When the local school board pulled Pulitzer Prize winning novel “Maus” from classroom curriculum, a group of neighbors from McMinn County, Tennessee came together to confront the issue. On the latest episode of Everywhere Radio, we brought together those McMinn County residents to discuss book banning and how things are playing out in their community.
They talked about how the book ban in McMinn is indicative of a broader national trend, how their community is addressing it, and what they feel is truly at stake in this moment. The conversation was led by Whitney Kimball Coe, Coordinator of the Rural Assembly and Vice President of National Programs at the Center for Rural Strategies, and featured her McMinn County neighbors Stephen Dick, Austin Sauerbrei, Alex Sharp, Liv Cook, Cynthia McCowen, and Dr. Patricia Waters.
This discussion first aired live at Rural Assembly Everywhere, a virtual gathering of the Rural Assembly.
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Check out the episode excerpts below for highlights of the conversation, and continue on to the full transcript if you’d like to read it all.
On the Bigger Picture
Whitney Kimball Coe, Rural Assembly: “… book bans in general are rife across the country. Attempts at book bans from libraries and curriculums are on the rise. The American Library Association recently reported that more than 729 attempted bans of almost 1,600 individual books happened in 2021 alone. And yet most Americans we know are opposed to book bans. A recent national poll shows that 71% of voters oppose efforts to remove books from public libraries. And just today in our home state of Tennessee, a new poll from the Tennessee Democracy Forum shows that a majority of Tennesseeans, our neighbors, strongly oppose book banning. And this poll also shows that there was no distinction in that number between urban, suburban and rural folks.
“So this is not necessarily just a rural issue. This is an everywhere issue.”
Patricia Waters, former English Language Arts faculty: “The book banning phenomenon, if you will, is part of a, of a larger cultural response. And we saw, historically, the same response back in 1925 during the Scopes Trial, which was not just a response to Darwinian theory, but to books organized around the topic, that the textbook was Civics, Civic Biology, which incorporated Social Darwinism and Eugenics, but there was also objection to true Darwinian theory going on. What was going on in 1925? They were coming out of a pandemic. There were anxieties about white people in relationship to immigrants. That was during the great migration, so there was a huge racial component to what was going on.
“Whites were again worried. So we had new media. We had the radio. And so you had the rise also of the KKK. So this phenomenon that we’re witnessing now was also in some respects, had its historical antecedents. But the way we are now coming out of Covid, we have so many stressors that we’re not even really aware of yet, and that are manifesting themselves in social, psychological ways that we’re just coming to grips with. And you see it in our legislature at general assembly, and all these laws that are against, they’re against something. They’re not for improvement or betterment. They’re reactive. So we’re in a period of a great kind of intellectual and ethical retrenchment because of a feeling of being under assault. And it’s fear. Fear has been engendered by circumstance, but also by bad actors.”
On the Danger of Book Bans
Alex Sharp, Librarian, Tennessee Wesleyan University: “In an overarching way, I think it’s very dangerous. And there’s a reason why it’s dangerous, if we stop having a dialogue around controversial issues, especially in a safe and controlled environment, like a school, where we have curriculum that dictates what we talk about and how we approach issues and the processes in which we teach these situations like the Holocaust to our children. If we’re shutting down that dialogue, we’re not giving our children a space to become empathetic human beings and understand perspectives that are not their own.
“And when you look at our children who are in a rural space, a lot of them are very sheltered in a lot of ways, or, they’re not exposed to a lot of the things that are happening in the world that maybe more urban children would be exposed to. And we want them to be global citizens. We want them to understand that to be a responsible citizen. They have to understand all of the people who are part of their community.”
On Advocating for Change
Austin Sauerbrei, McMinn County Neighbors: “… the book banning issue is absolutely a hundred percent a red herring that has been developed over time by a very small group of people in our state to shift attention away from our crumbling public education infrastructure. And so I think it is a very insidious and dangerous red herring that a lot of people are grappling onto and we need to engage that.
“But I think the other big opportunity is to call it for what it is. And we have a lot of work to do here, to go outside the usual suspects and talk to people in our community, door knock, have conversations with people about these more fundamental issues in our schools, namely the lack of funding, the abysmal teacher pay, the lack of support staff, in many cases, actually, like buildings falling apart. And how do we get folks’ attention back on those issue? Cause those are the issues that folks in power don’t want us looking at.
“And I think the more we can say, this book banning issue is an intentional distraction from these issues and why, why do you care about X, Y, Z book when our, our teachers don’t even have the resources they need, the class sizes are huge. They don’t have the resources they need to even do basic teaching well. So I think there’s a huge opportunity to build on that while at the same time still confronting the real challenges that come with the book banning in particular.”
Commentary: Instead of Raging Over ‘Maus,’ Support Local People Who Are Fighting the Ban
Whitney Kimball Coe: Welcome to a special episode of Everywhere Radio. Everywhere Radio is a production of the Rural Assembly, and I’m your host, Whitney Kimball Coe. Each episode, I spotlight the good, scrappy and joyful ways rural people and their allies are building a more inclusive nation. So the Rural Assembly team is just coming off of an incredible two days of virtual programming that we call Rural Assembly Everywhere. It’s a virtual festival of beautiful and important conversations, performances, and keynotes for and about rural people.
And today I’m pleased to bring you one of my favorite moments from our festival. It’s a conversation I hosted with my real-life neighbors here in McMinn County, Tennessee, about our local school board’s recent decision to ban Art Spiegelman’s book, Maus, from the eighth-grade curriculum. We talk about the book ban in McMinn as indicative of a broader national trend. We talk about how we and our community are addressing it, and what we feel is truly at stake in this moment. I hope you enjoy this conversation with my beloved McMinn county neighbors, Dr. Patricia Waters, Olivia Cook, Austin Sauerbrei, Alex Sharp, Steven Dick and previous Everywhere Radio guest, Cynthia McCowan.
Hey everyone, Whitney Kimball Coe here again. I’m the director of the Rural Assembly and I’m also a daughter of McMinn County, Tennessee. And this afternoon, I’m really excited that today is my day to bring your friends to work. All around me, I’ve got a lot of my friends here around the Zoom table. These are members of a newly-formed group in my hometown called McMinn County Neighbors. We came together after our local county school board banned Art Spiegelman’s book, Maus, from our eighth grade curriculum, because, and I quote, this is the statement they made “because of its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide.” So for those of you who may not be familiar with Maus, it’s a graphic novel, it’s a memoir in two parts. I’ve got it sitting right here, telling the story of Art Spiegelman’s family’s experience of the Holocaust and it’s aftermath and the generational trauma that came from that.
So, this group is here today to give you a window into how our local community of McMinn county is processing this recent book ban. What has our response been? How are we pushing back? You know, what do we believe is at stake here? So we’re, we also know that book bans in general are rife across the country. Attempts at book bans from libraries and curriculums are on the rise. The American Library Association recently reported that more than 729 attempted bans of almost 1,600 individual books happened in 2021 alone. And yet most Americans we know are opposed to book bans. A recent national poll shows that 71% of voters oppose efforts to remove books from public libraries. And just today in our home state of Tennessee, a new poll from the Tennessee Democracy Forum shows that a majority of Tennesseeans, our neighbors, strongly oppose book banning. And this poll also shows that there was no distinction in that number between urban, suburban and rural folks.
So this is not necessarily just a rural issue. This is… this is an everywhere issue. And we thought it was important to be able to have a conversation today, at Everywhere, to address that, you know, book bans are happening and spoiler alert, all of us on this call, think that they’re wrong. So we’re here to talk about why we think so and what we’re working on doing about it in our own community.
So I’m going to let these folks introduce themselves as they speak, but I have just some really basic questions for you, my friends. I’m so glad you all are here at Rural Assembly Everywhere, at my work. It’s so good to have that. To show off your people to other people. It’s really fun. So I want to kick the ball to Liv Cook and get her to start us off.
I want to ask you Liv, why are book bans bad, and what upset you about the Maus book ban in McMinn County?
Liv Cook: I’ve been living in McMinn County since 2012. So for about 10 years now, and I am a local public school teacher. I teach special ed in one of our local elementary schools. I also am a children’s and youth minister at a local parish here in town. So I spend a lot of time working with kids, especially with kids kind of on the margin. So kind of, I’m by no means an expert on book banning, just a human concerned about the human condition. But book bans are bad because they deny us access to other stories. They deny us access to other thoughts, other people’s feelings, other world views, and it leads us on a slippery slope to fascism, that, I don’t mean that as like some kind of trigger, fancy word, but like, it really is.
This is like, a really authoritarian, heavy response and suppression. And that’s really terrible in a rural community where we already have a lack of access to these resources, right. You know, I grew up a self-proclaimed white trash trailer park kid, and living here in McMinn County for the last 10 years, having been educated here, there’s a lot of things that I didn’t get to experience that even my friends in like Knoxville or Chattanooga, one of those bigger cities got to experience. So I was particularly upset that was getting ripped away from kids. Kids who might not have access to stories first-hand talking to other Jewish people or talking to people about the effects of the Holocaust, who at home may not even know what the Holocaust is. So that was ripped away from them. As an educator, I found that disturbing. I also found it disturbing because I think that the reasons that it was banned, this like violence, nudity, language, suicide, all these, all these topics are things that our kids are already experiencing.
You know, I can share countless stories of kids that I’ve talked to, who have walked in on parents overdosing. I worked with children who have been sex trafficked. I work with kids who’ve undergone severe abuse, just in our little area, and these stories in the right setting, the right care with the right wonderful teachers can be so powerful. And when we take away those resources, we’re not educating the whole child. We’re letting them just down this path where they think they’re alone. And I just think that by ripping it away from them, we’re not helping them. If anything, we’re hurting them and telling them that their stories are invalid. And that the stories of anyone who doesn’t match this is invalid. And then we just, we wind up perpetuating more fascism and more authoritarianism. And that’s, that’s no good for anybody.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Mm, thank you. Does anybody else want to weigh in on that question? Why do we think they’re bad?
Alex Sharp: I’m a librarian. I’m Alex Sharp. I’m an Information Services Librarian and Academic Librarian at the local university here, Tennessee Wesleyan. And for me as a librarian, we have core values that are very important to us. And we believe are rights that people have. We have a library Bill of Rights that says that, as Americans, it really is international people, that we have a right to intellectual freedom. So we have a right to read the things we want to read. And that also applies to children. Now, I’m not saying that if something is inappropriate and a parent disagrees that they shouldn’t have any sway over what their child reads, but in an overarching way, I think it’s very dangerous. And there’s a reason why it’s dangerous, if we stop having a dialogue around controversial issues, especially in a safe and controlled environment, like a school, where we have curriculum that dictates what we talk about and how we approach issues and the processes in which we teach these situations like the Holocaust to our children.
If we’re shutting down that dialogue, we’re not giving our children a space to become empathetic human beings and understand perspectives that are not their own. And when you look at our children who are in a rural space, a lot of them are very sheltered in a lot of ways, or, they’re not exposed to a lot of the things that are happening in the world that maybe more urban children would be exposed to. And we want them to be global citizens. We want them to understand that to be a responsible citizen. They have to understand all of the people who are part of their community. And that brings it back to what Liz was saying about our students and our children who have been abused or who go home hungry or whatever that looks like. If we can’t have conversations about those of us who are going through something that is not the norm, then how do we teach our kids how to have conversations with each other about these important issues.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Alex Sharp: Or how to understand things like how a Holocaust happens. And with Maus in particular, I have a 13 year old who would be in eighth grade. She’s going to be in eighth grade next year. And I know that as a person, who’s read Maus, I would definitely appreciate her reading that book because there’s several reasons. Not only is it a Pulitzer prize winning graphic novel, the first ever actually, but it personifies the characters of the Holocaust as animals, which has been proven, has been studied and has proven that it actually builds empathy in children. So we’re actually taking away an opportunity to build a more empathetic child and a more holistic child, one who understands things that are outside of just historical facts, right? The number of Jews that died like, yes, that’s important information, but it’s not really the most important lesson you should learn from learning about the Holocaust.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Yeah.
Alex Sharp: Right. But Maus teaches us that.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Yeah. Cynthia, Pat, you both wanted to weigh in here. Cynthia?
Cynthia Webb McCowan: I have a short thing, just a little story. I listened to Liv, I listened to Alex and it made me remember something that just happened recently. When you talk about abused children and how we limit their learning when we ban books and their exposure, their empathy, their sympathy, actually just even their understanding, and you want them to be global citizens. We have yet to be local citizens or regional citizens or national citizens because I kept a child, a last minute thing, didn’t have any place to go, a transgender child that needed a safe space, and someone came to me, “I need, can you take this child for four days?”
And the person knows, I don’t like company. I am, my home is my sanctuary. I stay by myself a lot, but I’m learning to be more hospitable. So I’m like, I offered to take the child in because I knew that’s what they were leading to. That the child is a teenager. A man that’s 16 years old, I was trying to find things for him to do. And we went shopping, had never been to Ingles, was excited about going to Ingles.
Whitney Kimball Coe: That’s her grocery store. Yeah.
Cynthia Webb McCowan: And that’s a grocery store. So we were in the grocery store going into the grocery store, and she asked me about all the books on my shelf. And she noted that, I think those, and I think those were black books because most of the authors that she picked up were black. But my repertoire is, I mean, it’s diverse. So she asked me a question that at 17 years old shocked me.
She said, “Miss Cynthia, what do I call you? Is colored right?” It’s 2022, and she did not know that was probably inappropriate.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Cynthia Webb McCowan: And I had to stop before we went through the sliding doors and back up and say it. And I explained to her about those derogatory terms. She had no idea. She has not been exposed to anything other than negative things in her home about diversity, no books. She was amazed at the books we have here about diversity. And she stayed downstairs in my basement and read.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Cynthia Webb McCowan: And that made me happy, but it also made me sad. So yes, banning books is just absolutely not beneficial in any way.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Thank you, Cynthia.
Alex Sharp: I had a very similar…
Whitney Kimball Coe: Cynthia, really quick, really quickly, Alex, I just want to make sure everybody knows that Cynthia is a, would you like to introduce yourself real quick?
Cynthia Webb McCowan: Oh, I am Cynthia Webb McCowan and I am a Community Progress Advocate.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yes, you are. And before we jump, Alex, I want to hear from Pat and then we’ll circle back to other stories.
Patricia Waters: Hello, I’m Patricia Waters. I’m a former faculty person who taught secondary English Language Arts, Secondary Education Certification. I just want to come back to something really pragmatic. And that is, people who do not, are not in the habit of reading and reading fiction or outside their normal, whatever it is they consume, attribute a lot of times, a cult power to books, a power that is hidden because they don’t really understand it. And they think when you read, the ideation translates into action. Every ninth grader in the United States for the last 40 years has read Romeo and Juliet. None of them engages in gang warfare, early marriage or double suicide because of Romeo and Juliet.
It is just something they do in class. And it may open them to the world of poetry, that they may see a ballet. It doesn’t matter. It’s what they do in a classroom. It doesn’t go outside and translate into action.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Well, that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about that. So I wanted to pick up on something that Cynthia said about we have not become well, wait a minute, let me back up for a moment. And just say that, Tennessee is in, at this moment, passing legislation that bans books from libraries, from curriculum and gives power to make determinations about curriculum, takes it from the teachers and the curriculum specialists within our schools and places it in really inappropriate places. So we’ve got, we’re dealing with state legislation, but we’re also dealing with figuring out how to stay in a relationship and talk through this with our local friends and community members and come to some sort of common purpose about what we will believe in around public education.
So I want to kick it over to Austin for a moment and ask this question about McMinn County Neighbors, this little button we’re all wearing, like what is McMinn County Neighbors? Why did, why do you think we formed, Austin? And, sort of what have we been doing to draw closer to our local community, do you think?
Austin Sauerbrei: Thanks, Whitney, really appreciating this conversation a lot. My name’s Austin Sauerbrei. I’m a McMinn County resident, and I’m also, my day job, the Director of an organization called Statewide Organizing for Community Empowerment, which we work for a 50-year-old organization that’s been doing civic engagement around the state, mostly in rural communities for a very long time.
But I think, McMinn County Neighbors, the sort of formation of this group, I think the real impetus for it, was this belief that if we’re going to get deeply rooted, lasting change, that happens when impacted people can find some sort of common self-interest together and then do the long haul, hard work of turning those common sets of shared interests into collective action. And this is very much in contrast to this notion, this very individualistic notion, that the way we make change is through backroom deals with politicians or yelling and screaming on your own at a city council meeting, or going off on your own and starting some Facebook thread airing your grievances. Typically, that’s not the way that lasting change happens.
And so I think that’s the fundamental idea. That if we’re going to make change in a deeply rooted way that actually heals and is constructive, we got to get people together, talking with each other and then actually forming goals and identifying tactics to move towards our goals together. And so I think those sorts of, that sort of community organizing framework, that can occur and that can happen through many different avenues. But I think oftentimes what occurs is there’s some moment in a given community that sort of helps galvanize people and where there is all of a sudden this sort of emerging common issue, and I think that’s what happened with the Maus book ban. I think, and we’ll get to this in a little while, but the vote, this vote happened about banning this book very much in an isolated way with no community input, with no real conversation.
It was a very small handful of people that, sort of, who were supposed to be in roles of listening to teachers, listening to education professionals, and instead of going through the existing process and policies to make decisions in an effective way, they just one night decided they were going to ban this book from a curriculum. And then a month later, we find out via national news outlets that this happened.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Found out on Twitter, Neil Gaiman.
Austin Sauerbrei: That’s right.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Yeah, tweeted it.
Austin Sauerbrei: So at that point there was this galvanizing moment where I think there was a lot of people coming out of the wood work that were either, I think like most of us saw it and were sort of very much taken aback by it, and some people were like, oh, we just didn’t, we didn’t know this happened. They may not have a strong opinion one way or another, but they’re, they were just like, what? We didn’t know that this was taking place. And we didn’t know that this is how decisions happened. So I think that was a galvanizing point to bring folks together.
And so I think in terms of what started coming out of that, an initial group got together. It was a fairly sizable group to begin with. And I think the first goal was just having some responses to all this national attention, most of it painting McMinn County writ large as these backwards folks that are pro book banning, when in reality it was an extremely small group of folks making this decision on behalf of a larger group. So I think the immediate goal was to say, we need to, as McMinn County residents, through press outlets, on a local and national level, and speaking directly to our board members, we need to say that this is not in fact the will of the majority of McMinn County community members. So I think that was the initial goal. But I think out of that, sort of the fundamental questions that we sort of began to zone in on is really talking about how decisions are made. What is the school board’s role? Not just for this, this was like one particular instance, but how are decisions made?
And in what way is this, having this whole conversation about banning a book, how does that actually take away from a lot of the real needs that Liv, and others have highlighted, that our schools need funding. Our teachers need support staff. Our students need very tangible resources. And why in the world are we talking about pulling a book from the curriculum? That’s been part of the curriculum, been part of many other curriculums for a very long time, when we have very real challenges in front of us that are not being addressed.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Austin Sauerbrei: And so I think that the last, I think the biggest thing we ended up, one of the wins, we ended up holding a school board forum, where we were able to ask some of these questions directly to school board candidates. And I think through that, we made this issue around how do we follow policy? How do we actually review material? What are some of the real needs in our community? I think we helped bring that to the forefront in this election cycle, but I think bigger than all that, I think the hope moving forward is beyond this specific issue. How do we continue to build a group of people that are willing to engage and identify where we have common interests and actually build together ways that we engage our elected officials and engage each other to move forward in constructive ways.
Whitney Kimball Coe: I wonder if anyone wants to weigh in, specifically, on how we moved from the book ban itself to something more, something deeper, something that we felt was broader and more important. Pat and Cynthia, Pat first.
Patricia Waters: The book banning phenomenon, if you will, is part of a, of a larger cultural response. And we saw, historically, the same response back in 1925 during the Scopes Trial, which was not just a response to Darwinian theory, but to books organized around the topic, that the textbook was Civics, Civic Biology, which incorporated Social Darwinism and Eugenics, but there was also objection to true Darwinian theory going on. What was going on in 1925? They were coming out of a pandemic. There were anxieties about white people in relationship to immigrants. That was during the great migration, so there was a huge racial component to what was going on.
Whites were again worried. So we had new media. We had the radio. And so you had the rise also of the KKK. So this phenomenon that we’re witnessing now was also in some respects, had its historical antecedents. But the way we are now coming out of Covid, we have so many stressors that we’re not even really aware of yet, and that are manifesting themselves in social, psychological ways that we’re just coming to grips with. And you see it in our legislature at general assembly, and all these laws that are against, they’re against something. They’re not for improvement or betterment. They’re reactive. So we’re in a period of a great kind of intellectual and ethical retrenchment because of a feeling of being under assault. And it’s fear. Fear has been engendered by circumstance, but also by bad actors. So that comes into play as well.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Mm, thanks. Cynthia, what are your thoughts about McMinn Neighbors, stepping up in this moment, in our community.
Cynthia Webb McCowan: What Austin said, I had to write that down, cause I need to remember that I can, you can get on your soapbox and do your social media stamping or whatever you want to do. And sometimes that’s good, that maybe provides an impetus, but the long-haul hard work, I think the reason that neighbors will do this work, continue to do this work and never give up this work, is that when this happened, the level of ignorance we experienced was frightening.
Austin Sauerbrei: Yeah.
Cynthia Webb McCowan: It was pure motivation right then. We have to do something because this is almost unbelievable. And if we just fuss about it and go sit down, it is going to get even worse. So I think that was part of the motivating force that Austin got, just watching him be so animated about it, it’s like, oh my gosh, is this really happening?
It’s not the kind of thing you just talk about and have your opinions. You have to do some long haul, which means you’re in it for the long haul. This is going to be ongoing work and it needs to be a snowball. And I think, with his leadership and the people that are on his team, Liv, Alex is a fireball, Steven and Patricia, you could not ask for a better team of people. Liv, the Burchfields, Whit, it’s a great team of people, to be part of this, to see it through. And it was because of how it was done and how shocking that was, that moved me to know, this cannot just be something we rave about and then be done with. You’ve got to do exactly what he said.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Yeah.
Cynthia Webb McCowan: And I think that’s why.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Yeah.
Picking up on your long haul note, I want to, because we don’t have, we’ve got limited time, but I want to make sure we get to a couple of these questions that we’re receiving from our chat. And first I want to ask Steven Dick, who’s with us, a question about the lessons we’re learning as we’re doing this work. And I know Austin has some thoughts about this too, and I know Liv does too, but what are some of the lessons we’re learning as we’re organizing and trying to build a base of people who are committed to a long-haul vision and purpose in our community?
Steven Dick: Well, I’m seeing that, I’m a former English and reading teacher, primarily had eighth graders, Athens Junior High.
I hope a lesson we can learn, if you’re wanting to gain power, I think you have to have a good understanding of who holds the power you’re trying to take. And in this case, I think the Maus issue, it’s not about Maus. I think the objection is insincere which… The GD word, we’re not in there, but I don’t think any of the people who voted to remove it from the curriculum were actually concerned that that word being said, one time, in a book, was a serious concern. The nakedness, the first time I read Maus, I didn’t even see it. The second time, I did. And then I had a friend who read it and he said, I didn’t see the nakedness. And I said, well, I’ll show it to you. I couldn’t find it. So I don’t, I think it is a demonstration of raw power and it’s not really about Maus at all.
I think if they were sincere, if the objection were really about Maus, they would have followed the policy.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Steven Dick: But a line we all heard from the lawyer when he said that the policy’s not here, the board is not here to serve the policy, the policy… Now I’ve got it back and forth.
Cynthia Webb McCowan: That’s it.
Whitney Kimball Coe: I think that was right, that’s it.
Steven Dick: Okay.
Patricia Waters: The policy is the…
Whitney Kimball Coe: The board is not here to serve the policy… The policy is not here to serve… We don’t follow our policies.
Patricia Waters: The board doesn’t have to mess with policy.
Whitney Kimball Coe: So basically, we don’t have to follow our policies with the school.
Steven Dick: Now, I think the reason we can’t read or write it, so we’re well in, it takes some concentration to get the idea behind this.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Yeah.
Steven Dick: But again, I think part of the motivation of the board is to say, we can do this. And if the board can do this, they can deny tenure to a teacher who said the wrong thing in the break room.
Cynthia Webb McCowan: Mm.
Steven Dick: So it’s not just about this book and, the word fascism, as it’s been used, so I’ll use another word, which I actually think, living in the South is more ominous and that is theocracy.
Cynthia Webb McCowan: Yeah.
Steven Dick: I really believe that Governor Lee, Mark Cochran or Senator Bell, they would be completely happy with the total unification of Church and State. And I think ultimately that is the driving force we’re up against. Now more positive lessons, we’ve had at least 10 people running for the school board, with alternative views, and that’s great, and that can be built on. Two of the incumbents lost in the primary. And I think it would be interesting for us all to figure out why? Why did an incumbent lose in the primary? What, what did his opposition say? What can we learn from that?
And another thing, and I’m asking people to consider doing something, I sort of can’t do myself. You know, I was basically raised Unitarian. I go to Episcopal church, so I am on the very fringes of Christianity. But I think for strategic tactical reasons, there need to be alternative Christian voices because the view of Christianity that wants to suppress Maus, that wants to suppress Walk Two Moons, that does not encompass all of Christianity. But when we live where we do, it’s that other voice, the voice of oppression that you hear much, much more.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Cynthia Webb McCowan: And don’t forget…
Patricia Waters: Shyest Little Seahorse in the Sea.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Mm yeah. Is that, is that banned?
Patricia Waters: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Whitney Kimball Coe: Liv, I want to ask you to expand some of the other byproducts that came from Maus, and from our organizing efforts. One of the questions from our audience right now is, did any new bridges get built with Jewish students and communities in the area or LGBTQ groups or what, do you remember some of the things that happened out the gate?
Liv Cook: Yeah. So I know that like in our community, we don’t have a very heavy Jewish population in our community. We’re right in that Protestant Christian, kind of Bible Belt. But something that was cool, is we, Jewish communities in Chattanooga, we were part of that discussion and very active in that. So that was a really cool kind of direct line. I know that I don’t personally have relationships with Jewish people, so it was really nice to kind of get outside my worldview a little bit and talk with them. I know that a local PFLAG community, the voices within that community have also showed up to the school board forum. We had a, an LGBTQ parent come to one of our McMinn County Neighbor meetings. I, myself am a queer person. And so, I think that we’ve seen a lot of intersection of gender, sexuality, race, religious views.
We’ve seen a lot of intersections, just a little bit in a county where everybody, where the loudest voices are white and straight and Christian.
Whitney Kimball Coe: I feel like we’ve busted some of our own, even some of our own internalized stereotypes.
Liv Cook: Yeah.
Whitney Kimball Coe: This experience has opened my eyes to how we can work together more intersectionally.
Liv Cook: Yeah. And it’s been beautiful. I care so much about this community, as backwards as it is sometimes, but we’ve, the way that I’ve seen people show up and show out, Cynthia was part of this great organization of black voices at the art center and these beautiful conversations, and I’m just, I’m really proud of where we’re going. We’ve got a lot of work to do. A lot of work, but I’m really proud of where we’re going.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Yeah.
Liv Cook: And the way people have showed up here, it’s been fantastic.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Me too. Alex, did you want to jump in?
Alex Sharp: I just wanted to say, the majority of these bans that are happening are, most of them revolve around LGBTQ materials. And I think it’s probably just a matter of time before we see that happening in our community. And we do have a PFLAG group that’s pretty active, of mostly queer people who are part of it, some allies, but a lot of queer people who are part of it. And I think that a lot of what has happened with this ban, I was already pretty engaged with my community, and I didn’t realize how much we needed to be there for those groups of people. I am queer myself as well but don’t, I’m not super active with PFLAG. I go some, when I can, but I realized how much I needed to reach out to these people in our community who don’t always have the protection that, white, straight people who go to church do.
And it kind of opened up my eyes. I knew a lot about book banning. I’m a librarian. Like we have a whole banned books week that we celebrate and talk about banned books. And I knew that the majority of those materials are surrounded around LGBTQ people, but it’s about erasure, right? It’s about erasing an identity that threatens and the Other, I think somebody else mentioned the Other, and that is such a driving force in our community, is this fear of the Other, whatever that means. And I think that McMinn County Neighbors is really going to play a role in ensuring that this doesn’t happen again. That they know there’s a voice, that there are people who say, we don’t agree with this. If you start this, we’re going to fight back. And I think that’s going to make them more reserved when it comes to the next time they want to do something like this and not follow their policy or whatever.
It probably will be around something that involves LGBT, just from statistics. We see the majority of bans around those materials. And so it makes me realize, like we have to stand up and we have to be loud because we’re playing a really important role in our community right now, being nonpartisan, not being connected to politicals, not being connected to a church, just saying, we are a group of people who don’t think this is right, and we’re going to hold you accountable and we need transparency. And I think that’s so important in so many communities, especially those of us in Tennessee who are dealing with this really terrifying amount of legislation. That’s, some of it’s specific to LGBTQ people, and it worries me that we’re going to see that happening in our community, as well, that it’s coming.
Whitney Kimball Coe: We have like two minutes. So I want to give, Pat, if you have something, and then I want to give Austin the last word.
Patricia Waters: The secondary target for banned books has to do with anything to do with race. We’ve seen the Ruby Bridges books being called divisive. We’ve seen books about Dr. Martin Luther King being called divisive or promoting CRT, which they know nothing about. So it’s a double front, but it also, we’re at a moment where autonomy is being removed from local school boards. The latest legislation coming out of the general assembly has been demolishing the autonomy of local school boards to make decisions, local librarians, a book challenge can come from anywhere in the state and affect an entire state ban.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Yeah. Yeah.
Austin Sauerbrei: And I just, I think one of the things that I’ve observed, in sort of, learning, thinking about moving forward, I think, as it’s already been acknowledged by a number of folks on this call, is the book banning issue is absolutely a hundred percent a red herring.
Patricia Waters: Yeah.
Austin Sauerbrei: That has been developed over time by a very small group of people in our state.
Patricia Waters: Yeah.
Austin Sauerbrei: To shift attention away from our crumbling public education infrastructure. And so I think it is a very insidious and dangerous red herring that a lot of people are grappling onto and we need to engage that. But I think the other big opportunity is to call it for what it is. And we have a lot of work to do here, to go outside the usual suspects and talk to people in our community, door knock, have conversations with people about these more fundamental issues in our schools, namely the lack of funding, the abysmal teacher pay, the lack of support staff, in many cases, actually, like buildings falling apart. And how do we get folks’ attention back on those issue? Cause those are the issues that folks in power don’t want us looking at.
And I think the more we can say, this book banning issue is an intentional distraction from these issues and why, why do you care about X, Y, Z book when our, our teachers don’t even have the resources they need, the class sizes are huge. They don’t have the resources they need to even do basic teaching well.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Austin Sauerbrei: And so I think there’s a huge opportunity to build on that while at the same time still confronting the real challenges that come with the book banning in particular.
Whitney Kimball Coe: Yeah, yeah. Oh, thank you so much. Y’all, we’re on it. We’re clawing our way, and it’s going to be, we’re working on it. And we’re building a base of friends and neighbors here locally, and I’m feeling, I’m feeling so hopeful and I’m so grateful to you all for showing up today. So thank you for saying yes to this conversation.
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