Students deserve access to diverse content in their schools and libraries. Our F.Y.R.E. Initiative show us why.
This past January, the school board of McMinn County, Tennessee made the decision to ban “Maus,” an acclaimed graphic novel about the Holocaust by Art Spiegelman, from being taught in eighth-grade school curriculum. Attempts to remove pieces of content or material in places such as schools and/or libraries are unfortunately not new. Just last summer we wrote about Critical Race Theory and how State Legislators are seeking to ban it from being taught in public schools, and recently in New Hampshire, a bill was introduced that would ban teachers from discussing how racism is tied to the founding of the United States. Yearly, both individuals and collectives ranging from boards/administrations, patrons of libraries, parents, and political/religious groups try to challenge and ultimately ban books due to a disproval of their respective content. The American Library Association defines a challenge as “an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group,” while a ban is “a removal of those materials.”
Those attempting to challenge and ban books available to students often do so under the guise that their included themes are “too mature” for youth. Hidden in this perceived view of what’s obscene lies a form of censorship, one that attempts to rob learning minds of material that makes diversity accessible. In 2014, author Malinda Lo published her findings examining the relationship between books that were challenged/banned and books featuring diverse content. She found that out of 29 books included in top ten challenged/banned book lists from 2009-2013, 15 books or 52%, included diverse content. This content featured issues relating to race, sexuality, and/or disability, non-white main characters, disabled main characters, LGBTQ+ secondary characters, non-white secondary characters, and non-western settings.
The act of challenging and banning books in libraries and school settings is of severe consequence for youth. In doing so, one eliminates a space that allows kids to process how they themselves, or others, intersect with issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). YW Boston’s F.Y.R.E. (Fierce Youth Reigniting Excellence) Initiative is a leadership and empowerment program for middle school girls in the Greater Boston area. Through facilitated sessions, the program participants, called Igniters, learn about social justice education, positive identity development, and civic engagement and ultimately have access to the type of space and material that those involved in challenging/banning books would likely want to restrict.
We recently talked to TiElla Grimes, M.Ed., Senior Program Manager of the F.Y.R.E. Initiative, and Chelsea Marrero, F.Y.R.E. Initiative Coordinator, about why it’s important for middle school girls, such as our Igniters, to have the space to learn about diverse content, similar to those included in challenged/banned books. Also discussed is how the program implements collective power and how the program teaches how to work together to take action for certain causes – this can include joining together to speak against the challenge/banning of books at their schools and libraries.
Including diversity allows student to explore identity
While a part of their F.Y.R.E. sessions, Igniters are able to participate in diversity, equity, and inclusion-based dialogues with both facilitators and peers that take place either in their school or Out of School Time programs. As adolescent youth in middle school, Igniters are at a point in their life where they are starting to examine, question, and acknowledge their identities such as their race or gender. Within the F.Y.R.E. Initiative, we include a session that allows them to engage with these areas titled “Identity: Race & Gender Intersectionality.” When talking about why it’s important for students to learn about these issues, and similar ones featured in challenged or banned books, TiElla mentions that creating a space to talk about racial and gender equity and how their identities intersect and are impacted by the systems of power helps them navigate conversations around identity.
Chelsea echoed a similar thought in regards to the necessity of girls, and middle schoolers in general, having these spaces where they can openly process their feelings of identity that they obtain from books including diverse content. “When you go home, [a student] may or may not have a parent that has the capacity to have [these conversations] with [them]. The importance of also having these books in the school system is that you are also creating a space to discuss it and think about what came up for [them], because that wouldn’t naturally come up any other way. And perhaps these students don’t have a place where [talking about issues involving identity is] a judgment-free zone.” Related to this judgment students can face, TiElla mentions that those who are older often think that those who are young shouldn’t be learning about identity and gender even though at that age they are already impacted by systems of power. Not having a space to be able to learn about these issues, such as through books, or have these discussions can “sweep their experiences under the rug.”
Using collective power to stand against book bans
In addition to including a session on identity, the F.Y.R.E. Initiative also includes a session on Collective Power. When it comes to teaching the Igniters about this, TiElla described a hands-on activity that helps them recognize the power they have to make change when coming together. Igniters are given a scenario where a group of rich people come to the top of a village and use the land to build a casino, but their activities cause rocks to fall to the bottom of the village hurting the people that live there. The Ignitors are then split up into groups with one being the members representing the rich people at the top of the village, one being the affected group at the bottom of the village, and one that’s facilitating on behalf of the group at the bottom of the village so they can have their needs met such as the desire to have back their land.
TiElla says that one of the ways this F.Y.R.E. Initiative activity is useful is that it helps Igniters learn about how collective power ties into current and historical movements and how people can come together and make change. This can help them think about their school experiences and what it would look like if they, as students, came together to talk about issues with the adults within their schools. In using collective power both students and the respective adults in their lives (parents, guardians, teachers, etc.) can come together to take a stand against book challenges or bans that may be going on in their school. PEN America has a great resource including tips for students, and adults, to fight against book bans, including how to “speak out” and “put pressure on decision-makers.” By using collective power everyone can make sure students have space to continue to learn about diverse content, such as through books, and in doing so eventually become adults that create a more equitable future.
About YW Boston’s F.Y.R.E. Initiative
With the F.Y.R.E. Initiative, launched in the Fall of 2019, YW Boston facilitators conduct a 12-15-week leadership development series for girls grades 6th through 9th. The series brings together social justice education, positive identity development, and civic engagement, culminating in small group civics projects. This model takes place in schools or Out of School Time programs, and it is developed to operate in a “girls group” structure rather than a traditional classroom structure. Core to the program is an effort to provide experiential learning opportunities and dialogue to build understanding and increase social-emotional learning.
Interested in learning more about our F.Y.R.E Initiative? Reach out to TiElla Grimes at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about bringing the F.Y.R.E. Initiative to your school or community.