Grassroots Organizers Show How to Mount Censorship Counterattacks

These organizers are leading the way in their local areas and have advice for those who want to join the fight.

Hedieh Sepehri grew up in Iran during the revolution.

“As you can imagine, everything western was censored,” says Sepehri, who now lives in Florida.

Her dad, Parviz Kiani, loved to read and shared stories from his favorite books.

“The bedtime stories I grew up with were not typical kids' bedtime stories,” says Sepehri.

Hedieh Sepehri, age five, with her dad in Iran.
Photo courtesy of Hedieh Sepehri

At five years old, her father told Sepehri the story of Fahrenheit 451. It had an impact. Despite living in a country that banned and sanctioned many things, she still found it “crazy” that there would be such a place as Ray Bradbury’s world without books.

“That book always stayed with me,” says Sepehri, whose father died this summer.

Recently, she had begun paying more attention to book censorship efforts in in Florida schools.

“When I moved [to America], I couldn't fathom that books would be banned in this country, so I didn't pay attention to what was going on,” she says. “I just was oblivious to the idea.”

The more she learned, the more she was alarmednot only by the fact that it was happening, but by how oblivious she had been. She cares deeply about education and literature and is involved in her community.

“I can’t imagine how many other people are out there don’t know enough and aren’t paying attention. For me, that was a trigger point. It took me back to my childhood, where if they found you with a banned book, you would get into trouble. Families go could go into prison if they were found with an entire collection of banned books. So seeing legislations being passed, it was triggering.”

With that, Sepehri set out to inform others and start a conversation. She created Families Against Book Bans with some “like-minded” people who had the freedom and desire to speak up. Her children are in college, as are those of many others in the group. Though their families aren’t directly impacted by new censorhip efforts, they understand the value of kids having access to books.

“Most of us don't even have a skin in the game to really be doing this. But I think it's more important for those of us that are not impacted to speak up,” she says. “We understand that sometimes parents don't want to speak up, because they're afraid of retaliation against their children. We understand that teachers don't want us to speak up, because they're afraid for their jobs. And, definitely, librarians are put in a difficult position all the time.”

Sepehri's community hasn’t been hit directly by book banning at schools yet. But she says they have seen an indirect level of censorship, as principals act proactively in fear of controversy—telling teachers to have kids read books they have at home and not something from the library, for example.

Wishing to educate others about what was happening,  Sepehri and her group organized a discussion at the bookshop Books & Books in Coral Gables, FL. With more than 60 people in attendance, the conversation started.

Sepehri presented to local legislators and put together a PowerPoint presentation of information on book banning that will be shared by the National Coalition Against Censorship to help individuals and organizations that want to educate their communities.

Hedieh Sepehri (center, in black shirt) at a Families Against Book Bans meeting

Families Against Book Bans is one of many grassroots organizations across the country trying to catch up to and counter the groups that have created a coordinated attack on access to books, mostly by and about people of color and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. The fight for intellectual ­freedom needs grassroots organizations like Sepehri's, supported by national organizations.

[READ: Playing Catch-Up to the Censors, the Fight for the Freedom to Read Needs a Grassroots Revolution]

Mobilizing in Louisiana

Melanie Brevis and Lynnette Mejía came together to organize Lafayette Citizens Against Censorship when the two saw the increasing attacks on their local public library in Louisiana.

“Our library has a long history of having great programs that are inclusive of everyone in our community,” says Mejía. “I saw that come under direct and ferocious attacks from these far-right individuals who made no secret of their agenda. And it just terrified me. So I just wanted to get involved in the effort to do something about that to stop that.

"I found out very quickly that our librarians, due to the fact that they are civil service employees, are very much restricted in what they can say and do in terms of opposing those sorts of things. Their hands were sort of tied, so it was really up to members of the public to speak out against what was happening in our libraries. For me, that was when I decided we need to have some sort of organized, concerted effort against this.”

Brevis, who has an MLIS, was a public librarian in Maryland before moving to Louisiana. Since arriving there, she noticed that many people are afraid to voice their opinion for fear of retaliation from their workplace or in the community at large. She didn’t have those professional or personal complications, so she felt compelled to speak.

“I’ve felt it's my duty as a community member, as a former librarian, just to really speak out every chance I get to support our library system,” says Brevis.

It is not just about the books, Brevis and Mejía say. It's about silencing communities and cultures as decisions to remove materials continue to focus on the LGBTQIA+ community and people of color.

“You realize that the censorship is more than just a few people fussing about a few books in the library,” says Brevis. “If they can take these particular books, or these materials, out of the library, anything could get removed.”

The duo reached out to other local organizations and built a network.

“One of the best ways to get something like this off the ground is really utilizing social media,” says Mejía.

For those wanting to start fighting censorship, Mejía and Brevis offer this advice: “give yourself grace.”

The work is tiring, all-consuming and thankless sometimes. Spread out the responsibilities and recruit volunteers—knowing that not everyone has the same among of time or level of commitment.

Sometimes, life gets in the way. Remember that you’re in it for long haul. Take breaks when you can while remaining alert and prepared for the next battle.

Focused in Florida

When Stephana Ferrell and Jen Cousins decided to start the Florida Freedom to Read Project (FFTRP), they first had to decide the focus for the organization, says Ferrell.

“Because legislation was already proposed in our state, we had to be an organization that was able to speak to legislators,” she adds.

Florida Freedom to Read Project founders Stephana Ferrell and Jen Cousins

The organization has made an impact, even traveling to Washington, DC, to speak with congressional representatives. But pullling it all together hasn’t come without challenges.

For example: Did they want to form a Political Action Committee (PAC) or be a 501c4? Both are nonprofit designations. A PAC is specifically for political candidates or issues; a 501c4 cannot have a primary political focus.

“We got advice from those we knew had formed Political Action Committees and 501c4s in the past. The consensus was a state PAC was a lot easier to form—it required fewer people and less paperwork,” says Ferrell.

Easier, it turns out, didn’t make it necessarily the right choice.

“So, we closed down the PAC, found another person to be on our board to meet the minimum, and became a 501c4,” explains Ferrell. “There are local organizations that offer some guidance in setting up nonprofits. Online legal sites offer initial setup for relatively small fees.”

Many people will look at the efforts of all of these organizations and think they can’t make that kind of commitment or don’t have the time or energy or ingenuity to do it. But every effort to fight censorship matters, no matter how small.

“Showing up—whatever that looks like to you—is important right now,” says Farrell.

That could just mean talking to people around you about the coordinated censorship movement around the country.

Educating is key, as many people are unaware of what’s going on; and letting the people know how they can fight back.

Censorship and book banning have become political issues. So sending emails to elected officials, showing up at school board meetings, voting for candidates who support intellectual freedom and access to books and resources are all important parts of the fight.

New organizers can find support through similar groups in other areas via social media. FFRTP used Twitter to connect to organizers in other regions, and reached out with questions.

Farrell recommends looking up national organizations, including PEN AmericaNational Coalition Against Censorship, American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU, as well as Red, Wine and Blue, which hosts a regular virtual “Troublemaker Training” to help people get started.

Author Image
Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (, @karayorio) is senior news editor at School Library Journal.

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing