Above: Louise Culbertson, 15, organized protests and rallies all over Texas on behalf of reproductive rights.
Louise Culbertson’s passion for political activism started when she heard about the murders of 17 students at a Parkland, Florida, school in 2018. With her mother’s help, she organized a demonstration in support of stronger gun laws in her hometown of Marfa. About 200 people showed up.
Culbertson was 10 years old at the time. She was proud to put Marfa on the map of places that had marched against gun violence, a list kept by March for Our Lives, the national organization of young people formed in the wake of Parkland to push back against the epidemic of shootings.
It was something Marfa needed, Culbertson said. The fear of a mass shooting at her own school was real. The shooting at a Santa Fe, Texas, school had happened the same year as Parkland. Four years later, Uvalde’s tragedy would reinforce the bitter, tragic lesson. What happened at Parkland and the other schools “really, really scared me,” she said.
Fast-forward to summer of this year, and Culbertson, now 15, was organizing protests and rallies all over Texas, this time in support of reproductive rights. And doing it from Paris, France. Anger at the reversal of Roe v. Wade had turned up her activism by a couple of notches. Thanks to her mother’s French background, Culbertson and her brother had been able to enroll in school in Paris two years earlier. But Culbertson was coming home to Texas for the summer with a mission.
She started planning in April, and in May got in touch with a nonprofit called Deeds Not Words (founded by former state senator and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis) that helps young women build a stronger voice in politics. With their mentoring, Culbertson put together protest events in five cities. Amid Texas’ mind-numbing summer heat, she and her mom, Valerie Breuvart, drove from Austin to Houston, then to Dallas, El Paso, and home to Marfa. In Austin, only a handful of young people showed. In Houston, Dallas, and El Paso, Culbertson said, the turnout was about 20 to 30, from young teenagers to adults. Back home in Marfa, her event drew about 50 fellow protesters. In the other cities, Culbertson said, the events were in one place and featured speakers and people chanting and holding up signs. But in Marfa, she said, “We actually marched.”
“I loved it,” Culbertson said. “I definitely learned a lot. … We had great speakers.” And of course, she got to meet people all over the state and immerse herself in politics.
Where does her determination and interest in politics come from? Her father, Don Culbertson, is a physician’s assistant and her mother a teacher of art history. For more than a decade, they have owned and run a medical clinic in Marfa, with Breuvart working on the business side. “I was raised with my parents talking a lot about politics,” Culbertson said. She described them as “strong Democrats” who took her to polling places to show her how elections worked. “All my passion for politics comes from my parents cheering me along.”
The couple shared their daughter’s fears about gun violence and her concerns about the quality of the schooling that she and her brother would get in Texas. In 2021, they took a year’s sabbatical and went to France.
“We live here [in Marfa]; we have a business, our home. Louise was born on the living room floor here,” Don Culbertson said. But his wife’s background gave them the “opportunity to get a kick-ass education” in Paris for their kids. “And so we’re doing that. We’re so excited,” he said. For now, he and his wife return to Texas for a few weeks several times a year. While in France, Don Culbertson participates in the clinic via telemedicine. The whole family comes home in the summer.
Louise Culbertson said that the language instruction she’s getting in Paris is the best part. The schools she would be going to in Texas offer little in the way of foreign language programs, she said, whereas in Paris, “half of my courses are in English, half in French, and you have to take a third language.” A small city in Texas—even if it’s Marfa—can’t offer the social life that is available in Paris, and then there are, of course, the opportunities for activism.
In Paris, Culbertson is active in a group called Democrats Abroad France doing things like helping register Americans to vote back home. Her brother Victor, 18, is “even more happy than I was to move to Paris.” She called him a “classic teenager … having fun.”
Her activism probably wouldn’t go over as well in other parts of conservative rural Texas. But Marfa and Presidio County tend to be a world of their own—very oriented toward the arts and politically, as she said, “one blue county in a whole pool of red.”
Culbertson “grew up in this town. Everybody looks out for each other here,” said Lisa Kettyle, a founding member of the Big Bend Reproductive Coalition. Culbertson said the coalition has helped her plan her local protest events.
Natasha Acevedo, an outreach manager with Deeds Not Words, said Culbertson contacted the nonprofit last spring via Instagram. She shared her idea of a series of events around the state supporting reproductive freedom. The Roe v. Wade decision had “really made her feel heartbroken,” Acevedo said. Culbertson was one of the youngest activists they’d ever worked with, she’d reached out to them only about six weeks before the first event, and “she lived in a whole other country,” Acevedo said. But Culbertson “wanted some mentorship, and that’s what we do.” So the nonprofit agreed to help.
Deeds Not Words, which has been around about five years, has chapters on a handful of college campuses and is looking to add more. Acevedo said the group’s goal is to empower young people to deal with problems of gender inequality and to think about what a society built on equity would look like. “A lot of young people are very passionate about wanting things to change” but don’t know how to get started, Acevedo said. The nonprofit teaches them about building a community of like-minded people and starting with smaller concepts.
Acevedo helped Culbertson find the people she needed in each city, showed her how to create a pitch for her ideas, and met with her weekly to check on her progress. The 15-year-old was tenacious, passionate, and intelligent in how she dealt with people.
“She ended up having all the events she wanted,” Acevedo said, even though turnout was small for some. It shows that “no matter how young you are, you can make a difference.”
Culbertson said her aim is to “continue to grow awareness” about the repercussions of Texas’ severe abortion laws. A year after Roe v. Wade was overturned, she told the Big Bend Sentinel, “It’s still important to keep on marching … because this hasn’t gone away yet. And I’m not going to stop until it does go away.”