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BK Public Library's Anti-Censorship Institute to Host 200 High School Student Activists in February

After the successful launch of "Books Unbanned," BPL is teaming up with PEN America to take its advocacy to the next level.
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High school students, get ready to fight book bans.

Starting this week, the Brooklyn Public Library is teaming up with PEN America to kickstart its first-ever Freedom to Read Advocacy Institute.

The 4-week-long program, beginning Feb. 2, will prepare and certify over 200 high school students from across the country as free expression advocates, giving them the tools needed to combat censorship.

The program comes less than a month after five BPL staff members were named Librarians of the Year by Library Journal for their work on “Books Unbanned,”­ an initiative fighting for teens’ rights to read books that are banned in several states across the nation.

Headshot of Summer Boismier
Summer Boismier. Photo Credit: Brooklyn Public Library.

Summer Boismier, BPL’s Teen Initiatives Project Manager, is a leading voice for intellectual freedom and rights and will be involved in the month-long program.

Before making her 1,500-mile move to New York, Boismier was a high school teacher in Norman, Oklahoma. Since the state banned critical race theory from being taught in public schools, Boismier, an avid book lover, shared a link to BPL’s very own “Books Unbanned” with her students on the first day of class.

Boismier was placed on leave after a parent complained and eventually departed the school due to threatening messages.

“One of the fundamental principles, at least of my own pedagogies, of my practice as a teacher, has always been intellectual freedom,” Boismier told BK Reader.

“I can't do what I do in the classroom ... I can't create relationships with students ... I can't help them find and effectively articulate and deploy their unique voices as individuals from the communities they're from.

"I can't do any of that, because those relationships are founded upon the idea that this is an inclusive space for all comers. And intellectual freedom is a key part of that.”

Boismier said working with the BPL is a full-circle moment. When she heard that BPL and PEN America were creating interactive workshops for teen participants as an outgrowth of “Books Unbanned,” she didn’t ask for permission to join.

“I just kind of slid in there on my own, and I’m happy to say that it’s been a great fit so far. I'm still doing all of the things that I would've done in a classroom in a more formal capacity with students.”

Kasey Meehan. Photo Credit: PEN America.
Kasey Meehan. Photo Credit: PEN America.

Kasey Meehan, director of the Freedom to Read project at PEN America, is undoubtedly counting the days until the program starts.

“We have been just so excited about the number of students that have reached out, have applied and have confirmed,” Meehan said.

“More broadly, folks are connecting with us around asking if we could extend this institute to, say, the West Coast. Conversations are happening about letting students lead their own Freedom to Read institutes across their network. So far, it's just been met with a lot of excitement, a lot of buy-ins. It’s filling a need.”

According to Meehan, the program now has 200 sign-ups. With the waitlist open, Meehan expects more students to join in.

The program also has student activists on the panel who have rallied against book bans in their schools and communities, including Edha Gupta.

“In April 2021, I told 10 school board members lined up on my computer screen with straight faces and blazers that my schooling had led me to reject a part of my identity,” she said in her TEDx Talk last August.

So, when Gupta’s school and many others in Pennsylvania banned books that promoted diversity and inclusion, she and her classmate Christina Ellis planned protests. Each was met with the overwhelming support of other students.

“We expected five students to show up. We got 50. And the next day, 60. The number just kept growing,” Gupta said.

Gupta will be sharing her stories along with other student activists and authors this Thursday.

Freedom to Read Advocacy Institute Logo
The Brooklyn Public Library and PEN America are hosting a four-week. Image: PEN America's website.

“Talking with the authors and student activists offers an opportunity for students to showcase some of what they're thinking around book ban and how they will directly apply the tools and the knowledge gained from the institute into their specific context,” Gupta said.

For the BPL, this signals that the “Books Unbanned,” program, which was originally planned to run for a limited time, is now here to stay, BPL’s Spokesperson Fritzi Bodenheimer said.

Bodenheimer told BK Reader the responses they’ve received from students give the library staff bittersweet feelings and a cause to continue.

“6,000 teens from all 50 states applied for a library card through ‘Books Unbanned,’” Bodenheimer said.

“This is something that we’re so happy about; so proud to provide the service, and also heartbroken that it’s needed.”