In October 2021, Christina Ellis, Edha Gupta, and other students in Central York School District in York, Pa., found themselves in the center of what many have called a war on diversity education.
Students, parents and even teachers were surprised when the school board decided to ban more than 300 suggested books, movies and teaching materials, irrespective of the fact that these materials had already been "age appropriately" curated by a committee. These resources were largely authored by people of color. Many teachers argued that the banned educational materials were used to create a more equitable and inclusive school environment for all students. Some of the banned books included "All are Welcome" by Alexandra Penford, "I am Rosa Parks" by Brad Meltzer, "Escuchando con mi Coraźon (Listening with my Heart)" by Gabe Garcia, and "25 Women Who Thought of It First" by Jill Sherman. Ben Hodge (who happens to be a white man) and Patricia Jackson (who happens to be a Black woman), both teachers at the school, decided to organize to overturn what they believed to be an unfair book ban.
Jackson stated that "the only way to make sure history does not repeat itself is to teach it, all of it ... the good, the bad, and the ugly."
Hodge added, "They took that action because they were afraid and they were concerned because of what the conversations might have led to in terms of new knowledge, about the truth, about the real truth, about what's going on in our country and our society."
As I read about the situation that these students and teachers faced, it made me ponder my childhood days. I vividly remember many of my teachers telling me that reading diverse books and watching diverse films would help jump-start my imagination toward creating innovative ideas that could one day help millions of people. Have we, as a society, given up on this idea and function of imagination?
In a recent interview on The Pivot Podcast, Martellus Bennett, who is an author, artist and retired NFL player, stated that his entire purpose in life is to eradicate the crisis of imagination. He explains that "people lack the imagination to see a different world, or they lack the imagination to see themselves being different in that world."
As I listened to Bennett's words, it made me realize that change is inevitable irrespective of our discomfort or happiness. For example, I thought about how frustrating it must have been for those who raised and tended to transportation horses at the dawn of the automobile. Nonetheless, change persisted. I thought about how frustrating it must have been for those who installed and serviced telephone booths as the wireless phone emerged. Nonetheless, change persisted. If we as consumers can continually adjust to change, why is it so difficult for us to change regarding social issues?
I believe everyone on the Central York School Board would probably say they want to be as effective as possible for all the students in their district. Nonetheless, being effective takes more than just words; it means that the all-white school board should listen to all students and parents, including the almost 40% of their student population who are students of color and who want their culture and experiences reflected in the curriculum. After much dialogue from parents, students, teachers and community members, the school board eventually overturned their ban on the materials.
There are numerous research studies that outline influences that can bring about change. Some of these include: having a life-changing experience; educating yourself via reading; training; and engaging with other cultures in non-judgmental, genuine and authentic ways. As an educator, I believe we should, with determination, educate ourselves about things we do not know.
Here are a few simple steps to begin this process: work to understand why representation is important (diversity); explore whether policies, procedures and processes are equitable to the populations you serve (equity); interrogate the ways in which you are inclusive of all people, especially those populations who have been historically marginalized (inclusion).
When we lack the ability to re-imagine ourselves, or outright refuse to do so, it becomes easy to lean into the "they are wrong and we are right" mentality. Instead of resisting change, I would challenge all of us to lean into the words of world-renowned intercultural competence guru, Nehrwr Abdul-Wahid: "Do you want to be right, or do you want to be effective?"
As the fearmongering debate over curriculum and books continues, our children are walking through a world that will challenge them to face many of the topics covered in banned books. So, how do we as educators, lawmakers, city council members and everyone in this society ensure our children are holistically educated in a way that helps them understand the roots of oppression so they may use their imaginations and knowledge to carry the torch of inclusion, diversity, and equitability in a future free of book bans?