This 24-year-old had a tough upbringing, but his grandma helped turn it around. Shaq can relate.

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Let's play "guess the celebrity."

He's 7 feet 1 inch tall. He's a movie star. He's been a reserve police officer in Doral, Los Angeles, Miami, Tempe, and other cities. Oh, and also, he had a mildly successful NBA career.

His list of accomplishments beyond that is pretty remarkable too. He has a bachelor's degree from LSU, an MBA from the University of Phoenix, and his doctorate in human resource development from Barry University.


Any guesses?

Surprise — it's Shaq! Or Dr. O'Neal if we're being proper. You may have heard of him.

Kazaam! Photo by Keith Allison/Flickr

But you probably haven't heard of DeMarcus Womack, whose story actually has a lot in common with that of "Shaq Daddy."

Shaq is mega-successful today, despite not securing the starring role in "Space Jam," but his early years were filled with adversity. DeMarcus, a 24-year-old living in Daytona Beach, Florida, can relate.

How are they similar?

Growing up in a rough neighborhood? Check.

Losing a parent at a young age? Check.

Trouble with the law? Check.

Enormous athletic potential? Check.

The only question for DeMarcus was whether he, like Shaq, would be able to overcome the obstacles and achieve greatness.

In a recent interview with the big man Shaquille O'Neal, DeMarcus opened up about his struggle.

On the death of his mom when he was young and how it fueled an anger problem in him that he carried for a long time.

On getting in trouble with the law shortly after high school and serving an eight-year term in prison, which cost him a shot at playing Division I football.

And on his grandmother, who took him in and helped him get his life back on track:

That's where their stories intersect the most: in the loving arms — or rather, under the watchful eyes — of their grandmothers.

Shaq would never have become an NBA champion, much less the star of his own amazing video game, without the help of mentors like his grandmother, who supported him for most of his life.

And thanks to a little tough love from granny, DeMarcus is currently a student, and a star football player, at Bethune-Cookman University.

He even plans to become a positive role model for kids like himself in the near future.

Tough upbringings like those Shaq and DeMarcus faced are common. Strong mentors and role models are much harder to find.

Shaq's — er, Dr. O'Neal's — incredible academic achievements are pretty surprising. After all, he has plenty of money from his playing days and endorsements... It's not exactly like he's going to be applying for HR jobs anytime soon.

If you look closely, though, his motives become more clear. Shaq didn't go back to school for himself. He told People magazine that he did it to set a good example for his children and for the African-American community and as a way of repaying everyone who helped him along the way.

But he's not done paying it back. He's recently partnered with American Graduate Day to help highlight the role mentorship plays in helping students graduate high school and secure a better future.

When those students go on to become positive role models themselves, like DeMarcus plans to, well that's just Shaqtastic.

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

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Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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