And I felt different because looking around the table, each of my friends was eating what I understood to be “normal” food – pasta, salads, burgers. And I looked around the table, and I looked at my lunch, and I felt different. Because I didn’t have this “normal” food – I had an idli and a sambar in front of me.
And when this kind of thing happens again, and again, and again, you start to doubt yourself. And I did. I saw my culture as different.
When I was in grade 5, my family moved to Novi, where there is a large South Asian population. And being around people who could connect with my experiences – who could validate and discuss the things I felt different for – helped me cherish my culture.
But so many students in this country don’t have the luxury of living in a community they feel connected to. So many students in this country feel different.
And this is where the power of literature comes in. Books help us connect with people who may be going through the same difficult experiences. But in the past year, 17 states have passed legislation banning teachers from having discussions about race, and many states are following Florida’s lead by introducing legislation to ban discussions about gender and sexuality.
Let’s be clear: these are targeted attempts to impinge on minority voices. And trying to silence perspectives we don’t necessarily relate to or even accept undermines the very values that make our country great.
Our country is built on the ability of our citizens to share their experiences and use their First Amendment rights. The common sense of Thomas Paine fanned the first flames of the push for freedom. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the autobiography of Fredrick Douglass galvanized the grassroots movement for abolitionism. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring has spurred national efforts to protect our environment.
Censoring voices that bring diverse perspectives to the general public is an unfettered assault on the very ideals that have moved our country forward. And by infringing on students’ right to hear from diverse authors, we effectively sanitize our history from different perspectives. But our country was founded and is Powered by exciting prospects. And the young want to hear those voices.
Generation Z has used social media to transcend institutional barriers to organization. Rather than filtering the grip of older generations on traditional media, students democratized the first source of information. And young people’s mastery of navigating social media has allowed us to build a viable and sustainable platform for our voice. In fact, today’s most impactful moves were designed and perpetuated by 16- and 17-year-old Gen Zs. The Sunrise Movement, Project Exchange, March for Our Lives, millions of young people mobilized with a few taps on a glass screen.
In Michigan alone, organizers like Dylan Morris Rahi Shah, Luka Todorvich – these students are organizing hundreds of thousands young people. Throughout the school year, my friends and I worked with legislators to to propose legislation that allows secondary school voters to vote for school board members who represent us. We are no exception – young people across the country are learning about our social landscape. Generation Z has the ability – and, more importantly, the will – to participate in difficult conversations. We want to know our social landscape – we want to read the diverse perspectives represented in modern literature.
And efforts to regulate what can be taught in the classroom discredit young people’s ability to understand nuanced arguments. These book bans, which disproportionately target authors sharing stories about communities that have never been heard before, silence the voices we want and we merit hear.
I’m sure everyone here is familiar with the “glass ceiling” metaphor. But most relevant is the “glass fence” that surrounds Capitol Hill. But finally, thanks to social networks, young people are melting these barriers. We are more connected, more educated and more active than ever.
And as we continue to tear down the glass barrier that separates the minds of Capitol Hill from the innovators of our time, it’s time to stop underestimating young people’s ability to understand and connect with nuanced literature.
It’s time to stop underestimating ourselves.