Reading Our Way to Peace

ALA Council, ALA Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books, Diversity, Legislation, Social Justice
West Wing

By: Kristin Pekoll

I’m going to make a confession. I am infatuated with The West Wing.

For those not familiar, this is a political drama written by Aaron Sorkin, starring a huge cast of amazing actors. The show aired from 1999-2006, and I believe I’ve watched the entire series seven or eight times. I started watching it again this fall as the presidential race ramps up and I get slightly disgusted with the state of American politics.

Josh and Hrishi
Hrishikesh Hirway and Joshua Malina are hosts of The West Wing Weekly podcast.

While I have no problem watching the originals again and again, I was delighted to discover a new podcast! The West Wing Weekly started in March and episode by episode they analyze and dissect major and minor storylines, character development, costume and set design details, juicy tidbits from behind the scenes, camera angles, music and dialogue. I’m in West Wing heaven. The excellent hosts, Hrishikesh Hirway and Joshua Malina, who was a member of the cast in the later seasons, rewatch every episode and often entertain guests who acted on the show or have a connection to the theme of the episode.

I promise, I’m going to connect the dots. Stay with me.

A few days ago, I listened to The West Wing Weekly discuss episode 13 of season 1, “Take Out the Trash Day.” The original episode involves President Bartlet signing new hate crimes legislation after a teenager was killed for being gay. This episode, which aired in January of 2000, was inspired by the real-life attack and murder of Matthew Shepard.

As a guest on the podcast, Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) shares some eye-opening statistics from the Southern Poverty Law Center about hate crimes and hate groups. The discussion of hate crime legislation and gun violence legislation in this podcast follows the horrifying massacre at Pulse in Orlando, Florida.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center

  • 892 hate groups are currently operating
  • There are 190 Ku Klux Klan groups
  • Between 2010-2014, there were 4300 hate crimes using firearms

While listening to the podcast, I kept thinking of current discussions with the American Library Association and the Office for Intellectual Freedom. We just completed the 34th Banned Books Week celebration; while we talk about many different books, this year, books with diverse content were highlighted. Nine of the top 10 most challenged books in 2015 contain diverse content. What is the connection between these books being repeatedly challenged and the number of hate groups operating in our country? Is the racist and homophobic nature of some in our country influencing the challenges in libraries and schools. If more people read books like Nasreen’s Secret School and I Am Jazz, would we see a decline in the gun violence targeted at marginalized people?

There’s a resolution being discussed within the ALA Council about an association stand against gun violence. I wonder if a resolution from the largest and oldest professional library organization will influence people of power? But maybe the goal isn’t to influence people of power. Maybe the goal is to influence a librarian or a reader. Maybe this conversation will prompt a reader to pick up a new book. Maybe a reader will choose All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. Maybe it will shift a perspective. We often hear how books change lives. Maybe it’s not too far of a stretch to say that books save lives.

In order to make a dent in decreasing gun violence and hate groups, we need to stop banning other perspectives and start reading them. In order to read them, we need to find ways to get them on our library shelves and in our classrooms. That’s where the new OIF initiative Our Voices comes in:

Our Voices“It is within the power of all players in the book and publishing ecosystem—from authors and content creators, to editors and publishers, to booksellers and libraries, all the way to readers—to assert the freedom to read as a freedom to read diverse, quality content of all kinds. Join us in raising our voices and raising the voices of those we do not yet often hear.”


It can be hard to focus on the greater picture when a tragedy occurs. After the terrifying and brutal attack at Pulse Nightclub, librarians at the ALA Annual Conference in Orlando exhibited such tremendous compassion and support for the gay community and all victims of gun violence. I was so proud to be part of a profession that works so hard to care for those among us who are hurting.

This was highlighted during the Virtual Read-Out at the conference. Every year, OIF partners with SAGE Publishing to host a conference area where librarians read banned and challenged books while being professionally videotaped, in preparation for Banned Books Week in September. After the Pulse attack, there was huge support from Reforma and GLBT-RT to read books with a Latinx and GLBT perspective to give voice to characters and stories that are underrepresented and often silenced. Books are so powerful at putting a spotlight on fear and ignorance. This was not the first time there have been attacks, and it likely won’t be the last.

We are working to continue the discussion and to change the prejudice and hate.

They’re our students, teachers and parents and friends. Our voices.

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