Octavia Spencer is fighting to help make going to school a positive experience for all students.
On Friday night, the Academy Award-winning star, 47, delivered a powerful speech while accepting the 2019 Inspiration Award at the GLSEN Respect Awards in Los Angeles, an annual ceremony which honors those who have made a positive impact on LGBTQ youth.
“Oh man, I don’t know if I’m wearing waterproof mascara,” the actress, 47, joked as she took the stage in a video exclusively shared with PEOPLE.
“When we hear the word glisten, it brings to mind words like sparkle, glitter and gleam and that is what this room feels like tonight,” she said. “A shiny space filled with happy, beautiful people who are all aglow because we know that here we are seen, accepted, and loved for our full selves no matter our sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or skin color. And that’s what school should feel like too.”
Spencer also said schools shouldn’t be places where students feel “invisible” or “less than.”
“School should be a place you can be yourself, make friends and learn about the world. Where you shouldn’t have to worry that the bathroom you use or who you take to prom will somehow get you bullied. Or that you’ll never see yourself reflected in the books you’re reading or the history you’re learning. I know what’s that like,” she said.
Opening up about her own background, Spencer shared that she was fortunate when it came to her education — which is one of the reasons why fighting for other children to have the same experience is so important to her.
“I grew up in a really poor area in Montgomery, Alabama, but my mom believed in the transformative power of education and I was incredibly lucky to have teachers and mentors along the way who believe in me and gave me confidence. Who saw me. Who made me feel better both about myself and the world and my place in the world,” she said. “It’s one of the reasons why I’ve chosen to put my time and energy into both activism in my life and stories on screen that challenge us to envision a more even playing field for all of us. When we widen the lens of representation there is so much more beauty that we get to see.”
Addressing all of the adults in the room, Spencer encouraged them to “do whatever we can to support these amazing students.”
“An educated society forms a foundation of a country that can make good decisions and we all know that there are a lot of bad decisions being made right now. Lot of bad — bigly” she joked, making a reference to the made-up word President Donald Trump appeared to say multiple times back in 2016.
“So support GLSEN, because the work that this organization does to advance the LGBTQ+ community, issues and education have a direct impact on creating the inclusive school environments that will incubate the next generation of leadership. And you know, it’s the right thing to do,” she continued. “And to the students. Thank you for this inspiration award. I am more inspired by you than you know. I share it with you and I urge you to keep shining your light. Thank you.”
“GLSEN is deeply honored to present the Inspiration Award to Octavia Spencer, an actor who has devoted her career to diverse storytelling, promoting social good, and is a steadfast ally for the LGBTQ community,” Eliza Byard, Executive Director of GLSEN, said in a statement. “Octavia is a role model for combining art with activism and a true embodiment of the Inspiration Award.
Along with Spencer, Apple CEO Tim Cook was also honored.