes. But I think constantly trying to use your voice for the right reasons, and constantly trying to open those dialogues even if it makes you uncomfortable or makes other people uncomfortable is important. At the end of the day, change only comes from people being uncomfortable. I think it’s just about putting yourself out there and not being afraid.