Free Expression Friday: Annie's Foundation, Iowa

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Sarah Hayden Parris is the Founder and President of Annie's Foundation, which fights for the right to read in Iowa. She spoke to ABFE about Iowa SF 496, Annie's Foundation's focal points for 2024, and how you can get involved.

What made you start Annie’s Foundation when you did? 

Several parents in Johnston started to pay attention when The Hate U Give and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian were challenged in our school district. We soon learned about Moms For Liberty and the other organizations that are responsible for the vast majority of book bans in schools across the country and felt that we had to do something to fight back. When our friend Ann Lohry Smith, a passionate defender of the freedom to read, passed away unexpectedly in June of 2022 we were inspired to start the foundation in her memory. Now there are over 4,500 banned and challenged books being enjoyed by Iowans across the state as part of her legacy.

Iowa Senate File 496 has been all over the news since the preliminary injunction and subsequent appeal by the state. How have you seen school boards respond to SF 496 since it was passed? 

Every school district took a different approach to SF 496. Des Moines Public Schools, for example, took the approach that all of their materials were age-appropriate and therefore nothing needed to be removed. Other school districts, like Urbandale and Nevada, took an overly broad approach and removed anything with even mild sexual content, regardless of age or intended audience, as well as anything that made reference to being something other than cisgender or straight.

Following the injunction, are you seeing school boards undo the damage that was done to their policies and collections? Or are they proceeding as though the law is active? 

With the injunction, we are aware of some districts quietly returning books to their shelves. Others aren't volunteering any information. Annie's Foundation is currently exploring ways to document how districts are handling the books that were removed now that the law has been enjoined.

What are some of Annie’s Foundation’s main points of focus going into 2024? 

We are, of course, focusing on SF 496 and will be watching for news as it progresses through the court system. This year we'll also be focusing on securing some longer-term funding so that we can keep up with the demand for our services and advocacy. Finally, we will be starting a grants program to help community organizations procure diverse books with characters that look like the people they serve, because everyone deserves to see themselves reflected in the books they read.

How can our readers get involved and help Annie’s Foundation defend the right to read in Iowa? 

First, follow us on social media and subscribe to our weekly newsletter to stay current on our giveaway events, projects, and volunteer needs. We're hoping to expand our volunteer opportunities this spring, so please stay tuned! Second, we appreciate donations, and you can make a donation from our website. We can get books at fantastic prices, so every little bit helps! Finally, talk to your friends and family about book bans. It's shocking how many people are completely unaware of what is going on. If you can, bring people to one of our events--seeing the books that are being removed from schools in person can be very impactful, particularly when it's a favorite book. We need more people to stand up for the freedom to read and to show the book banners they are in the minority!