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When we ban books from Texas schools, what does that say about us?

This is an excerpt from the Houston Chronicle’s HouWeAre newsletter on race, culture and identity. You can register here.

I met Cameron Samuels on a blustery 40 degree Saturday last week, shivering under the Willow Fork Park pavilion in Katy.

The 18-year-old had just completed the student organizers’ third book of the week, which included titles such as Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ and Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’, award-winning works that address the LGBTQ experience. + and race and who have also drawn attention under a seemingly relentless wave of censorship efforts that have taken root in schools across Texas and beyond.

The series of book giveaways continued this week and, according to Samuels, drew more than 200 students at five Katy ISD high schools.

In a review published last year by the American Library Association, more than 273 titles were challenged or banned in 2020, with growing demands to remove books that deal with racism and racial justice or those who share the stories of black, aboriginal or people of color. — and books with LGBTQ+ content topped the list.

The past few months have been a whirlwind for Samuels, a senior at Seven Lakes High School who is the lead organizer of a teenage activist group opposing Katy ISD’s decision to remove some library books and a block. Continued certain LGBTQIA websites and resources, such as The Trevor Project, to be accessible via the Internet on campus.

Samuels is the once reluctant but relentless backbone of Katy ISD organizers; as someone who struggles with social anxiety and communication skills, they would often be reluctant to speak in public and interact. But they found a way to channel those challenges and pour them into advocacy against injustice.

“I always knew that I was definitely different and had no interest in fitting in,” Samuels said. “But my social anxiety and lack of communication skills created challenges in how people saw me, which in turn affected my mental health. So to be where I am today is even surprising. for me, because I don’t think I could do this even two years ago.”

Samuels credits the support of their parents, acknowledging that while the process hasn’t been easy, the journey has been empowering. In the past, their social challenges prevented them from effectively collaborating and organizing initiatives with others. But Samuels says their turning point came last year amid a particularly brutal legislative session that culminated in what they saw as an assault on marginalized young people – especially gay students like them.

In the face of a system seen as increasingly oppressive and discriminatory, Samuels was weaving her own narrative of empowerment while overcoming barriers to socialization and social injustice.

“It started to make more sense to me,” they said, “because I’ve always protected others who are victims of injustice and my brain is wired to resolve conflict and seek solutions. I wanted to stand up for myself and others who may not have been comfortable or felt equipped to stand up for themselves.”

Leadership skills that once seemed so incongruous have become a natural fit, honed by piercing and unequivocal advocacy that has driven a movement in Katy’s high schools that Carolyn Foote, an Austin-based library consultant, calls one of early examples from Texas. students are organizing to fight against censorship.

Samuels’ efforts have garnered national attention (“surreal”, even if uncomfortable for them at times); they and other organizers have been tracked by CBS and the BBC for a planned documentary series, and it’s not uncommon to see media crews hovering while dozens of teenagers – so often described as unmotivated and disengaged – unbox hundreds of books and share their stories at packed board meetings.

So what’s next for Samuels amid an ongoing fight and impending graduation?

“I want to finish my high school year strong in the pursuit of a better community and make it sustainable. I hope other students in Texas can see what we’ve done and pick up where we left off to support intellectual freedom in their own communities.

“I want to leave a legacy of compassion and empower students to not be afraid to stand up for themselves.”

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