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Simone Biles and why role models are hard to find

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Simone Biles is the most decorated female gymnast in history. She’s also a Black woman and an advocate for people with ADHD. So why don’t more students of color know her story? 

Hosts Julian Saavedra and Marissa Wallace explore what being a role model means and why some stories rise up more than others. They talk about how shame and stigma prevent more people of color from talking about their challenges. The hosts also share thoughts on how parents and schools can help kids who learn and think differently find role models to look up to.

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Episode transcript

Julian: Welcome to "The Opportunity Gap," a podcast for families of kids of color who learn and think differently. We explore issues of privilege, race, and identity. And our goal is to help you advocate for your child. I'm Julian Saavedra.

Marissa: And I'm Marissa Wallace. Julian and I worked together for years as teachers in a public charter school in Philadelphia, where we saw opportunity gaps firsthand.

Julian: And we're both parents of kids of color. So this is personal to us. 

In this episode, we're talking about Simone Biles and positive role models for kids of color who learn and think differently. Marissa, what up? How's your week? 

Marissa: Well, it's funny. I was actually able to walk Lincoln home from school today, and I told him that I'm going to talk to Uncle Julian tonight. He's like "Uncle Julian?" I'm like, "Yeah, remember him from Philadelphia? Uncle Julian?"

Julian: Well tell the little guy I said hello. And my children both say hi to everybody. I'm really excited about this episode today because we're talking about a topic that I think is near and dear to both of us: the idea of role models and the idea of really lifting folks that our students and even us can be looking up to.

So I'm excited because our producer, our amazing, intelligent, and stupendous producer who has a wealth of knowledge, Andrew Lee, he is going to share some research that he was able to do on Simone Biles to start off the show. So Andrew, tell us a little bit about Simone Biles, please. 

Andrew: Julian, you're like way too kind. But thank you for that intro. You know, when you gave me this assignment, I was thinking about Simone Biles, the gymnast, and I knew a little bit about that, about her Olympic background. And yes, she is considered the most accomplished female gymnast in the history of the sport, 32 Olympic and world championship medals. She has got like four moves named after her. What I found out when I did a little bit of research is that Simone is so much more than just a gymnast.

In 2016, she started to really open up about her learning and thinking differences. That year I was reading that hackers published some of her medical records about ADHD. And she responded to them and she said, you know, having ADHD and taking medication for it is nothing that she was afraid to let people know. So now, you know, as I read some of the news articles about her, it really seems like she's charting this new course as an advocate for mental health.

And this last summer Olympics, there was quite a few news articles about how she took a stand for mental health by withdrawing from competition. And this September, she actually testified in Congress about the abuses that she and other gymnasts experience in U.S. gymnastics. 

So, sometimes when you hear about like a famous sports star or, you know, a famous personality, you just think about their big accomplishments. And one of the things that I've found out is that she actually had quite a bit of trauma in her childhood, you know, as a foster child, that was a part of her experience. And also she faced a lot of bullying. It was just interesting to hear that beyond the sort of the medals and the jumps and the moves, there's so much more to her. So that was really interesting, Julian. 

Julian: There's just so many things we can say about Simone. And I think about the idea of a rose growing out of concrete, right? Where she has so many things that were struggles, but out of those struggles came this beautiful person that even now continues to deal with struggles.

Yet she brings out the best in a lot of people around her. You know, I think that her story is really a great starting point to dive in, to talking about role models and kind of making sure that we give, give the flowers now while we can, that Simone is somebody that is with us presently and she's somebody that deserves our respect and admiration.

So Marissa, tell me about your thoughts on Simone. What do you think? 

Marissa: Yeah. Well, first I appreciate your use of figurative language and just how you describe and talking about the rose from the crack, giving a shout-out to Tupac there. So I feel like I already know, I feel like you're already setting the stage for who she is, which is obviously so much more than a gymnast and knowing her experiences.

And I do think that, this past summer, just how much she was in the news. And of course there's always two sides to every story and everyone has their opinion with Simone, but I don't think any of that takes away from her accomplishments. And I don't think any of that should take away from what she did overcome to get to the point where she's at.

And I feel like that's the trajectory and that's kind of like the journey of a lot of role models. It's not just them evolving into those positions without having a life history — experiences that make them who they are. And I think that's an important piece of the conversation that I hope we can get into today. 

When we talk about our students, and we talk about those who face trauma, who face learning and thinking differences and might oftentimes feel alone or feel like they aren't going to be able to achieve because of that.

Julian: Like the fact that she was able to talk openly at one of the highest, most important parts of her career. And she had the wherewithal to prioritize her mental health and then continue to openly discuss how she is somebody who lives with learning and thinking differences. I mean, talk about courage and really doing things for the greater good. Why is it so important to have folks out there doing this? Is it going to make an impact?

Marissa: Yeah, I definitely think it helps when you have these people that are in these positions where we look up to them, but we don't always know how they got to that point. But I also think that there's a lot that is left hidden. And so if that part of who they are is hidden, it doesn't have that relatability. And I think that's the piece that makes role models, especially role models for some of our students who have thinking and learning differences, that missing piece is like, oh, well that person has achieved greatness, but they don't understand because they haven't struggled in school. or they haven't struggled with academics or behaviors like I have.

So therefore, like they made it to that point because they don't have this, you know. They probably don't know Michael Jordan — he is an individual who has some learning differences and he has ADHD. And there's other athletes out there that have later on come out and expressed some of their challenges that they overcame to get to the place where they're at now.

Julian: I'm going to something that you may disagree with, but I would venture to think that Simone's story is not as prevalent in our schools as it should be. And I would even guess that her role as a role model, even though like we, as adults are talking about her a lot, I don't feel like I hear my students talking about her unless we bring it up.

Marissa: I agree. 

Julian: Unless it's something that is really made popular by social media or something to that effect. And I wonder why is her story not elevated everywhere and popularized everywhere.

Marissa: It's surprising sometimes to hear who students do consider their role models, like who they are looking up to, especially for my middle school kids. So I work with primarily eighth graders. So a lot of our conversation is getting ready for high school. And then talking about what life after high school is going to look like and explaining that success can look like many different things. And when they're sharing their role models, the majority of them are social media personalities, not even like athletes anymore.

Like I feel like it's veered away from me hearing about like, oh, you know, I want to be like this football player, this basketball player. And a lot of it, I've really heard, is people from TikTok or like a YouTube. That's what I'm getting a lot of when I ask students who their positive role models are. And I think it's really telling for the time, and it's hard cause sometimes I'm like, I don't even know who that is. But like, I don't think there is a lot of conversation, in my experience over the last year or two, that really talks about Simone or talks about people like her, who have these really important stories and really important messages to provide our students with.

And now you're at the high school level. So I'm curious as to what you're hearing, as far as who they talk about these days.

Julian: Yeah, I mean, social media folks that are in that vein, the Real Housewives still get a lot of, they still get a little bit of love, but it makes me think about what are we doing to elevate and — I wouldn't want to say commercialize — but what are we doing to like get people that we would consider positive role models like in front of kids?

Marissa: They're there though, right? These role models are there and they're there for all of our students — for our students of color, for students with learning and thinking differences. And they are relatable. I think it's like you said, it's just a matter of what is in their direct line. Right? And what are they spending their time on? I would even venture to say that a lot of students were either uninvested in the Olympics and therefore, if they're not even watching the Olympics, they might not even know who Simone Biles is. So I think it's a charge for us to incorporate that.

Julian: Yeah, I was about to say, I'm going to challenge you. I'm going to challenge you. You need to make sure that in your classes next week, you put Simone on blast and make sure that they know. I'm going to do the same at school. I'm going to make sure that we put Simone's name out there, get her story out there more.

Marissa: It's more than just Simone though, right? Like I'm glad she's like our starting point for this conversation. But I think too, like I say, you got to go back to that relatability. Because for some of my students, Simone's not going to be the person they relate to. However, they might relate, or they might want to know about the fact that, you know, Will Smith as an adult has been identified with ADHD. right? So like here he is, he is already this famous person. He already is this personality. And then through his adult life, he has been challenged with making sure that he is not being seen by his label, right? Which happens a lot of times, if they're not used the right way, then they create this stigma. 

So I think it's a matter of how do we bring these stories to life? How do we find the relatable person, right? Or multiple people — more than one person to kind of be like, look, here's a list of individuals that you probably have seen in movies on the screen in some capacity. And do you know who they are? Do you know their story? Do you know what they've overcome? So they've done it, like you can too.

Julian: But then I guess the flip side is, both of us are making pretty big assumptions right now. And I say that because right now we're both talking about famous people or people in the public eye that can be considered role models. And we need to put them in front of our students and make sure that they have these people, but we're assuming that the people in their lives aren't already doing that. Or that they don't already have people they consider role models and we just don't know about it.

Marissa: Right. I'm glad you brought that up because as I was putting all these people on pedestals, all these famous people, there was like this nagging in my head that's like, well, wait a second. Role models don't always have to be people on television or in social media, right? Like role models or the people that you interact with on a day-to-day basis. And I think that is something to speak about and you're right. We made a ton of assumptions. 

However, my push to that is while we're making a ton of assumptions, I'm also pushing that I do feel because I've asked this, especially in my role as an eighth-grade teacher, I ask a lot about high school and afterwards, and I'm sad to say that there are very few students that do share that their role model or someone that they look up to even in the simplest forms is like a family member, a neighbor, a teacher, like I'm not getting that much of that information. And I don't think it's happening enough at school either, right?

Julian: Like the idea of role models in general.

Marissa: Right. And diverse role models. I think that's the piece of it too. 

Julian: I do think everybody has a role model. Everybody has somebody that they're looking at. It's just whether they acknowledge it or not, whether they actually take the time to sit back and think, do I have people that I'm looking at and watching them move? And I do think there's an opportunity. Small plug for the podcast, closing the gap on opportunity. But there's an opportunity for us to really elevate people who do have learning and thinking differences, but are in everyday life. 

Imagine the power of some of our top athletes that also receive special education services. If they came out and just said it. Imagine some of the teachers that are coaches or everyday people that just come out and say, listen, I have different struggles, too. Mental health is a thing. It's OK. It's OK to be you. And going back to that relatability piece, I mean, that's really where it falls.

Marissa: Right. And it starts with us, like you said, there's just these moments where it's, oh my gosh, wait, what role have I personally played in this or not played? As a hearing-impaired individual, I could have been someone who shared my story and I didn't. I always took it upon myself to just handle it. Like this was my disability. This was my issue. And I never expected others to like, I don't know, to like, be part of the process. And I think I missed an opportunity to close the gap. 

Julian: Do you share that with your students now? Like if I asked your students, do you know that Mrs. Wallace has the hearing impairment? Would they know?

Marissa: Some of them, yes. I feel like it all kind of came together and I had the epiphany when we went virtual, going back to in person. And so I was teaching undergraduates at the time. And going back to teaching in person during the pandemic obviously would mean that we would all be wearing masks. And so having that conversation that I felt that it would hinder my class because I read lips. So if my students are sharing things with me and I can't read their lips, like just how that would change the dynamic of my class. And so I had to have lots of real conversations, so I think it started there. And now it's kind of seeped into the students that I work with in middle school, where I am trying to be more open about who I am and the things I've had challenges with. I feel like I didn't really have to think too much about my hearing impairment until the pandemic and until they took away one of my accommodations. And so I have to think about it. 

Julian: I appreciate that you were able to open up like that and be honest. We can't talk about things if we're not living it ourselves. Like how do we find a way to get rid of that stigma a little bit, and to let people be open with the fact that we're all kind of in the mix? Like everybody, everybody has something going on, but especially it's, it's very much just out there for those with learning and thinking differences a lot harder to get people to be open about that. Or maybe not, maybe it's changed. 

Marissa: I think it is changing. And I think that is something that lends itself to this conversation and something that hopefully we'll also allow not only for our students, but for just individuals in general, to feel more comfortable sharing and discussing what they've experienced. Because like you said, it knows no race, it knows no class, right? Like mental health is there. And it's not specific to one type of individual.

Julian: I gotta be honest, though. And, and really keep it as real as can be. There's definitely still a stigma for men, and specifically Black men, to admit that mental health struggles are a thing. And to admit that learning and thinking differences are a thing. I mean, that's a fact. I can say from anecdotal evidence, from my role as an educator, within my own life experience, just society in general has trained us to put up the facade that we can deal with anything. Admitting struggles is a sign of weakness.

And if we show any sign of weakness, then that gives somebody else a chance to take advantage of us. I'm even starting to see a little bit of that just in the way that I watch my son and his friends play, right? I'm sure you're going to start seeing that with your son. And even at that young age, there's already a societal push for our boys to start hardening themselves a little bit and to present a face to the world that is one of strength and one of not having to deal with problems or issues that we're celebrating Simone for saying. But I wonder like how many of our men might've come out and said the same thing. And there have been, there's been some, but it's few and far between. Where do we go with that? How do we go in a place where we start to unpack all of the societal pressures on our boys, especially our Black boys, by just getting them to get to a place where they admit that mental health is a thing. And we need to talk about this. And if we're having learning and thinking differences, it's OK. 

Marissa: That's the question. You just posed the biggest issue as to why I think sometimes these natural role models don't become as obvious for our students or don't exist in the way that our students need them to exist, right? Because they're not sharing some of these stories or there is, like you said, that stigma or the societal reasons that we do put on especially our Black and brown boys to not discuss it or not talk about it.

And I think it's important that we start to have the conversation about what are some actual, instead of just kind of talking around it or talking through it. What are some tangible things that we can discuss to start to close this idea or to change this idea, to transform this idea, right? That there has to be the stereotypical way that we see learning and thinking differences. That's a mindset shift.

Julian: You know, as a white woman, do you feel like there's more role models that have expressed their issues or the idea of having learning and thinking differences? Like making it OK? Is that more prevalent in white society than in marginalized communities or not? I'm actually just curious. What's your experience? 

Marissa: I'm really thinking about it. And I think we have to highlight the learning and thinking differences. As much as I know, I kind of like was putting down social media and stuff before, you know, I do have those influencers that I follow and those people that give me some inspiration and share their stories. Honestly, I cannot think of a single person at all, white or Black, that speak on learning and thinking differences. I'm stumped by this and that's jarring. Like I'm sitting here and I'm like, wait, what? And like, even now as an adult and someone who's been in the field of education and special education for almost two decades, I don't have a single person that I could say would be like a role model that shares or talks about learning and thinking differences. So what does that say?

Julian: That's something for just our listeners to really be thinking about. Think back to your own childhood experience, your own educational experience. Were there people who you would consider role models who actually embraced differences if they had any? I mean, I know that the time that we're in now is vastly different than when we were coming up. But, you know, just the fact that we're discussing learning and thinking differences in a public space is way different than it was when we were kids, right? 

And I wonder just in terms of the next steps. I don't know if I know exactly what to do next. I do think that there are role models that are people like Simone. People who do have a public platform to discuss and really be out there with their learning and thinking differences and how they live with it. I wonder how can we get more of our kids — our own children and our students — to be open about talking about learning and thinking differences and not attaching a negative connotation to it. Just saying what it is. It just is. ADHD. It just is.

Marissa: I think one tangible step is we have to create space now that we're more comfortable and that we identify that everybody does learn differently and that's OK. I think we motivate people to share their stories, because storytelling and sharing experience is known to be one of the best ways to create those bonds and relationships. And we know that students are going to achieve more when they feel safe and when they have those relationships with others.

Julian: Problem solved. We figured it out. Tie with a bow. 

Marissa: This is one piece. 

Julian: I appreciate the fact that we're searching for some ways to encourage our schools, to encourage our parents at home, to make sure that you find a way to incorporate conversation around learning and thinking differences in your everyday lives and to seek out role models, whether they be famous people or people that are in the public eye or whether they be family members. Maybe you have an aunt, maybe your kids have a cousin or a friend or somebody they look up to — a coach that is willing to talk about their own struggles or their own triumphs, right? So again, I'm going to go back to the challenge of one, make sure that you're sharing Simone Biles' story, and two, share more about your own story, as much as you can. Marissa, it's been a great conversation today. I appreciate it. 

Marissa: I appreciate it, Julian. And this is definitely one that I think not only are we pushing for our audience to really think things through, but I think it's leaving both of us with some thoughts and next steps as well. And that's what this is all about.

Julian: Thank you so much for joining us. I hope that as you're thinking about your next steps, think about what you're going to do tomorrow. What conversation can you have related to learning and thinking differences? Do your own kids know about Simone Biles? Do my own kids know about Simone Biles? My daughter does, but I need to make sure my son and daughter do. And find ways to uplift positivity. Thank you so much. We'll be back very soon.

This has been "The Opportunity Gap," a part of the Understood Podcast Network. You can listen and subscribe to "The Opportunity Gap" on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Marissa: If you found what you hear today valuable, please share the podcast. "The Opportunity Gap" is for you. We want to hear your voice.

Go to to find resources from every episode. That's the letter U, as in Understood, dot O R G slash opportunity gap.

Julian: Do you have something you'd like to say about the issues we discussed on this podcast? Email us at We'd love to share and react to your thoughts about "The Opportunity Gap."

Marissa: As a nonprofit and social impact organization, Understood relies on the help of listeners like you to create podcasts like this one, to reach and support more people in more places. We have an ambitious mission to shape the world for difference. And we welcome you to join us in achieving our goals. Learn more at "The Opportunity Gap" is produced by Andrew Lee and Justin D. Wright, who also wrote our theme song. Laura Key is our editorial director at Understood. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director. Seth Melnick and Briana Berry are our production directors.

Julian: Thanks again for listening.


  • Julian Saavedra, MA

    is a school administrator who has spent 15 years teaching in urban settings, focusing on social-emotional awareness, cultural and ethnic diversity, and experiential learning.

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