Books Bans, School Boards, and Burnout: An Interview with Shivi Mehta
“Nobody should be erased from literature, and that’s what banning books does.”
This was a quote from our recent panel “this season: banned books” by Shivi Mehta, a student advocate and organizer in Georgia. Shivi attends school in Forsyth County, the only district in the state of Georgia with a book ban. Intimidated by parents in the community and cowed by the threat of losing upcoming elections, the school board banned eight different books from County schools, particularly those written by BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ authors.
In response, Shivi and her fellow students began a campaign to demand that the school board reverse these bans: they met with board members, testified at every board meeting that they could, and began social media campaigns to encourage others to join them.
All of this came at a personal cost for Shivi, who has since faced harassment, cyberbullying, and even doxxing as a result of her advocacy. Not one to be intimidated, however, Shivi continues to advocate around many issues in education justice, including banned books and anti-racist education in schools.
On September 2, our digital content director & blog editor Emma Buchman sat down with Shivi to learn more about her organizing and get to know the person behind the advocacy.
Emma Buchman (Digital Content Director & Blog Editor, MO Foundation):
Thank you so much again for meeting with me… tell us a little bit about you. Who are you beyond your advocacy?
Shivi Mehta (Student advocate and organizer):
I am a full-time student, I’m a sophomore in high school. I attend school in Forsyth County, I live in Forsyth County. A huge hobby that takes up a lot of time, for me at least, is my house plants and my gardening. I have… over 35 now? I know it’s more than 35… and they take up a large chunk of my time, and I’m very happy that they do because… I don’t know, I just really love them!
Aside [from] that, I really love science. Science is my favorite subject, huge fan of it. I wanna do something in the medical field later, when I grow up. And obviously I still wanna keep with organizing because, honestly, this work fulfills me so much; but I wanna do something in the medical field too. I wanna make both work, I really wanna do both. I know it’s ambitious or whatever, but I mean, no one got anywhere by not being ambitious!
I totally agree and I think that you can definitely do that. Our intern Brenda is actually going into her sophomore year of college and she is also wanting to go into the medical field; and she also wants to continue her advocacy and her organizing. So it’s certainly possible… My second question was – you do a lot of organizing as a student; what are some of the issues that are closest to your heart?
I think the biggest topic on my mind right now is probably inequity in schools. For example, policing in schools, I think that needs to go, absolutely. Book bans, which we literally just defeated in Forsyth County, seven of the eight. Seven of the eight! They won’t budge on All Boys Aren’t Blue, but you win some, you lose some. For such a conservative, Republican area, this is such a big deal, and I’m endlessly proud of that.
I really wanna push not just for education justice, but anti-racist education. I would love to see that in schools…
Combating the implementation of [Georgia’s] HB 1084 is a priority for me… piloting anti-racist education, book bans… Those are the top three under the realm of education justice, but education justice is where I float around for now…
So, the next question I had was, recently, you and your fellow student advocates organized a months-long campaign to convince the school board in Forsyth County, Georgia, to reconsider the book bans in the county. I believe you mentioned that your school district was the only school district in Georgia that had book bans?
Yeah, we are the only ones with a formal book ban in place right now. And it still is in place ’cause we still have that one, All Boys Aren’t Blue, banned and it is horrible to see that; but we did what we could, we did our best. And seven out of eight is still a huge deal for such a conservative county; taking such a good step forward and step [away from being] misinformed…
I think personally that our opposition is very misinformed; they drove the school board to implement this policy, and the school board did it because they were afraid of losing their races in November. I’m glad that they now realize after hearing us out [that] this is the wrong decision to take, this is a step in the wrong direction. I’m glad that they’re realizing that now. And I’m glad that they have repealed the book ban… right at the start of the school year, very early in the school year, they managed to fix that.
Honestly, I really did not anticipate this happening anytime soon. I genuinely thought that I was speaking into a void for a little while. And to be honest, other organizers in Georgia [being] able to make such drastic change, that’s what made me feel like this was possible. And it turns out that repealing the book ban is really possible; I’m eternally grateful for all the students that came out and spoke… I’m really proud of us, really proud of us.
I was never indoctrinated into this, I wanted do this by myself. This is something I realized was an issue that I wanted to speak out against, because it impacted me, it impacted my friends… This impacted everyone in my community, students especially.
You should be. And I’m proud of you, that is a huge accomplishment! And that’s actually the next question: how did you accomplish that? What was your strategy around getting that to happen?
We made sure to have an intersectional group of students; we got as many students as we [could] out here. We got various community members involved – we started asking them to come out and they did. I’m grateful for that.
But this effort was driven by students, which is what I think piloted the school board to make that decision. I think it was a matter of persistence for us: we showed up and showed out every month… rain or shine, we showed up every month… It was definitely difficult because of the, just, sheer amount of harassment that we faced, especially me, online. There were people looking up where I went to school, trying to figure out as much as they could about me by Googling my first and last name. It was honestly terrifying.
The stuff they’ve said about my peers is also just honestly horrifying. I really do hate to see this stuff, I hate to see that people can have such malicious sides to them. We’re literally just students wanting to stand up for ourselves and exercise our rights. We’re trying to make a positive change and, honestly, adults should be glad that we’re speaking out because that means we’re informed. It means we’re educated…
[According to the opposition], apparently indoctrination is in our school system. So it’s my teachers teaching me how to organize, when really my teachers didn’t teach me about organizing. In school, I was never taught what is wrong or right when it comes to politics. I was never indoctrinated by a “radical liberal teacher,” as our opposition likes to label teachers now. I was never indoctrinated into this, I wanted do this by myself. This is something I realized was an issue that I wanted to speak out against, because it impacted me, it impacted my friends, it impacted the people who I don’t even know, but sit next to me in class, you know? This impacted everyone in my community, students especially.
The decision to ban books was so jarring. This decision was made hastily. They didn’t even follow their own book banning and review procedures. It was just so hastened and rushed that I was like, “Okay, something is behind this.”
And they’re not doing this because they actually believe these books contain explicit content, because I’ve read some of these books. They’re pretty hefty reads. In length and in content, they take you some time to digest and actually read through. And once you read the books, you realize that whatever they’re claiming is explicit is just really out of context. They don’t see anything besides the propaganda that they’ve probably seen online. They probably got tunnel vision from just going down this rabbit hole on Facebook or whatever, and hearing and seeing the same things. They were basically stuck in an echo chamber of these excerpts from books that are taken extremely out of context.
Do you really think that a memoir about 9/11 was written as pornography for students? Absolutely not! It was not written as pornography – it was written as a memoir to recount the author’s experience regarding a historical event… It wasn’t written to poison the minds of students. And that’s true for all the banned books – formerly banned books, I should say… The books that were banned were not written to be a form of pornography… Our opposition is saying that these books are gonna poison children’s minds when they’re not. They’re written as literature, they’re meant to be read seriously… they’re not meant to be read as porn is my point.
Yeah… it’s astonishing to me. I identify as queer and it’s astonishing to me how any sort of deviation from heterosexuality or being cisgender is seen as pornography. That’s the way it’s painted. If it’s different from the norm, that’s what it is…
…Yeah. It’s just the absurdly present fetishization of people who aren’t who aren’t cis or straight. That’s just what it is.
Yeah… that’s exactly what it is… You were touching on this a little bit in the last answer with the awful things that people were doing to essentially stalk you online – what were the other big challenges or the most challenging aspects of organizing around this?
I think what was funny was I was not meant to see those comments, but they were made on a public Facebook page. I mean, come on, seriously?
Another obstacle would be the in-person remarks made; like when I’m sitting in the middle of a crowded school board meeting, and I’m surrounded by members of the opposition and they’re sitting here saying, “Well, look, one of them, one of them.” Literally, “One of them is sitting next to you. Oh, one of them is sitting in front of you. Well, it’s in the schools. What can we do?”
And sitting there and hearing that, and knowing that I’m not here because my teacher indoctrinated me and told me to do so… I’m here because I want to be here. I’m here because I chose to speak up, I chose to speak out. I’m not here for someone else… I’m here because I want to be here and I want to contribute to a movement and I want to stand up for what I believe in.
I would also say that another obstacle would be feeling honestly ignored by school board members and local officials for a while, because it really felt like they didn’t take us seriously for ages, for months on months and months. And that’s what made this work so tiring. That’s what really made all of us take a step back last Fall/Winter. It was so exhausting and tiring and we needed a break from feeling unheard, feeling like the school board really did not care about us. I took a break this August because I was like, “Okay, I need a second to get adjusted to this new year of school, these new classes… I really need a break.”
…I think a lot of new organizers especially believe that if they stop or take a break, this movement will die. That mentality is incredibly common. I faced it, a lot of my friends faced it, and it takes time to think about, “No, I should probably take a break because I’m burnt out. I can’t contribute anything to this movement if I am burnt out,” and it takes time to realize that.
I think organizer burnout is a huge thing. And the mentality of, “I can’t take a break because if I take a break, that means I’m not helping society, I’m not helping anybody,” when it’s perfectly reasonable to need a break. Not taking a break is what got me so burnt out and tired and stressed over everything that was going on with the school board. And after taking a break and taking a step back, I was like, “Hold on. I really needed that. I needed a little while of just rest.”
I think another obstacle you could say is probably having a million things to do as a student… [it] obviously complicates things. I’m a full-time student; a lot of the people I organize with are full-time students. So we struggle with having a million things to do all the time and that can also lead to burnout really fast. But I mean, it’s always a challenge to balance stuff…
If you have more people on your side that shows that your movement is stronger. That shows that people just like you, young people, actually care about what happens with their government. So I would suggest absolutely finding a group of people, that’s number one…
Well, that’s plenty for any activist, advocate, or organizer… What would you recommend to advocates your age who wanna get more involved with testifying or organizing at their local school board or county council meetings?
I would start by making a quick Google search. So like [in my case], “Forsyth County Schools public participation procedure,” and then clicking on the first few links that pop up, see if they allow students to speak. If they don’t allow students to speak, that’s fine – you should still probably attend and listen, because this is your future being decided. So even if they don’t allow students to speak, I would still strongly encourage coming and listening.
You can always email or petition your local officials; that’s always an option. Write to them. And it always helps to have other people, so find other people who are interested in your cause, who have the same values as you and want to see the same changes. Gather a group, you guys can all go. You guys can email together; you guys can protest together; you guys can actually try and meet with local officials. I think talking to your elected officials one-on-one is one of the best ways to actually figure out how to make change effectively. If you’re local officials do cooperate and they do wanna talk to you, that’s a great thing.
So always start with looking up the procedures for local public participation things. Like, “*insert county here* public participation” or “*insert county here* schools public participation.” Read their policies, and if they do allow people under 18 to speak, I would look up how long they give you to speak; draft a quick speech whenever you’re ready. Just say whatever you think you need to say. I would say in the speechwriting process, having a few people look over your speech is awesome. Having people look over my speeches have made my writing and what I say more impactful. It always helps to have a second set of eyes.
And it’s always more effective to organize as a group than by yourself. Don’t go into organizing and think, “I’m gonna do this all myself. I can do it by myself and I don’t need anybody else.” You probably should ask other people to help you out because you’re gonna get burnt out really fast; but [also] if you have more people on your side that shows that your movement is stronger. That shows that people just like you, young people, actually care about what happens with their government. So I would suggest absolutely finding a group of people, that’s number one; and then figuring out how you’re going to get your message across is number two.
Honestly, social media, as much as I hate it, I also like it in that you can get a message across and send information out to other people really fast. Whether that’s making an Instagram or Twitter or Facebook page, go for it! Start spreading the message about your cause – DMing people, texting people you know and saying, “Hey, do you know about this?” Or, talking to the person you sit next to in math class asking them, “Hey, do you know about this? Do you know what’s happening here? If so, and you care about it, here’s how you can get involved. Please get involved.”
And if they don’t already know what the issue is, take the time to talk to them… It’s always so important to talk to the people you know, as well. The people you know are your biggest asset.
Yeah. That’s all really amazing advice. I didn’t consider it before about the under 18 thing, but how often do you see school boards where they don’t allow the students to testify?
I see that a lot actually, or like in Cobb County [where] they do allow student testimony, you just have to be accompanied by an adult… I’ve seen it in other places where they don’t let people under the age of 18 speak. And that gets very frustrating because… students’ voices are so important, especially in decisions regarding the school board… It’s our education that’s being impacted and we have involvement in it.
…In addition to students really deserving the right to just speak because they are involved in the schools, what perspective do you think youth provides that is so essential to creating systemic change?
Well, I mean, we’re in the schools 180 days of the year. That’s six months of the year that we’re in school, and we’re there for six to seven hours a day. We know what schools are like, we know if there’s indoctrination in our classrooms. We know what our days look like, what policies we want to see.
For example… parents started saying, “There’s indoctrination in our schools; there’s people who are making our kids LGBTQIA+.” And I was like, “Wait a minute – where are they getting this information from? Because never have I seen this information in my life, never have I seen actual teacher indoctrination in my life.” I was honestly shocked when people started saying that… and if the school board members keep listening to parents who just get all of their information about schools from the internet, that’s just dangerous.
They should be listening to the students because we’re the ones who see the impact of their decisions. We’re the ones who see the impact of having [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion] policies in place… Parents, frankly, they don’t. They might be able to hear from their kids, but they’ll never actually know ’cause they weren’t inside the building. They weren’t physically hearing teachers talk.
When it comes to racial justice, as a South Asian person, I’ve seen the stereotypes against South Asian people and they hurt… And I think it’s just the perpetuation of harmful ideas from right wing folks such as, “Oh, systemic racism isn’t real; this country isn’t racist; racism stopped in the 1970s…” I fear that’s gonna be perpetuated for years and years and years. But we can do what we can to stop it.
What do you think some of the biggest challenges will be that we’ll face in the next 10 years in terms of racial justice, education justice, climate justice, social justice, [etc.]?
…when it comes to education justice, I think we’re gonna see the villainization of specifically members of the LBTQIA+ community. We all know who Christopher Rufo is, and if you don’t he’s the one who basically pioneered the anti-CRT movement when critical race theory is literally not in schools. It’s a law school theory… It’s meant for people who have had a certain level of education, it’s not meant for kindergartners…
But anyways, Christopher Rufo is the one who started that mass hysteria. I think people like him, far right individuals, are starting to perpetuate hysteria regarding LGBTQIA+ people. So I think it’s the villainization of those people. We saw that in we saw that in Florida with “Don’t Say Gay.” Organizers in Georgia stopped a version of “Don’t Say Gay”… but it was scary to see that even proposed. So I think in education justice specifically, we’re gonna see the villainization of LGBTQIA+ individuals and teachers; we’re gonna see that happening for sure…
When it comes to racial justice, as a South Asian person, I’ve seen the stereotypes against South Asian people and they hurt. It hurts to hear that stuff from peers of mine. And I think it’s just the perpetuation of harmful ideas from right wing folks such as, “Oh, systemic racism isn’t real; this country isn’t racist; racism stopped in the 1970s.” That type of thing… I fear that’s gonna be perpetuated for years and years and years. But we can do what we can to stop it, we have succeeded in that area for quite a bit…
I think gun violence is also going to be a more hotly debated topic… And our healthcare system is obviously collapsing right in front of us. This issue is very near and dear to my heart, since I have many family members in the medical field – physician burnout is such a thing. If we don’t start treating our healthcare workers like they’re humans and not robots, I think we’re gonna see a lot of trouble there. There’s already so many nursing shortages… Wellstar Atlanta Medical Center, which is one of the [few] Level I trauma centers in the state of Georgia, is closing soon. They’re closing because they don’t have revenue, that’s largely due to Republican refusal to expand Medicaid, et cetera, in Georgia. I think if we saw healthcare reform, that would save countless lives. And then there’s obviously the whole anti-vaxx movement.
TL;DR, we need to stop treating our doctors and nurses and healthcare workers like shit, because if we don’t I think we’re facing the inevitable collapse of our healthcare infrastructure.
…Is there anything that you’d like to accomplish as a youth organizer that you’re not sure you’ll be able to address as well when you’re an adult organizer?
Oh, wait, going back to the last question, Georgia uses a very outdated equation to fund our schools. So that leads to a lot of funding discrepancies. We’re one of three states that doesn’t provide funding for students of low-income households…
We should be tailoring the budget to our to counties’ individual needs, because we’re seeing that counties with higher percentages of Black and Hispanic folks [have] more underfunded schools and fewer options available to them for schooling. It makes it very difficult to obtain a good education.
In Georgia, we organizers actually won in Druid Hills High School… Druid Hills is like 90+ years old, and they had a lot of issues with not having AC in the summer. They had issues with sewage in the courtyards that they were eating lunch at, and they managed to secure, I think, $50 million in repairs for the school. But if we don’t actually address funding and equity at its root, we’re gonna see a sharp decline in education quality for students.
The young folks right now, we’re literally this country’s future. We’re the ones who are going to be around when the old white people in office are deceased. We’re gonna be the ones here, so if we don’t have a quality education, how are we supposed to expect to be successful? Students absolutely deserve a good quality of education, how else are we expected to learn and grow and find our passions; and how are we expected to live really, if we’re stuck in a building that has no AC or heat seven hours a day? That’s just inhumane.
But moving on to that next question, I think an issue that I wouldn’t be able to address as well as an adult is probably stuff about… the ever-changing nature of K-12 education. My parents, I love them, but they don’t know schools as well as I do because they’re not there 180 days of the year for six or seven hours a day. I think once I’ve graduated… I’ll always know how a K-12 school works, but I won’t know it as well as if I were to actually be in school.
There’s always those books that you read and then you’re like, “Oh, well… I guess that was a story.” But then there’s the books that actually have an impact and have a meaning… After I was done reading them, I just sat down and I was like, “Oh, wow, I can’t believe I just read that.” I just remember feeling so happy that I actually did have the opportunity to read those books…
What are your plans for future advocacy?
Obviously education justice is my number one priority right now, but I feel like that priority might change once I’ve graduated, but for now I think I’m going to focus on education justice for at least the next year or two…
We asked you this at the panel for “this season: banned books,” but what is your favorite banned book and why?
Gosh, I’d probably say Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez. Oh my God, her writing style, just the plot of the book, it really draws you in, or… it’s actually a tie between that book and All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson. Those two books are my favorites, probably because they’re just both so beautifully written and I think they share such a strong message… I feel like my perspective on so many things has changed, those books really left a mark on me.
I’m never gonna forget reading those books. There’s always those books that you read and then you’re like, “Oh, well… I guess that was a story.” But then there’s the books that actually have an impact and have a meaning… Those books really left a mark on me, and actually a pretty deep mark… After I was done reading them, I just sat down and I was like, “Oh, wow, I can’t believe I just read that.” I just remember feeling so happy that I actually did have the opportunity to read those books… I’m very grateful for those books.
Are there issues on a local level or a state level that you wanted to highlight for our readers?
I wanted to highlight that funding inequity, school funding, and equity in public schools is a huge deal. Students are literally going to school with no AC. There are teachers literally leaving and going to work for wealthier white districts in Georgia because they get paid more in those districts versus their pay in districts that have more people of color, because of just how inequitable our current funding system is.
Those are all of the questions that I had for you. Again, thank you so much for taking the time…
Yeah, of course!
Photo credit: Brian Munoz / St. Louis Public Radio