For years, as students in the Central York School District, they had concerns about the curriculum and the way they were treated. But when the system moved to ban more than 300 books, documentaries, and articles promoting equity and diversity, they decided it was time to act.
Edha Gupta and Christina Ellis, both 17 and high school seniors, organized protests outside their school last September, drawing national media attention and meeting with top state and national politicians. The books and materials, including a list previously created by a district diversity committee after George Floyd’s murder, included a documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, based on the writings of James Baldwin; Skin Like Mine; and I Am Enough, a book by the actress Grace Byers.
“We kept going because we knew we were part of something bigger than ourselves,” Ellis told a few hundred people attending her TEDx talk at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center on Saturday.
Ellis and Gupta were two of eight speakers appearing at the three-hour annual conference, known as TEDxPenn. Others included professors, a trauma victim advocate, poet, golf-industry executive, and restaurateur.
Ellis and Gupta were the youngest and the crowd applauded when they shared that their efforts had paid off.
On Sept. 20, the school board “reversed the book ban,” Ellis said.
“Because we protested, there are going to be generations of younger students that are going to have access to a fully equitable and representative education,” Gupta said near the end of the 15-minute talk.
Stirring an audience is exactly the kind of thing that TEDx talks ― which are under 18 minutes — are designed to do. TEDxPenn, founded by Penn students in 2010, aims “to spark powerful ideas, innovative ideas not just in our community but in the broader Philadelphia community,” said Trinity Arsenault, 21, a Penn senior who co-curated the event with junior Adalyn Richards, 21.
TEDxPenn is billed by its organizers as the largest university TEDx conference in the world, able to host up to 1,000 attendees. Saturday’s conference, coming on a holiday weekend and as COVID-19 case counts on the campus and in the community climb, was smaller. Penn last week announced it would reinstate its mask mandate, according to the Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper. From April 3 to April 9, the school’s positivity rate had risen to 8.64% and 385 people tested positive, the newspaper reported. A ninth speaker who was supposed to appear at the conference couldn’t come because she tested positive for COVID-19.
The TEDX event was held in person for the first time since the pandemic began. Many more will be able to see the talks, once student organizers edit them and put them on YouTube. Over the last decade, the YouTube versions have attracted millions of viewers. A talk from 2018, “The Super Mario Effect: tricking your brain into learning more” by engineer and inventor Mark Rober, has amassed 11 million views.
During their talk, Gupta and Ellis said their concerns began before the book ban. Gupta said she had addressed the school board in her central Pennsylvania community about the discrimination she has faced, noting how people made fun of her cultural attire, hair oil, and the lunch her Indian mother packed for her, calling it “disgusting and smelly.” Girls didn’t want to sit by her on the bus.
“I would hear insults like ‘Go back to your country’ on a daily basis,” she said.
Ellis said she was told that the schools didn’t need to spend a lot of time on slavery and the civil rights movement because they had happened long ago and America had learned from them.
Then came the book ban, as some complained, according to the New York Times, that the materials may create division and hate and make people feel guilty because they are white. Students organized their first protest. Gupta said she thought five people would come. But 50 did. Then 60. And eventually hundreds of students, parents, and residents joined in.
“Kids showed up,” she said. “They showed up for something they believed in and it was the start of a movement.”
Several new school board members were elected last November following the controversy. Alumni donated thousands of dollars, and a book drive saw 5,000 books donated in the first 30 minutes, Gupta said.
Ellis and Gupta encouraged the audience to do as they did.
“If you see something, say something,” Ellis said.
Both students said they were thrilled to participate at the TEDx event.
“It was definitely nerve-racking,” Gupta said, “and at the same time very exciting.”
Both young women plan to attend college in the fall, Ellis at Pennsylvania State University and Gupta likely at the University of Pittsburgh. Both want to become physicians and intend to continue their activism.
“I want to focus on human rights and women’s reproductive rights,” Ellis said.
Gupta wants to help communities that need better access to health care.
“I want to stand up for what’s right,” she said.