Hudson Warm, Contributing Photographer

New Haven public school students took to the streets Thursday afternoon with signs as they marched in support of the free exchange of ideas and expression.

Students from six local New Haven schools marched from the Temple Street Plaza to the New Haven Free Public Library on Elm Street to the Beinecke Plaza, holding signs with individual words that together formed statements from the American Library Association’s 70-year-old “Freedom to Read” statement. Students from Amistad Academy, a local New Haven high school, marched with a drumline alongside students holding signs. Event organizers told the News that the march was held in reaction to recent book ban pushes across the country and in anticipation of next week’s municipal elections. 

“It is our constitutional right to be able to read what we want, and to dissent,” Pamela Hovland, a member of Class Action Collective, told the News. Class Action Collective is an activist group founded by Yale School of Art students that incorporates visual elements into protests.

The collective planned the march in conjunction with the “Arts, Protest, and the Archives” exhibition currently on view in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which explores how aesthetics have interacted with resistance over time.

Over the past 30 years, the Collective has staged marches in reaction to several issues, including support for fighting climate change, protecting reproductive rights and combating domestic violence. Hovland said that censorship and book banning is a timely issue, pointing to Florida and Texas where legislators and local officials have launched targeted bans on books that involve marginalized histories or identity groups in what activists and educators have described as an attempt to sanitize public school curricula

“This is not a new issue,” Thomas Starr, who marched with the Collective, told the News. “It goes back at least 70 years in modern times.”

He said that the issue of book banning in the United States is cyclical. The “Freedom to Read” statement that inspired the march was originally published in 1953.

Starr mentioned that event organizers intentionally held the event ahead of New Haven’s Nov. 7 elections.

“We want people to draw the connection that they should be paying attention to these issues,” Starr told the News.

For the march, the collective chose to break apart the statement into five key sentences, with individual words written on signs. When the students gathered in Beinecke Plaza, they organized the signs to show the statement.

Kevin Repp, curator of the “Arts, Protest, and the Archives” exhibit at the Beinecke, told the News that the Beinecke Plaza has long been a site of protest — students rallied against the Vietnam War in the 1960s, and anti-apartheid activism was centered on the Plaza in the 1980s, he said.

When the Collective submitted a proposal for “Reading the Signs,” Repp said he saw an opportunity to put the current exhibit in conversation with contemporary action.

“I really wanted this exhibition to be an exhibition that is not just inside the building,” Repp said. “But something that really is engaging with the community.”

Organizers also pointed to a Moms for Liberty — a group that began as an anti-mask and anti-vaccine movement — meeting held in Avon, Connecticut in late October as a sign of freedom-threatening activity in the state.

An issue of access

For Leslie Blatteau, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, freedom to read means more than books not being banned; she said that the concept also refers to access.

Due to a round of layoffs in New Haven Public Schools in 2018, many elementary schools lost library media specialists, which Blatteau said is a major concern. She said that librarians are in short supply, which prevents students from having constant access to fully-stocked libraries.

“We believe that children in New Haven public schools have every right to have a full-time school librarian and access to a school library in the same way that Yale students do,” Blatteau told the News. “And we believe that a truly equitable system would ensure that that’s the case.”

Blatteau and Frances Pierson, a librarian at Wilbur Cross School, said that having staffed libraries is imperative both for students to find media on specific topics and to instill a love of reading in students.

Pierson told the News that the situation has worsened in recent years because of budget cuts and the COVID-19 pandemic. Pierson began working as a New Haven public school library media specialist thirty-four years ago.

“When I started,” she wrote to the News. “There was a librarian in every school.”

Members of the Collective told the News they hope to empower young people to call attention to causes that matter to them and learn how to become civic actors. 

“Reading the Signs,” Hovland said, was a step toward that goal.

“It’s something that brings together playful creativity with the idea of making a political statement and urging political action,” Repp said about the event.

Class Action Collective was founded in 1992 at the School of Art.