Chattanooga activist group started a national movement for students' rights

A small parents' activist group started in Taylor Lyons' East Brainerd living room five years ago has become a national movement, with 3,000 local members and five chapters across the country.

Moms for Social Justice has added chapters in Knoxville, Alaska, California, Missouri and Washington, D.C. Its cause has grown from local activism to fighting for student rights at a federal level.

The group started with parents disturbed by events of the August 2017 Unite the Right rally by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia. Lyons and three other mothers gathered to figure out ways parents could safely engage in activism.

"We wanted to create something where parents, especially of young kids, could get involved in activism in their community," Mari Smith, one of the founding members, said in an interview.

The four, including Greer Caldwell and Red Bank's vice mayor, Stefanie Dalton, had met while writing for the Chattanooga Moms blog. Though they'd taken to social media to speak out against injustices they felt were sweeping the country, it was no longer enough, Lyons said.

"We didn't want to look at our kids 20 years from now and tell them that in this pivotal moment in our nation's history of all of this unrest, our response was to angrily share on social media that we were outraged," Lyons said in an interview. "That just didn't feel sufficient."

And it turns out, Lyons said, local parents also wanted to be civically engaged but they didn't know where to start.

The group has undertaken several local literacy initiatives and advocates for education equity. It's also a founding member of the Students' Rights Coalition, a rising national network of parents and student-focused organizations that advocate for policies and legislation that preserve constitutional protections for students in public schools, according to the coalition's website.

So far, at least 10 organizations have joined the coalition, Smith said. Those include EveryLibrary, a nonprofit political action committee that helps K-12 schools and universities secure new funding, and the National Youth Rights Association, a Maryland-based organization dedicated to defending youth equality.

Coffee connections

In the first year, Lyons, who serves as the outreach coordinator, estimates she went on 150 coffee meetings.

"We wanted to know all of the organizations in town, all of the organizers in town," Lyons said. "We wanted to know who they were, what they were doing, how we could help, how we could amplify their voices, how we could volunteer."

The first event, held in August 2017 shortly after the Unite the Right rally, was a sit-down protest at the Walnut Street Bridge.

"I think only five of us showed up. We sat on the bridge. We wore black," Smith said.

The women held signs that Smith remembered as tame, like "Love is love," "Hate is not innate" and "Racism is taught."

The sit-in garnered a lot of attention, and group members wanted to more formally introduce themselves to the community - so they organized a play date at Coolidge Park, Lyons said. And the response was overwhelming.

Throughout the year, the group held forums and workshops on issues like talking about abortion, gun reform and dismantling racism, Smith said.

Classroom library

In August 2018, Moms for Social Justice's first anniversary, the group launched its first community initiative, the Classroom Library Project.

Lyons said several group members had been volunteering in the schools over the summer.

"In particular, I was at Brainerd High School," she said. "And talking with some of the other volunteers, who were working in the library and noticing how out of date a lot of the titles were, and how empty a lot of the shelves were. I, at the time, I was struggling to find a book that had a copyright newer than 1995."

Lyons went back to Moms for Social Justice and asked if it was feasible to put in a new library. They decided that overhauling an entire library wasn't possible but installing a smaller classroom library was.

"(Students) get to go to the school library once a week, but they get to visit their classroom library every day," Smith said. "And we thought, well, that's something doable. So, we sat down and figured out, what would it cost to put a rug in? Get 100 or so books brand new? A bookshelf. Twinkle lights. Some little artwork. Maybe paint for the wall."

They crowdsourced funds for the first three libraries, Smith said. Then more teachers started contacting them.

"At that point, we had teachers emailing daily asking for us to come in and 'please put a library in my classroom!'" Lyons said. "We just knew that it was not sustainable for us to continue to fund the project all on our own."

The group applied for a grant through the Weldon F. Osborne Foundation, a local charitable organization, and were awarded $20,000 for the project.

To kick things off, they held a Harry Potter-themed Magic of Literacy event at the Chattanooga Choo Choo.

"We throw these things out into the world hoping that people will come," Lyons said. "We really hoped that we would have 50 to 100 people show up, and I think that first year around 1,500 showed up. We were crying."

With the grant money, they installed 18 classroom libraries and are still going, Smith said.

Moms for Liberty

The project wasn't supported by everyone, as opposition came from the other end of the political spectrum.

Moms for Liberty is a national organization founded in Florida in 2021 and dedicated to fighting for parental rights at all levels of government, according to its website. Robyn Kremser, of Ooltewah, is a member of Moms for Liberty and said she objects to the content of some of the books in the Classroom Library Project, which she sees as sexualizing young children.

"They're free to organize and try to implement and show up for what they want," Kremser said in a phone interview about the Moms for Social Justice. "This is a free country. They should also have to abide by standards and rules that protect children."

School board member Rhonda Thurman, of Hixson, said the district is developing a policy to make sure books brought into the schools are reviewed in the central office. She said she was shocked by the content of the books in the Classroom Library Project.

"They're wanting to bring in their social agenda into the schools," she said in a phone interview about the social justice group. "We're not equipped for that. We need to educate students, and we're not doing a very good job of that."

Smith said she is aware some conservative parents objected to the books included in the Classroom Library Project.

"The funny thing is, the books that we've put into the classrooms are award-winning, very well-respected books," Smith said. "We did make it a point to put some LGBTQ titles in libraries, but we just wanted them to represent the kids that were reading them. There was no agenda other than we wanted all kids, all kids, to feel seen and heard in their literary choices. And that needs to be very clear."

The books aren't compulsory, Lyons said. Students and parents have a choice of whether to read them.

National effort

Moms for Social Justice has no plans to stop the Classroom Library Project and will do so until Hamilton County Schools makes them stop, Smith said.

"What unifies us is that we're all moms," Smith said. "We didn't want to be against anything, necessarily, we wanted our name to be positive."

Lyons said parents can come together and agree on certain principles.

"We can talk all day long about things on which we do not agree," Lyons said. "But there are unifying principles as parents. We all want the same things. We want our kids to be happy, healthy, celebrated for who they are."

Alongside other members of the Students' Rights Coalition, Moms for Social Justice is drafting a proposed federal bill, the Students' Freedom in Education Act.

"There's a whole narrative about parents' rights," Lyons said. "We want to advocate for students' rights. Their freedom to read. Their freedom to be who they are and feel safe and affirmed in schools. Their freedom to have agency over their own thoughts and their own feelings. We just feel that students deserve a voice at the table when they're talking about their own education."

Staff writer Ricky Young contributed to this report.

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at cnesbitt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.