Published on April 12th, 2024 | by Laura Pappano


‘School Moms’ Fight Back Against Book Bans: Laura Pappano Talks to Mom-Activist Kate Nazemi

Reporting for my book School Moms: Parent Activism, Partisan Politics, and the Battle for Public Education not only brought me to hot spots where school board meetings felt like rowdy sporting events and sober-mannered librarians faced attacks. But it also, as I traveled around the country—Texas, Tennessee, Florida, New Hampshire, Eastern Pennsylvania—forced me to revisit with fresh eyes the role that moms play in school communities.

Certainly, I knew the terrain. I have been a journalist covering education for over 30 years. And I have been a mom of school-aged children, lunch-packing and all. I have been a Parent Teacher Organization member and school volunteer (I helped organize a science fair in which my face got covered in sheep lung mucus to the delight of a group of fourth graders.) I have coached YMCA soccer, T-Ball, and basketball. I know that we do not operate in narrow lanes, but in communities.

Yet, when my children were young (my baby recently graduated from college) I never worried about what the school board candidates seeking office in my district were up to. I did not consider what books were on library shelves, what was taught in class or what hung on the walls. I watched a kindergarten teacher turn a classroom into a model rainforest and another turn a book about a porcupine into a family adventure. Did teachers make mistakes? Of course. My daughter’s third grade teacher misspelled the spelling words students were quizzed on. (Tough for a kid who turned out to be dyslexic).

Today, schools are red alert zones. Far-right attacks on books, curriculum, teachers, and librarians under the guise of asserting “parental rights” have changed the school experience for children—and with it, the task for moms. After all, it is mostly moms who are organizing and pushing back, challenging misinformation, advocating for teachers, librarians, and fighting for the very existence of public schools.

The battle has been bitter and divisive, including in Central Bucks School District in Pennsylvania. A far-right school board in 2022 passed policies that restricted books, banned pride flags, and led administrators at Central Bucks West High School to implement a controversial “gender identification policy” barring teachers from using a students’ preferred pronoun if it differed from what was in the school’s database.

Here, and elsewhere, books with LGBTQ+ characters are often a target of book bans. In Central Bucks, where scores of books have been challenged in recent years, two titles—This Book is Gay, by Juno Dawson, and Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe—were removed immediately last May. Around the country, classics like The Diary of Anne Frank, Maus and The Bluest Eye have been widely banned. In one Florida district in January, a member of Moms for Liberty who claimed some pictures in books were “harmful to minors” successfully pressed to have clothing drawn to cover the naked Mickey in Maurice Sendak’s In The Night Kitchen, to cover a naked behind in No David! and a goblin’s backside in Unicorns are the Worst.

Yet, in November, after nearly two years of organizing and grassroots work in Central Bucks, Moms for Liberty candidates were defeated (two more resigned in February). Around the country, this—along with some other notable defeats—was taken as a sign that the battle against extremism and Moms for Liberty was won.

For Kate Nazemi, co-founder of Advocates for Inclusive Education, which worked with other groups to “flip” the board back from a far-right majority, that victory is neither permanent nor simple.

Kate Nazemi at a Doylestown books

Laura Pappano:  After your success in Central Bucks many around the country declared Moms for Liberty vanquished. Is this over now?

Kate Namezi: No, no, not at all, because that’s the mistake that most movements make, which is, “Oh, we won it! It’s time to back off.” But that is precisely the time when the resistance digs in, makes their plan for how they’re going to flip it back in 2025. So, we’re not making that mistake.

LP: When we first sat down in Fall of 2022, you had just launched Advocates for Inclusive Education with Katherine Semisch, a retired high school English teacher. You now have been in this battle a bit. What have you learned? What is your recipe?

KN: What we saw in Central Bucks was a movement led by many different small clusters of women working in many different ways. There were a wide range of people with different political backgrounds. You had teachers and librarians. You had students. Advocates for Inclusive Education, it’s just the two of us doing it, but we’re full time and we work beautifully together. It matters having a strong partner who has the time you need to have—and you obviously have to have a real passion for what you’re doing.

The thing I did early on which really helped was that I just networked. I had terrific luck talking with the ACLU and the Education Law Center about the anti-education policies our district was passing. I asked these legal orgs to analyze the policies and share their concerns with us. So, it wasn’t just me calling it out, it was like, “These attorneys are saying the policies likely violate civil and first amendment rights.” So, getting professional analysis and support was crucial. I would let them know “I’m going to school board meeting, could you tweet about your concerns with the library policy, ACLU?” This way our board and community would know the potential legal implications. Then you go back and talk to teachers and librarians and ask for their input. Then it just takes people talking about it for it to catch fire.

Laura (l) and Kate (r) at Doylestown books (find it on C-span!)

LP: I hear from mom groups around the country that it’s hard to counter the inflammatory misinformation, like that there is pornography in school libraries, that teachers are “indoctrinating” children with Marxist ideologies or trying to get them to change genders. Why is this? What have you found that works?

There is an appeal to collective grievance. Universally speaking, everyone is dealing with a tremendously rapid pace of change. And so, what I think the left progressive movement fails to do is to provide a compelling narrative around what things could look like or where we’re going. So, you have this void, and you have this vacuum, and you’ve got the right which is pretty good at appealing to emotion and getting people rallied around a message. They’re winning in that people don’t care about the facts of an election, that doesn’t matter because they’re getting this promise that their life’s gonna go back to being what it used to be, or what their parents’ life was. That moves people into a space of, of not having to have the truth, you know?

So, for us the high-level takeaway is that vision is huge. You have to have this combined, “Here’s what we want. Here’s that delicious goal. And here’s the problem.” And then, “Here’s how we’re going to collectively move together so we can achieve that top goal.”

School moms do craftivism!

LP: So rather than repeat inflammatory claims, you focus on a common agreement?

KN: So, we look for tested messaging; we’re not reinventing the wheel. So, it’s an inclusive, “All kids deserve…” whatever, like “to read books with characters that look like them or their friends, but that there is a small group”—these are key terms you use, you diminish your resistance you call them ‘small’— “but we have a small group promoting fear. But we know that when we come together, we’re greater than the fear and that united we will fight for everyone’s right to choose what books appeal to them and speak to them.”

LP: These battles have created real division in communities, including Central Bucks. Advocates for Inclusive Education has organized events like ice cream socials, candle-making and a book club to bring people together. How has this worked?

KN: What we’re finding, especially with the candle making party is that we’re doing this handwork with people who, you know, go to the school board meetings and are at very angry with each other. Yet they’re here, and we’re making candles together. And the room is kind of softening. And people start to chat. At first, it’s sort of like, easy sort of topical stuff. But then people, they go right into it. Yet it goes back to silly childhood things that people love. I can’t tell you how many people came up to us after we just rolled candles with wax, and they were like, “This was amazing. It felt really good. It was easy for me to talk to so and so because I was making something, and we found this common ground.” You’re seeing the other person as human. And Kitty and I are both very motherly and nurturing. So, we had baked cookies and we had brought hot chocolate and set the lights kind of low, and I lit candles. It was just very warm, welcoming. 

And we have a book club. We pick books that have been frequently challenged or banned. And it’s like an offering. We send people home with cookies. We have some folks on the deeply conservative side say how much they appreciated us including them. Folks on the progressive side, some of them find it hard to be there.

LP: So, what does this do?

KN: You break down teams, is the way I see it. The pessimists see it as, “Well, you’re never going to change their mind.” And I’m like, “Well, that’s not really what I’m thinking I’m doing.” I’m just trying to get us into a room and have a conversation. Like, let’s just start there. Ultimately, I think most people at their core believe that we all have the right to be who we say we are.

Getting people around the table

Read more about this struggle and ways parents can unite their schools against censorship in School Moms: Parent Activism, Partisan Politics, and the Battle for Public Education

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

About the Author

Laura Pappano is a journalist, author and youth journalism mentor who has written about K-12 and higher education for over 30 years. She has been a regular contributor to The New York Times and The Hechinger Report. Her stories have also appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, Vanity Fair, Slate, The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, The Christian Science Monitor and other publications. She founded and runs The New Haven Student Journalism Project at Yale and is author of School Moms: Parent Activism, Partisan Politics and the Battle for Public Education, and three previous books.

Leave a Reply

Any comments left on this article will be sent directly to its author. We do not at this time publicly display comments. (If you want to write a public post about this article, we encourage you to do so on social media). We love comments, feedback and critique but mean or snarky comments will not be shared and will be deleted.  

Your email address will not be published.

Back to Top ↑
  • Subscribe to Mutha

    Enter your email address to subscribe to MUTHA and receive notifications of new articles by email.

    Email Frequency