Unbanning History: Georgia teen organizers fight back against school censorship
A world history class at a Georgia high school last year created a stinging yet motivating memory for Azaio Udoh.
When topics like European wars were discussed in class, “everything was free rein,” the 15-year-old sophomore recalled recently.
But when the topic turned to slavery, she said, “suddenly everything was off limits.” The mood turned tense as the students pressed the teacher for answers.
“He refused to describe the condition of a slave ship or show a picture of a slave ship,” Udoh said. “He changed the subject immediately when students asked what they wanted to know. The Black and Brown students said out loud that slavery wasn’t that long ago and that some of our ancestors were slaves, so it affected us personally.”
Udoh, whose parents are from Trinidad and Nigeria, had witnessed – and sometimes bore the brunt of – aggressive, racist comments and innuendo throughout her years in Atlanta’s Fulton County public schools. Now she felt hurt, angry and frustrated that repressive education policies had not only spread an uncomfortable atmosphere of self-censorship among teachers but kept students from learning the history they are entitled to receive.
“I’m not sure what I’m allowed to say. I don’t want to say something that will get me fired,” the teacher muttered loudly enough for Udoh to hear.
“He was also a Black man,” Udoh explained, “so there was disappointment for him and empathy that he couldn’t speak the truth.”
Since then, the censorship and intimidation of educators in Georgia have only intensified.
The Georgia General Assembly this year passed repressive new laws, including one (HB 1084) that prohibits the teaching of nine “divisive” topics involving race and racism. Another (HB 1178) gives parents the right to continuously review – and reject – teaching materials and to withdraw their children from classes. A third (SB 226), which takes effect in January, gives parents the right to file a formal complaint against teaching materials that are “harmful to minors.”
“Even beyond the troubling comparisons of this kind of censorship to history, the overall goal of conservatives is to undermine public education,” said Bacardi Jackson, interim deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Children’s Rights Practice Group. “The politicians are pitting white people against people of color. Through racism, hate and homophobia, they are playing on people’s fears and pride – whatever makes people feel better about themselves. And they are using our children as political fodder.
“[School] libraries are being purged,” Jackson continued. “Kids can’t even find information in libraries. [Students] are getting harassed online. Educators who have spoken out are called ‘groomers.’ They are creating an unsafe environment, emboldening people who possibly pose a physical and emotional threat to others.”
Udoh and other students are organizing to fight back against the assault on inclusive education, and no one should underestimate the resilience of emboldened student organizers in Georgia. They are media-savvy, politically astute and determined to win the battle with adults who seek to undermine their ability and right to receive an accurate, honest and high-quality education.
Today, Udoh is an anti-racist education organizer for the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition (GYJC), an Atlanta-based nonprofit created in 2021 and exclusively run by high school and college students. GYJC receives policy support from the SPLC.
On Aug. 15, just weeks after Udoh joined the organization, the school system in neighboring Forsyth County restored seven of eight books it banned in January, due to local organizing efforts led by high school students.
Shivi Mehta, a 15-year-old sophomore, was one of the Forsyth County students who protested the book ban, facing off against groups like Concerned Parents of Forsyth County Georgia, Mama Bears of Forsyth County, and Truth in Education of Forsyth County.
“School board meetings are political battlegrounds,” said Mehta, the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition’s anti-racist project director. “I have been harassed by so-called Concerned Parents, both face-to-face at school board meetings and on social media.”
Between 2021 and the end of the legislative session in April, Mehta spoke at approximately ten school board meetings – against the abolition of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training, in support of COVID-19 health measures, and against book bans.
“I talked about the need for diverse literature so that students can see themselves in different forms of media, especially books,” Mehta said. “The books banned were books written by authors of color and by LGBTQ+ authors, and they featured similar characters.
“Initially, it seemed like the board didn’t care,” Mehta said. “I felt ignored. I felt like I was being a pain in the neck to [board members], but they did listen to us because they unbanned seven of the eight books. … There is never a reason for students to stay silent. There is always a reason for students to speak out against injustice.”
In the next legislative session, the students plan to share stories about how the book bans affect them and their education, Udoh said.
“Their stories will give voice to students who don’t know they have one. We are young people enacting change. We are reclaiming power from the older people with power because their decisions affect us.”
The legislative battle
The student organizers who are fighting for inclusive education are not without allies, including the SPLC, the SPLC Action Fund (the lobbying arm of the SPLC), the ACLU of Georgia and the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) – a national education research and policy organization that promotes equity in education.
The groups lobbied against passage of the bills that sought to undermine inclusive education, particularly HB 1084, the “divisive concepts” law.
IDRA is collecting testimony from students and educators affected by HB 1084.
“The challenge now is to show the impact of this law,” Terrence Wilson, IDRA’s Atlanta-based regional policy and community engagement director, said.
“Ultimately, if we think about the purpose of education, it’s really to serve our students, to prepare them for their next phase of life. They have to continue to show that the current policy isn’t going to give them the education they need. We adult advocates have to work intergenerationally to give them the education they deserve.”
Wilson says that despite the censorship bills’ passage, he views the increased engagement of young activists at committee hearings and in private discussions with legislators as a big win.
Brock Boone, SPLC senior staff attorney for children’s rights, says HB 1084 is so vague that “it’s impossible for teachers to know if they are violating the law or not.” As a result, he said, “teachers will self-censor their lessons and teaching materials, thereby depriving children of an accurate and truthful education.”
Teachers are, in fact, already experiencing that chilling effect, said Sarah-SoonLing Heng Blackburn, associate director of the SPLC’s Learning for Justice program.
“What is the teacher supposed to do if they are teaching Radical Reconstruction?” asks Blackburn.
“Black people had the right to vote, hold office, own property and vote, and then you had a backlash with the Plessy v. Ferguson ‘separate but equal’ decision where the Supreme Court did take away rights. Dobbs is another example of the Supreme Court taking away rights. If the student makes the point or asks a question about it – it’s complicated. … What if a student brings up Roe v. Wade?
“Good teaching would be asking the student what they think [about a complex topic], but teachers are afraid if the student responds. A kid has an opinion. Then another kid goes home and tells his parents what that student said – ‘that abortion should be legal.’ The parents [of the second student] are mad that the teacher let it come up in class.”
Intent is clear
Passage of the new laws capped several years of increasingly repressive local school board resolutions that banned so-called “critical race theory” (CRT) in Georgia counties, including Cobb and Cherokee.
These local moves were set against a nationwide war on public education that gained steam after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 and issued an executive order on “combating race and sex stereotyping” in 2020. (President Joe Biden overturned the order in March 2021). Conservative lawmakers and parents began to demonize free and inclusive classroom speech, especially concerning race, gender identity and sexuality and an approach to education called social emotional learning (SEL).
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed the censorship laws on April 28.
Kemp chose to sign the bills in north-central Georgia’s Forsyth County, where 75% of residents are white. About 30 miles north of Atlanta, with a population of over 260,000, Forsyth is one of the fastest-growing counties in the U.S. Student organizer Shivi Mehta and her classmates are part of a growing body of Asian and Latinx families in Forsyth.
Forsyth County is also where, in 1912, white vigilantes drove the county’s entire Black population of about 1,100 out of the county in one of the Jim Crow era’s most heinous incidents of “racial cleansing” by white people. Blatant racism remains despite Metro Atlanta’s sprawl over the past 25 years into suburban, largely white counties.
“The intent underlying the law seems clear when Kemp goes out to Forsyth with its history of white supremacy and racial terror,” said Michael Tafelski, SPLC senior supervising attorney for children’s rights. “It was very symbolic.”
Aware that protesters would show up at the event, and that it would receive heavy media coverage, the SPLC held a virtual press conference that included, among others, the ACLU of Georgia, GYJC and IDRA.
“The intent of the press conference was to demonstrate the broad opposition to these censorship laws. And to encourage students, educators and the community to share their experiences on how the law is taking effect and impacting their classrooms,” Tafelksi said. “This will enable us to learn more about the implementation of these laws and the causal chilling effect.”
The SPLC is offering support to educators, students and parents in Georgia with guidance on their constitutional rights in the classroom. The SPLC has also established an email address – firstname.lastname@example.org – to collect feedback on how the law interferes with their rights.
Truth, youth and power
Friends since fourth grade, Koan Roy-Meighoo, 18, and Julian Fortuna, 19, are opening a new front in the effort to promote inclusive, equitable education in their hometown of Decatur and beyond.
In 2021 they were high school seniors in Decatur, in DeKalb County just outside of Atlanta, when the school district was in the early stages of developing an equity program called JEDI (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion). Earlier that year, Roy-Meighoo co-founded a district-wide student effort for equity and social justice at school.
Motivated by his and Fortuna’s ideas of what a true JEDI curriculum would look like, Roy-Meighoo immediately wrote a prospectus outlining their full vision.
“We knew there was a problem with Georgia’s standard curriculum, which left many histories out,” Roy-Meighoo said. “However, the flaws weren’t just in curricula. Students of color face racism every day. Around the time we began our efforts, there had been multiple incidents and videos threatening communities of color with violence. We were in the midst of the pandemic and the [wake of] George Floyd’s murder. … a racial reckoning had begun, and we saw an opportunity for the more privileged members of our community to understand what their marginalized peers had faced for years. Our Decatur school district had finally realized that institutional racism was real and change was needed.
The two students called their project JADE, a purposeful spin on JEDI with the “A” standing for “action.” From inception the two have worked closely with City Schools of Decatur district equity offices to refine the program. They expect the pilot to launch in Decatur in 2023.
The program will start with a core curriculum for sixth, seventh and eighth graders that can be implemented nationwide but is adaptable to each local school district’s needs. The program will not be implemented during classroom hours but during a daily advisement class when students typically have free time. JADE will feature vigorous teacher training with strong support from communities and school districts.
“For me, it is about the underlying component of empathy and humanity,” said Roy-Meighoo, now an Emory University philosophy major whose family is from Trinidad and India.
“When students know the truth, they will be able to empathize and live better with each other. I experienced firsthand the divisions promoted by the current curriculum in Georgia. I’ve seen white students turn to look at students of color anytime there is a discussion about race, slavery or civil rights. White kids learn about their historic figures, but it took me until 11th grade to learn anything about an Indian or Trinidadian,” when he learned about Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott.
This October, Roy-Meighoo and Fortuna will hold an educator organizing summit that will offer resources for antiracist teaching. It will include a teach-in led by local educator-organizers and students like Roy-Meighoo and Udoh and feature both LFJ materials and JADE curriculum concepts.
“This kind of summit has very little precedent,” Roy-Meighoo said. “We are reacting in real time to everything that is happening in the era of classroom censorship. Teachers want to know how to navigate teaching the truth and keeping their jobs. On top of this, the situation is changing constantly. We don’t know what classrooms will be able to teach in a year. [The summit] won’t be an evaluation in the aftermath of censorship and institutional racism.
“We are taking affirmative steps forward in the middle of this struggle – together, students and teachers can advance truth, empathy and racial justice in the classroom even in the face of political censorship.”
Picture at top: Julian Fortuna, left, and Koan Roy-Meighoo of Decatur, Georgia, are the co-founders of the Decatur Justice Coalition, a student equity group promoting inclusive, equitable education. (Credit: Ben Rollins)