PEN America, Brooklyn Public Library To Hold Freedom To Read Advocacy Institute

The free online course for high schoolers features a powerful list of guest speakers, including author Ashley Hope Pérez, Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani, and student activist Jack Petocz.

In their ongoing efforts to fight censorship and educate advocates, PEN America and the Brooklyn Public Library are teaming up to host the first Freedom to Read Advocacy Institute, a free online program for high schoolers. The organizations are longtime partners, and this idea evolved from the work they were already doing, according to PEN America's Kasey Meehan.

"It just came out of a natural partnership and an interest in taking some of the tools and the lessons from activism at the college level with parents with authors, and really bringing that into a full package for high school students," says Meehan, PEN America's Freedom to Read program director and one of the organizers of this initiative. "The goal of the program is to equip students to be leaders and stand up and fight against what we see as a movement to censor and remove access to books in schools and public libraries. There are many roles for all of us to play, so I don't want to say this is like students on their own—it's in coalition to have students join with parents, join with community organizers, join with authors who are advocates in the freedom to read, as well as sort of national organizations and local organizations like Penn and BPL, to really build out this coalition that says, 'Enough is enough, we're fighting back on this movement to censor books and to remove books from schools.'"

The guest speakers represent all aspects of that coalition, from author Ashley Hope Pérez, whose book Out of Darkness has been removed from shelves, to cofounder of the grassroots organization Florida Freedom to Read Project/parent activist Jen Cousins, founder of Girls Who Code Reshma Saujani, and student activists who have been out there doing the work to fight back against censors in their community.

Meehan calls those kids who have already stood up and spoken up "truly incredible."

"It takes so much courage for students," Meehan says. "It's just beyond impactful to see what the impact that students are having across the country, defending their schools and defending their own right to read. It's an honor to be able to observe and to work in partnership with [them]."

While following a case in Duval County, FL, where administrators canceled a high school's plan to perform the play Indecent, Meehan has gotten a chance to speak with student activists on the ground.

"They can articulate why this is a problem, they can articulate why books and art and plays are important for themselves and their learning," says Meehan, who also noted the students' ability to mobilize in the effort and be creative in presenting their perspective. "It's just been an incredible, incredible movement to watch."

The Freedom to Read Advocacy Institute will attempt to create more students who can follow that path, educating attendees while also offering practical advice on taking action and the ability to create their own advocacy resources.

The program will run Thursdays from February 2-23, 5 to 6:45 p.m. ET. The deadline to apply is Thursday, January 19. 

Read the full press release below.

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Kara Yorio

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

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