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The Fight Against Book Bans Is Mobilizing a New Generation of Student Activists

As the right bans books on LGBTQ issues and racial justice, youth are getting a crash course in collective organizing.

Students from the Miami-Dade County Public Schools School for Advanced Studies protest during a statewide walkout on April 21, 2023 in Miami, Florida.

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.

Da’Taevyon Daniels, a rising junior in nearby Euless, Texas, joined the National Coalition Against Censorship’s (NCAC) Student Advocates for Speech and began organizing against book bans in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. After completing cohort training with NCAC, Daniels went to a room the size of a small closet that constituted his school library. His school had hardly any books at all.

Facing the removal of books about LGBTQ+ and BIPOC experiences, students are demanding the right to read in schools across the country.

“We were like, ‘We don’t really have any of these books that are being banned or challenged,” Daniels says. “We are being taken out of the picture and we haven’t even been put in it yet.” What started as just Daniels’s movement expanded rapidly, starting with a few close friends. Those five to six grew to 15 “after I bought everybody pizza,” Daniels told Truthout.

Then the group planned their first action. During Banned Books Week in October 2022, a national campaign that highlights the problem of censorship, the group put together posters highlighting books and authors under attack by extremists in the state and plastered the school hallways with them.

The posters couldn’t be missed. When the principal asked the group to pull down some of the images, ostensibly to make room for promotions from other student clubs, “I said no, we are not going to do that,” Daniels recounted. The group had strategically left space between each poster. “We posted, skipped a board, posted, skipped a board,” said Daniels. “We shut that down immediately.”

In the 24-hour flurry that followed, Daniels says attention and engagement ballooned. When the week started, Daniels estimates he had 20 to 40 students involved. A petition at the end of the week had signatures from 150 people demanding that the posters stay up through the week, and they did. Nothing builds a movement like a win.

Both Samuels and Daniels acknowledge that the movement for free access to ideas in Texas requires full and sustained support from adults. That support can be driving students who are too young to be behind the wheel to events, buying poster board and markers and other sign making supplies, or agreeing to serve as the adult sponsor for banned book clubs in schools. Samuels emphasized the need for financial support, noting that, “You’re the ones who make the money!”

For Daniels, it’s also about who gets to be in charge. “You’re the ones who are in power right now,” he said. “You have the power to vote and the power to make decisions.”

The reminder is an important one for adults looking to support these movements: Demonstrate material solidarity — and then get out of the way.

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