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Youth Advocates in Georgia Speak Out Against Classroom Censorship Bill

Updated: May 13

On March 28, high schoolers across Georgia traveled to the state’s capitol to speak out against House Bill 1084, a bill that bans the teaching of “divisive concepts” defined as race and racism. Although they were set to testify, the Senate Education Committee silenced their voices. Vocal Justice’s Special Projects Intern Kassie Colón helped to organize this trip in their role as Deep Center’s Action Research Team (ART) Coordinator. Kassie and a few of the youth organizers shared their reflections on this experience.




“Students are at the forefront of the advocacy movement; they are their own organizers and demonstrators.”


Harrison Tran, 14 years old, Savannah, GA


I came to the Capitol with Deep Center’s Action Research Team (ART) to address various education-related bills that affect students across Georgia, but more specifically, House Bill 1084—the bill that bans the teachings of “divisive concepts.” These bills directly affect all students, so we should have a say in them.


Typically, bills that go through committee are open to public comment and testimony— where constituents give their piece. When in committee at the Senate Youth and Education hearing, Senator and Committee Chairman Chuck Payne let Will Wade, the writer of the bill, speak for so long that he ran out the clock and then closed the hearing to public comment, saying “We don't have time for that, we're going to have to move on.” He read out the names that were listed on the sign up sheet and told us to stand: 12 opposed, 2 for. Making us stand was his way of recognizing us. We still weren’t allowed to speak.


I felt stripped of the individual rights that America had always promised me in the Constitution. The first amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” I was angry, frustrated, confused, all of the above. It didn’t make sense for us to be silenced, so why were we? My fellow ART members told me they were scared because of how stern and stone-faced I looked.


Finally being given a voice at the press conference that followed the day after was the most joyous part of the three-day trip. I might have been nervous, but it felt rejuvenating to speak and finally be given a forum to do so.


What happened at the Capitol will definitely not deter me from future advocacy work as it was merely a minor obstacle. Being silent in a world where people are constantly trying to put you down will get you nowhere. The one big thing I got from all of this is that advocacy works better in numbers. Had I gone to the Capitol alone doing individual advocacy work, I would’ve been a train wreck. Being with ART helped me be more confident in how I conduct myself and spread my message as they were my support crutches throughout all of this.


I want to thank Kassie Colón, Megan Ave'Lallemant, Mel Kutner, and Coco Papy for their immense support through this entire experience. I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this without them. The energy they put into the causes we believe in gives me hope. To fellow ART members: your bravery and ability to power through those two days are amazingly admirable. You hold yourself with so much respect and dignity that keeps me in awe every day. You inspire me everyday to keep pushing.


***



When we bring our voices, powers, and our enthusiasm together and use it collectively, there is truly no limit to the things we can accomplish.”


James Wilson, 19 years old, Atlanta, GA


I went to the capital to testify against HB 1084, a classroom censorship bill. I have the time and access due to my University’s proximity to the capitol. I attend Georgia State University in Downtown Atlanta. I sat through the whole committee hearing with a group of other students and advocates in the hope of testifying against the bill.


Once the hearing was underway, the committee chairman moved the discussion of HB 1084 to the end of the meeting specifically so that there could be longer discussion. When we came to a discussion of the bill, the bill sponsor spoke to the bill in detail and was questioned for a somewhat lengthy period of time. Once it came time for public comment, the chair informed us that there was not enough time for testimony. He was confronted on this by a number of people in the room, all of whom gave their time to be there to speak on that bill specifically. He tried to put a band-aid on it, and asked all those opposed to the bill to stand and be recognized, and all those who supported the bill to stand and be recognized. After that, the chair tried to continue the meeting as normal.


I felt discouraged. This isn't the first time it's happened to me but this time I wasn't alone. I was in a room lined with students, some older and some younger than me. The sheer disrespect our legislators showed us was so disappointing to see. I lost a lot of the confidence that I had in our state government and the people who are a part of it. I felt like an outcast. It was clear to me then that the system truly is built to shelter and comfort some and to shun and disregard others. I think many of us felt powerless after the initial committee hearing. No person should ever feel powerless for any reason whatsoever.


From this whole experience, I really learned that a voice is powerful, but VOICES make the difference. There is power in one, we all have and hold power; sometimes more than we know. When we bring our voices, powers, and our enthusiasm together and use it collectively, there is truly no limit to the things we can accomplish. My voice alone will never be enough to bring about real change, but standing alongside the outstanding and determined students of the DEEP Center and my peers, I saw that our collective power is just too much to be ignored or downplayed.


The next day, Senator Parent and Representative Nguyen hosted a press conference with us. We all shared the testimonies some of our legislators tried to shut out. Hearing students speak so eloquently and fiercely in defense of their education was a moment I won't soon forget.


This experience will always be a reminder for me to never try to go it alone. One person isn't enough, sometimes even two aren't enough. Teamwork really and truly does make the dream work. The more voices, the more experiences, the power you have.


I especially want to thank the staff of the DEEP Center, the support they provided all of us students was extraordinary! I’d also like to thank the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition, the resources and support they’ve provided to help students testify in committee is incredible!


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