Free Expression Friday: Texas Freedom to Read Project (Laney Hawes)

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Laney Hawes is a Texas parent and a co-founder of the Texas Freedom to Read Project.

Philomena Polefrone, ABA: Can you tell me a little bit about the mission of the Texas Freedom to Read Project?

Laney Hawes, TFRP: I'm a parent. I'm a mom to four public education kids here in Texas. And my kids’ school boar was overtaken by special interests that came in, spent all this money, and pretty much bought seats on our school board. And one of the first things that they did was start banning books. They created a book banning rubric as soon as they were elected. So I got involved: I was at every school board meeting, and I went to Twitter, and I started sharing things that were happening. And once I got [online], I realized there were other parents in Texas who were up against not only the same issues. We were literally fighting the same organizations that were secretly funding our school boards. We started to realize that this effort to pull books off of shelves and out of libraries was coordinated and well-funded. It wasn't grassroots. It wasn't some local movement within our districts of “concerned parents.” This was very well planned, very well coordinated. 

I met two parents, one in the Austin area and one in the Houston area (I'm in Dallas-Fort Worth) who were ultimately doing the same thing I was, and we decided, hey, these groups are coordinating. We're fighting the exact same beast and we're watching it pop up all over Texas in different school districts, and we need to coordinate and have a place where we can all get together and discuss this. And we can help other parents in other school districts who are just starting this exact same fight. Because we have the tools, we have the resources, we know what it looks like. We know what all the arguments are. We know what books they're going to read from, we know exactly what words are going to come out of their mouths, and so there's no reason that the three of us shouldn't really create a place in Texas for all parents — and citizens, really — who want to gather to fight book banning. And that's how the Texas Freedom to Read Project came about. 

Now we are here in Texas, offering resources and support to Texans all over the state in every school district who are up against the same thing. We're teaching them how to do public information requests. We're teaching them how to speak at school board meetings. We're asking them, What do you need from us? What questions do you have? How can we help? 

Besides legal challenges to book ban legislation and local organizing against book challenges, what can people do to stop these bans from happening?

Stop electing these people who are writing these laws. You might have someone in New York or in California who's like, “I don't have to worry about this. I don't live in crazy Texas.” I got someone on Twitter saying, “We don't have to deal with this in Connecticut because we don't have the crazies here in Connecticut.” Or someone said to me on Twitter, “How do you keep electing these people?” Well, I didn't elect them, I'll tell you that. But I said, “I have a question. Did you vote in your last school board election?” And the person tweeted back at me and said, “Well, I didn't, but it's because I don't have to worry about it.” And I said, no, you do. Everyone does. We're seeing this in more progressive and liberal areas because so few people vote in school board elections, especially here in Texas where a lot of ours are in May. They're not in the fall with regular elections. Voter turnout is 10% or less. So all you need is the most extreme people in the community to vote and they're going to win your school board, because all of the plain old moderate middle ground aren't concerned. When they don't vote, and only extremist vote, you're going to get an extremist board. Lower voter turnout will always lead to elected officials that do not represent the actual community. So that's my advice: yes, organize, but organized in terms of educating people and getting them to vote in school board elections and local elections that oversee community library boards. 

How can Texans get involved in the Texas Freedom to Read Project, and how can non-Texans support you?

Texans, we’ll ask you just to join us. You can go sign up on our website or on X. We're on Instagram, we're on Threads, we're on Facebook. Sign up to volunteer, and you can join us for our regular phone calls where we train parents. Our goal right now is to get a parent or community member in every single school district in the state of Texas on our team. We already have a few thousand members, but we don't currently have one person from every single school district in the state. So please, join the organization, and we will ask you on an intake form which school district you live in. For those people who are outside of Texas, we actually really do appreciate the moral support. Sometimes it feels like we're alone here. So to know that other people even care is helpful. We could use amplification online. So if you're seeing a fight in Texas and you see ways you can help amplify that message, please, we would love that. We will take all the help we can get.

We could also use your donations. We are a gerrymandered state with so much money buying these elections. And it turns out when you're just a parent who isn't funded by anybody, and you're actually just trying to pay your own bills and raise your own children, it's hard to run for school board. It used to cost about $5,000 to run for school board in Texas. You're in your own little community, you buy some signs, you have a popsicle party, and you knock some doors. Four years ago, it cost about $5,000 to run. It is now over $100,000 to run for school board, an unpaid, volunteer position. I don't have $100,000 to give. I'm paying for soccer and car insurance for my teenage driving son who it turns out is very expensive to insure! I don't have $100,000 to run for school board and nor do other regular parents, because this money isn’t coming from regular parents. It's pouring in from around the country. 

Thank you so much for talking to me and thank you for everything you and your organization are doing in Texas.

Thank you, we really do appreciate it. And we are not going to stop fighting for our kids and for other kids [in Texas]. We are in this for the long haul. My kids’ rights really are being violated. I'm watching books be taken off of shelves all the time. We're not going to stop. And if all we can do right now is shine a light on it, then that's what we're going to do. We're going to make a record, and we're going to let people know what's happening here.