On Sept. 12, Brandeis student Cameron Samuels ’26 traveled to Washington, D.C. to testify in front of the United States Senate Judiciary Committee about book bans.
Samuels’ advocacy started well before their recent visit to the nation’s capital, though. In an interview with The Brandeis Hoot, Samuels spoke more on their advocacy work, why they chose to come to Brandeis and more.
Samuels mentioned that they are from Texas, noting that they felt compelled to organize in education policy because “Texas students, and students nationwide, are facing a students’ rights crisis where the adults are making policies about students’ education … are trying to dictate what others can and cannot learn about in the classroom.
They added that as a Jewish and trans student, “this has been an affront to [their] identity, when the books that they’re banning … are about [their] identity.” Samuels said that this is a “concerted effort to target the books that challenge the status quo. It’s never about books; it’s about identity that challenges that status quo.”
Samuels told The Hoot more about themself, saying that they’ve “always loved reading and learning. I love school, and I love how Brandeis is such a great institution for academics. That’s what we really excel in: the academics.” They noted that the academics drew them to Brandeis, in addition to the university’s reputation for “social justice [and] building a more compassionate world and having [an] affirming space that, unlike Texas, affirms my Jewish identity.”
Speaking specifically on their testimony before the Senate, Samuels said that they “got an email the day after moving in, [saying] ‘this is the Senate Judiciary Committee. Would you like to set up a time to chat? We’d love to hear from you.’” Samuels says that it wasn’t too shocking to get this email, because they’ve “been in this work for so long, organizing in politics for quite a while. So it was more of a matter of ‘when am I going to get these kinds of emails?’”
Samuels went on, saying that the Senate Judiciary Committee had gotten their information from the American Library Association. They added that “it seems like the fight is just getting more difficult. More books are being banned and efforts on the side of censorship have really been just continuous. [We’ve now been in] … this recent unprecedented wave of censorship. Texas led the nation for book bans and bans are affecting 4 million students nationwide.”
Samuels added that PEN America has done “great” research on book bans, and that they appreciate the “community that we’ve built in this movement. That has made it bearable, because [this work] is a huge burden on students. We should be learning in the classroom, not focused on standing up and defending our rights. But of course, when the Senate reaches out and wants me to testify, I couldn’t say no. I was going to have a platform to the nation, the highest, most prestigious institution of democracy, and I was going to make my voice heard.”
Samuels feels strongly that “we need student perspectives and voices in policymaking that’s about us. We need to be at the table when they’re deciding about us.”
After some flight delays, when they finally arrived in D.C., Samuels said that they “loved having the support from many groups that actually attended in the audience to support [me], and all the friends I’ve made along the way, just making it such a wonderful space to be in.”
They also said that their activist roots came from Katy, Texas, they were “the only student in the room who was speaking at a school board meeting trying to defend my intellectual freedom. The whole room was very hostile and was against me, giving me demeaning stares.” Their time in the Senate was very different, “and that’s just because we’ve built this movement, we’ve shaped this community … so we know that there’s others around [us] that are visibly and publicly and openly supporting us, not just hiding in the shadows.”
But, some members of the Senate were not on board with what Samuels was saying. They mentioned that Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA.) was “using this age-old distraction, and trying to claim that we were advocating for inappropriate materials in school libraries. The problem was that this is, of course, fear-mongering. We’ve seen this over centuries of American [history], where we can point blame at the odd one out, we can point blame at those who don’t have the power [in order] to keep them crushed down. That’s exactly what the situation was.”
Samuels added that “these books about LGBTQ and BIPOC people were written by authors who have been marginalized and they’re touching upon tough topics. These books are not intended for elementary school students, as Sen. Kennedy was explaining or trying to draw that conclusion. These are mature books for high school audiences, and some of those books weren’t even in my school library. It’s just the most absurd thing that he is trying to draw these comparisons, saying, ‘Hey, this book shouldn’t be in elementary schools.’” Samuels noted that they would be “flabbergasted if a kindergartner picks up one of those books and could actually read it so fluently. … It’s not age relevant to them: these books aren’t intended for that audience.”
Samuels also said that rhetoric like Sen. Kennedy’s is “where this issue of book bans has really drawn controversy, as [senators] are overlooking age relevancy and trying to claim that books for older audiences are not suitable for younger audiences, so they should be banned entirely. That’s exactly what Sen. Kennedy did. Of course there was a lot of controversy. Fox News picked it up, and I think the headline was ‘Senator grills college activist on books’ or something. … But, of course, having Brandeis as an affirming space [and] having this movement that these other students I’m working with in Texas [all helps].” Samuels’ movement in Texas is SEAT (Students Engaged in Advancing Texas), “a movement of young people developing transferable skills and demonstrating youth visibility in policymaking.” SEAT aims to create “a vehicle for driving civic transformation as we build a social movement for bettering our communities and dismantling oppressive power structures.”
When asked why they feel drawn to this type of advocacy specifically, Samuels said that “students need to see ourselves represented in curriculum and our school libraries in the narrative. When censorship overtakes our school districts, our homes [and] our communities, we often can no longer find anything but the status quo that’s reinforced by censorship. We need to speak above the floodline of censorship. Students need to recognize that their voices are powerful and join the front lines. Of course, that requires confidence and support and encouragement and skills and resources, and that’s not often easily attainable.”
Samuels closed by noting that “we need that support from adults who may be more established in networks professionally, who may have financial support that they can provide to break the barriers of transportation to testify at the state capitol. Or, for example, at a school board meeting that we packed with 400 people, which went through nearly midnight, people have homework to do. People need dinner, so … we ordered 20 large pizzas so everyone, including the many students at that school board meeting, could eat dinner without having to go back home. [This allowed them to] … get called to speak, since there were so many people that registered and it was going through midnight. So we need more support.”