Making an Impact in Difficult Times | SLJ Summit 2022

At the SLJ Summit in Minneapolis, school librarians came together to discuss books, censorship, and mental health, as well as to offer one another support, new ideas, motivation, and inspiration as the advocacy fight continues.

 After two years of virtual conferences, the SLJ Summit returned in person with discussions of censorship, advocacy, mental health, ESSER funding, and perseverance in difficult times.

“It was so great to be together, to share, to meet new people and learn from one another,” says Becky Calzada, library services coordinator for the Leander (TX) Independent School District and co-founder of FReadom Fighters.

It was not only important to know they were not alone in their struggles, Calzada says, but also to hear the uplifting stories and inspiring ideas.

“We need to hear the good stuff,” she says. “This has been a tough year. If we don’t share the positive and write down the great things happening in our library spaces, it’s inevitable we’ll succumb to the endless negativity.”

Author Ellen Oh kicked off the "Advocacy in Action" weekend November 4-6 in Minneapolis with a keynote spotlighting the vital role school librarians play in the lives of students. She spoke about her difficulties with bullies in middle school, the safe space her school library provided for her years ago, and the parallels she sees when she visits schools today.

“The kids who need a safe haven, still find them in their school libraries,” she said. “I know this to be true because at every school I visit, I meet them.”

When she is done with her school presentations, she said, students always come up to talk to her.

“They come confident and secure of the safety of this space,” she said. “These young people who come to see me are all so different—some are white, some are BIPOC; some are LGBTQ+, some are straight cis. They are of all religions [and] socio-economic backgrounds. They are of all intersections of life. But what they do have in common is that all of these young students come to tell me that listening to me made them feel seen. They will say to me, ‘Ms. Ellen, I am gay. I am trans. I have depression. I have crippling anxiety. I am bullied. I am lonely. But thank you for talking today and telling me that I'm not alone. Thank you for seeing me, for letting me know that I can be myself and that I will find people who will love me and support me.’

“All of these kids that I have met at hundreds and hundreds of schools might have only met me for that one day, but I leave them knowing that they are safe and have school librarians who will give them a place for them to be who they are.”

Oh acknowledged how scary and stressful it is for librarians right now but said she knows most will continue to fight for the kids and left no doubt of their impact.

"You educate, you empower, you embolden our youth, you are all powerful change makers," she said. "Your words, your impact is there every day, even though you don't see it, I promise you, you are making a difference."

Following Oh's address, those in attendance went on to hear panels on battling against censorship, Native authors, mental health, and teaching media literacy. They learned about making the most of ESSER funding and asked questions of Pat Scales about censorship and Tuscaloosa City Schools superintendent Mike Daria on how to find a place at the table and a voice in their districts. They heard about successful programs run by their peers in a lightning round of presentations. And they spoke to one another, supporting each other’s efforts, and offering new ideas as they seek to serve their students.

Like Calzada, school librarian Bethany Winter said it felt good to “not feel alone.” Winter is the district and high school librarian in Mendota Heights, MN. The rest of the school libraries in the district are run by paraprofessionals or teachers. Winter is facing a book challenge after purchasing Gender Queer for a banned book display. When a parent complained, Winter says the associate principal showed her legal statutes and told her that she could be fined $10,000 and sent to jail for distributing pornography if she did not remove the book from circulation. She did not and continues to fight the challenge. The Summit was a chance for her to be around educators who know what she is going through.

“It felt good to be amongst my peers that really understand the world that we are forced to operate in,” she says. “I like the teachers I work with, but teaching is just a different job.”

School Librarian of the Year K.C. Boyd offered words of advice to open Sunday's program.
Photo: Sarah Morreim Photography


At the Summit, those fighting and facing the consequences were acknowledged. 2022 School Librarian of the Year K.C. Boyd specifically recognized Martha Hickson, Amanda Jones, and Elissa Malespina in her Sunday keynote address. While Hickson was not there, Jones and Malespina were asked to stand while the crowd applauded.

But Boyd also had a few words for those purposely avoiding the fray.

“I want to talk about some of y'all putting these books on book vacations because you don't want to deal with the problem,” she said. “You need to stop.”

It’s making the situation worse, she said, and there are so many organizations ready to support those willing to fight.

“I know you're afraid,” she continued. “I'm afraid too. … But you have to move forward. You have to press forward for these kids. … You might get knocked down, keep getting up.”

Remain hopeful and optimistic, she said, finishing her keynote with this: “Get in good trouble, and we are going to beat this ugly mess that we’re in right now.”

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