Book Bans and Attacks on Libraries are Energizing Youth ActivismRoundup
tags: libraries, political activism, youth, Book Bans
Emily Drabinski is critical pedagogy librarian at the CUNY Graduate Center.
The rise of organized attempts to censor school curricula and materials available in school libraries is proving to be a fertile training ground for a new generation of student activists. Facing the removal of books about LGBTQ+ and BIPOC experiences, students are demanding the right to read in schools across the country. Nowhere is this truer than in Texas, a state where equal access to a range of stories has been under attack for years.
In 2019, freshman Cameron Samuels, a student in the Katy Independent School District, attempted to access the Advocate, a longstanding LGBTQ+ news magazine, using a school computer. The page was blocked, according to the message on the screen, because of “Alternative sexual lifestyles (GLBT).” Two years later, Samuels tried to access the Trevor Project, an organization focused on suicide prevention for queer youth. Samuels was blocked again. This time, they took their frustration to a school board meeting where they were the sole voice contesting internet filtering in the district. The ACLU filed a complaint on Samuels’s behalf, leading to the lifting of filters in district high schools.
When Samuels spoke at that board meeting, conditions had changed. Internet filtering continued to be an issue, but books had become the primary target of organized extremists. Attempts to censor and restrict access to LGBTQ+ stories are not new, but their quantity and intensity have rapidly increased in recent years. Between 2020 and 2021, the American Library Association documented 729 book ban attempts, over five times more than the previous year. That number doubled again in 2022, and Texas was home to more book bans than any other state.
Samuels began to build a larger and louder student voice in the district. “I tapped into already established networks that were already passionate,” Samuels told Truthout. Student clubs for creative writing, reading groups and the Gay-Straight Alliance were their first targets. “These were groups that already had leaders,” Samuels said.
Over the next few months of organizing, Samuels and their fellow activists packed school board meetings (Samuels never testified alone again), lobbied for the right to read at the Texas legislature as part of Students Engaged in Advancing Texas, and distributed hundreds of copies of banned books to students in the school district.
At a March school board meeting, community members showed up in big numbers to defend challenged books, particularly Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Mike Curato’s Flamer. Maus remained on library shelves throughout the district while Flamer and Beloved were restricted to high school. Samuels’s work also turned up a spreadsheet of titles that organized censors were using to guide their work in the state, clarifying the scope of the threat to the public. In 2022, Samuels served as the first Youth Honorary Chair for Banned Books Week.
The lessons that Samuels and their fellow student activists learned — namely that it takes an organized community of people to take effective action — are being applied throughout the state.