What happens when community members attack students who speak up for their rights? Those youth keep speaking, forming support groups and making plans for future activism by becoming the faces of powerful, student-led movements.
Jordan Joubert, current student at North Hunterdon Regional High School, is among those who spoke at the January 25, 2022, school board meeting for North Hunterdon-Voorhees Regional High School District. After hearing public comment, the board voted on a reconsideration committee’s recommendations surrounding five book challenges, all of which feature diverse content: Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, Gender Queer: a Memoir by Maia Kobabe, This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, and Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel. Ultimately, the board voted to keep all five titles available in school libraries.
Jordan read aloud a message from best-selling challenged author David Levithan, author of the introduction to This Book is Gay. Levithan states that books do not create LGBTQ identities, but rather affirm them; ignoring conversations about physical and mental health does not keep young people safe. Listen to the remarks.
1. Please explain why you decided to speak at the January 25 board meeting. When did you first become aware of this issue?
I became aware of this issue in about early October. Originally I didn’t really have any intent on speaking or being as publicly involved as I did. However, after posting on my personal Instagram about what was going on, a parent who was “in charge” of the side for banning books posted screenshots of my Instagram and called myself and other students speaking out ignorant. I was so enraged that adults could be so disrespectful and childish. I decided to speak at the October 26th meeting about what happened along with making T-shirts for myself and other students saying “Ignorant Youth” as a response to the adults. After that meeting, myself and other students almost became the faces of this issue and I decided to continue to be highly involved, so speaking at the meeting in January wasn’t a huge decision.
2. Have you had any personal experiences with book censorship other than this one?
No, I really haven’t. I wasn’t even aware of the past attempts at banning books. But book censorship harms everyone. It might start with a topic not related to you but eventually people will try and ban a book you like. Censorship spreads so fast unless you squash it immediately.
3. How were you able to get the message you delivered from David Levithan? Do you think it made an impact to deliver a message from one of the authors who would have been censored? Would you have added any of your own comments?
So through this book banning I kind of started this friendship with my school’s amazing librarian. She has been a huge help and she was the one who actually reached out to Mr. Levithan. When he responded she came to me and asked if I would be interested in reading the comment he made. I think the fact that an author took time out of his day to respond to our little school made an impact as a sort of reminder that this issue is bigger than just us. Personally I had stuff I wanted to say but I think I said most of it when I spoke in October.
4. Did you know of any students and/or teachers who supported removing these books from the school libraries?
Yes, I actually did. I knew students who supported this book being removed. But for the most part, I got so many amazing reactions. A very good friend of mine, her mom works at the school and she came up to me and told me how proud she was and that I made her cry. So many faculty members, not just teachers, came up to me personally and told me how proud they were. I had a ton of support behind me.
5. Why was it important to you to defend this book remaining available in the school library?
I personally love reading and when I was younger reading was sort of an escape from the bullying I face for being gay in middle school. I felt that removing these books would take away that chance for someone else. Not only that but these books are so educational for LGBTQ+ students who lack representation in most public school teaching.
6. How did you prepare to speak in front of the board? Have you engaged in other types of advocacy/activism?
Along with writing remarks for the October meeting, my family helped me make the “Ignorant Youth” T-shirts which we distributed to a ton of students. From the t-shirts, I started Ignorant Youth, which is a group for students run by students. With the support of adults in a group called EVOLVE, we have had a few meetings talking about BOE stuff and personal experiences of hate/bias.
7. Where do you go from here?
Ignorant Youth is continuing. We have so many issues we want to bring to the schools attention from a more comprehensive sex education program to free access to tampons in the bathrooms which is an idea I feel passionate about. Myself and other Ignorant Youth members are a part of our school’s No Place for Hate committee and I’m in the process of becoming the committee’s student reporter, giving insight on how the students are feeling and what’s going on in school. Personally I’m taking a GAP year next year and actually planning on finding either a job or internship in human rights or activism. I’ve always had a passion for speaking out about issues I care about. I really would love to make a career of helping my community and other people.
8. What else do you think schools can do to promote awareness of LGBTQ+ equality?
Conversation. I think people fail to realize how much hate is really an issue. Students want to hear and see that the school truly cares and wants to help. We need hard conversations about how hate is NOT tolerated and we want to see actions taken. Teachers openly supporting LGBTQ+ students, schools training teachers on LGBTQ+ issues and helping out, giving students access to people who can truly help us and school wide presentations to talk about hate and how it affects people. Really, students just want to feel noticed, safe, and free.
Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media. She is the recipient of the 2021 Media Literacy Teacher Award from the National Association for Media Literacy Education, the 2022 SCASL School Librarian of the Year, and the 2022 recipient of the Eli M. Oboler Memorial Award.