Did you know that in 2022, the American Library Association recorded nearly 1,300 attempts to ban or restrict library material, nearly double the previous year and a 10-fold increase since 2020? More than 2,500 unique book titles were targeted, most of which told stories about race, sex and gender.
Those stunning numbers created the backdrop for NCJW/Essex’s Lunch and Learn on April 18. BANNED: The War on Books, Curriculum & Our Nation’s Schools drew more than 135 attendees to hear from the people on the front lines about what is happening in New Jersey and across the country, and more importantly, what members of our community can do to stem the tide and make our voices heard.
Former Congressman Tom Malinowski served as our keynote speaker and set the stage with a stark reminder. These issues are part of a systematic effort by some to remove longstanding institutions of learning, law enforcement, and even government from our lives. However, when asked where do these people find the biggest threat and the biggest opportunity, he answered. “Schools.”
“We all see what’s happening,” he said. “Put in context, this debate is about what’s going on in our democracy.”
Malinowski has embarked on a new project, Districts for Democracy, whose mission is to recruit and support candidates, including for local school boards, who are committed to freedom of inquiry, thought and speech for everyone. It will take work – and money – to raise awareness of each candidate’s positions, and to ensure everyone participates in our democracy by voting.
A common theme surfaced among all the speakers: public sentiment and polls show people overwhelmingly oppose banning books in schools. And, once again, a small and vocal minority dominates the discourse. Recent events in Florida, where any resident is allowed to challenge books available in school libraries, have flooded our screens with pictures of empty shelves, frustrated teachers, and angry parents.
Similar crises are happening close to home, where there are currently book challenges in 11 of New Jersey’s 21 counties, often on the basis of being “pornographic and obscene.” Martha Hickson, a high school librarian from Hunterdon County, recounted her experience when several parents wanted to ban books that featured LGBTQ characters and themes.
She fought back by engaging her community and ultimately the local school board voted to keep the books on the shelves. It was not without personal cost, as Hickson received hate mail, was trolled online and endured attacks by people interested in defaming educators and ruining careers.
But, she persisted. “I’m dangerous, I’m going to open a book!” she said defiantly. She encouraged everyone to get involved by exploring UniteAgainstBookBans.org, an organization that vows not to let other parents tell you what your child can read.
Working with local elected officials, teachers and school boards is also the path two of our speakers chose. Tazmine Weisgerber, a sex ed trainer at Answer, a non-profit based at Rutgers University, reminded us that sex ed should not – and is not – considered controversial and there is bi-partisan support for teaching it in our schools. She outlined the standards teachers in New Jersey must follow for elementary and middle-school-aged children, noting that while the language has changed, the basic information kids should know has not.
Citing a recent study about the reasons and the importance of this information, Weisgerber shared, “Educating young people about the names of their sexual anatomy at an early age normalizes talking about their bodies and reduces their risk for sexual abuse.”
Compelled to come out of retirement to establish the New Jersey Public Education Coalition, founder Mike Gottesman has vowed to engage, educate and collaborate to protect public schools in New Jersey.
He reminded us that our Lunch and Learn coincided with Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust Day of Remembrance, connecting what we commemorate on that day to some of the broader themes that opened our discussion: the idea that an existential threat to public education is fomenting in our state and in our country, and the idea that a group of people who want to teach what they want, where they want, and to whom they want is a movement we need to acknowledge and fight. Taking action takes many forms:
Thank you to our Lunch & Learn Chair, Meryl Goodman, who brought the idea for this topic to our committee, to the full committee for their work getting ready for the Lunch & Learn and executing a flawless event, our Q&A moderator and Get Out the Vote co-chair Jordana Horn Gordon, and to VP Advocacy Laurie Kahn and Director of Advocacy and Community Engagement Stephanie Abrahams for all their work. Special thanks to Temple B’nai Abraham for hosting us.