‘Reading is resistance’: students and parents take on DeSantis’s book bans

<span>Photograph: Cristóbal Herrera/EPA</span>
Photograph: Cristóbal Herrera/EPA

This summer, Iris Mogul – a junior at a Miami high school – found out that she wouldn’t be able to take an AP African American history course that she had planned for the coming semester because it had been blocked by the state’s department of education. “As presented, the content of this course is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value,” the department said in a statement.

“It felt so far away when I first heard about all of this,” says Mogul, who only had a passing knowledge of book challenges and changes to school curriculum previously. “But that is really when it hit me – when it started to affect me directly.”

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Now, Mogul is prominent among the growing number of students and parents in Miami-Dade county and across Florida who are speaking out in opposition to book challenges, the capture of Florida school boards by conservative activists and this summer’s latest policy changes, which includes the expansion of DeSantis’s Parental Rights in Education Act.

That backlash has increased with the governor’s recent appointment of Moms for Liberty co-founder Tina Descovich to the state ethics commission, despite having no relevant experience. The appointment grants Descovich even more power to target her political opponents and demonstrates the influence of Moms for Liberty on Florida’s policymakers.

The Parental Rights in Education Act and the Stop Woke Act have led to students being barred from taking some college-prep courses that are still available elsewhere in the country (most notably African American studies and Psychology), which jeopardizes scholarship and admissions requirements.

Upon learning that her AP English teacher might not be able to use Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison in the syllabus this year, Mogul came up with an idea to start a book club. Her aptly named Banned Books Club was established last month, featuring titles that have been removed from public school circulations in Florida, and meets at a celebrated Miami bookstore called Books & Books. A range of people of different ages and backgrounds, including a handful of Mogul’s peers, an audio producer and an English teacher attend.

Ron DeSantis speaks at the Permian Deep Rock Oil Company site on 20 September 2023.
Ron DeSantis speaks at the Permian Deep Rock Oil Company site on 20 September 2023. Photograph: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

“I wanted to share thoughts and ideas with a diverse group of people and dig into why these books were banned,” Mogul says.

The further the governor’s legislation goes, Mogul says, the more her peers are beginning to realize the knock-on effects, noting that books by Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston, among others, are integral to the ways in which historians study and interpret the past. The book club chose Their Eyes Were Watching God by Hurston – the Florida novelist and anthropologist and central figure of the Harlem Renaissance – as the inaugural title.

“Reading these books is a form of resistance,” Mogul says.

As the new school year begins, parents of public school students in Miami have become more engaged than ever in resisting the mandate of the DeSantis administration.

During a marathon school board meeting in Miami-Dade county on 6 September, Lissette Fernandez, a mother of two elementary-school children, opened her statement by saying: “I’m everything conservatives have always said women are supposed to be: I am the quintessential stay-at-home mother of two. And yet here I am advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, comprehensive sex education and access to books.”

The purpose of the meeting was to vote on H-11, a motion that would recognize October as LGBTQ+ History Month across public schools in the county. It had passed without fanfare in 2021, but was rejected last year, after the passage of the Parental Rights in Education Act and concern from school board members that the motion would subsequently violate state law. At least three of those members are aligned and supported by Moms for Liberty, who just released a school board “campaign kit” to help recruit their members to successfully run for open seats in the coming election year.

Moms for Liberty co-founder Tina Descovich at a meeting in Philadelphia, on 30 June 2023.
Moms for Liberty co-founder Tina Descovich at a meeting in Philadelphia, on 30 June 2023. Photograph: Matt Rourke/AP

Demonstrators from the Proud Boys, Moms for Liberty, and other conservative Christian groups clashed with LGTBQ+ advocates on the street outside the austere school board administrative building in downtown Miami. After 13 hours, the meeting finally adjourned with a vote rejecting the motion in the county, which is known for being among the most diverse in the US, with a large LGTBQ+ population.

“They’re still better organized than us,” Fernandez says of the rightwing groups.

But she also noted a new development this year. Scores of people – students, parents, and activists – had signed up to speak in support of H-11.

In June, Fernandez co-founded the grassroots organization Moms for Libros with community organizer Vanessa Brito, motivated by what she calls the “marathon of bad legislation and bad bills taking away parents’ and students’ rights under the guise of parental rights”. With its cheeky name, the organization bills itself as a group of “concerned parents fighting back against politically motivated censorship”, and an unambiguous foil to Moms for Liberty.

I didn’t want my kids to grow up in an environment where they’re not getting the knowledge they need in order to be functional adults in our society

Lissette Fernandez

“I didn’t want my kids to grow up in an environment where they’re not getting the knowledge they need in order to be functional adults in our society,” Fernandez says. “We thought it was important to get moms who were not happy about what’s happening with those book challenges to come and speak up.”

The group has since incorporated as a non-profit, and counts parents of elementary to college students, teachers, PTA members and other concerned citizens as members. They’ve had requests from Iowa, California and elsewhere in Florida to start chapters in their districts. Moms for Libros is not alone; other resistance groups, such as Families Against Book Bans and FREADOM, have recently sprouted in Miami. The organizations host joint meetings at Books & Books.

In August, Moms for Libros partnered with the Southern Poverty Law Center to request that the Florida board of education amend its latest position on book challenges, and demanding the “fundamental due process right to be heard to all parents and guardians with a substantial interest in the materials their children have access to, not just to a subset of those parents”.

And more recently, Moms for Libros co-signed a letter to the Florida commissioner of education, Manny Diaz Jr, to disclose the financial details of Florida’s tax credit scholarships, of which little is known and, as the letter implies, could adversely affect public school funding.

It’s become evident that this is a fight against public education

Hedieh Sepehri

“It’s become quite evident that this is a fight against public education,” says Hedieh Sepehri, a mother and one of the founders of Families Against Book Bans. Sepehri grew up in Iran during the Iranian Revolution, where she witnessed the effects of censorship firsthand.

“I just didn’t think censorship happened here, so I wasn’t paying attention to it. It didn’t hit me until I noticed all the legislation being passed in Florida,” she says.

On social media and with chapter meetings of their own, parents like Fernandez and Sepehri detail the chilling effects of the new legislation, encourage parents to take a more active role in the lives of their children, and show up to school board meetings to voice those concerns. In other words, they’ve coopted the same outreach tactics used by Moms for Liberty to offer an opposing message.

“I wanted to be a voice for the opposition of Moms for Liberty,” says Sepehri. “Liberty is about everyone having rights.”