A coalition of parents, educators and pro-LGBTQ+, pro-equity groups held a press conference Sept. 24 in front of the Courtyard by Marriott Chicago O'Hare hotel in Des Plaines to protest a school-board candidate training being held inside the hotel. The training, one of many taking place across the state, was sponsored by the anti-LGBTQ+ groups AWAKE Illinois and Moms for Liberty.
AWAKE Illinois, Moms for Liberty and Proud Boy members have shown up at school board meetings for over a year and a half to protest the inclusion of LGBTQ+ and BIPOC curricula and books in Illinois public schools. Their protests have been unsuccessful in removing these items from the schools, hence these trainings to become school-board members.
The coalition also called this press conference to speak out against the increasing levels of hate targeting LGBTQ+-inclusive books in libraries; Pride events, including family-friendly drag shows throughout Illinois; and Lurie Children's Hospital (due to the gender-affirming care the hospital provides to trans youth) in recent months by AWAKE Illinois, Moms for Liberty and Proud Boy members.
Speakers included Illinois Families for Public Schools President and Director Cassie Creswell, Equality Illinois Deputy Director Mony Ruiz-Velasco, Downers Grove District 99 parent Kylie Spahn, Wheaton CUSD (Community Unit School District) 200 parent Shannon Limjuco, Naperville CUSD 203 parent Tim Thompson and Niles Township High School District 219 Board Member Elana Jacobs.
"We must not let their violent agendas spread across Illinois public schools or anywhere else for that matter," said Creswell. "The hate driven by extremism is not new in our country or our state. It ebbs and flows, and its ascendency has often followed times of progress towards greater equality, justice and freedom for people who have historically been deprived of all three. That seems to be what is happening now … Defeating hate is not inevitable: it has always required the collective work of those who are willing to stand together to confront hate and struggle for a more equal, inclusive society. That requires bravery and solidarity. I am grateful for all of you today who are here to speak out and stand up for the inclusive, affirming, truly safe public schools and communities that we all need and deserve. I urge everyone who cares about the public good and wants to live in a multi-racial, multi-cultural democracy that works for everyone, to get engaged and organized."
"We are here today in solidarity with parents, teachers and youth and our partners to call out the hate and intimidation and to tell LGBTQ+ Illinoisans, and particularly youth that you belong, you matter, you are beautiful and you are exactly who you are meant to be," said Ruiz-Velasco. "We are grateful that you are in the world. We have heard directly from our partners throughout the state about these anti-family, anti-equality hate groups that clearly target LGBTQ+ people and community events with online and in-person harassment, intimidation and threats to harm. [Their goal] is to shut down community events and silence LGBTQ+ people and aim to control the lives of other people and deny us our lived experiences. They want to erase LGBTQ+ families and the families of our allies. They peddle a cruel and false message that LGBTQ+ people are deviants [and] deserve shame and stigma. We know that LGBTQ+ people are co-equal members of communities. LGBTQ+ people deserve the same rights, treatment and respect as our straight and cisgender allies. We are here because we will not let these hate groups control our narratives, our families or our ability to see ourselves reflected in our schools and our libraries."
Ruiz-Velasco also spoke about Equality Illinois' work in getting the LGBTQ+-inclusive curriculum law passed. She added that Black, Latinx and Asian-American-inclusive curricula are also mandated by Illinois law. Ruiz-Velasco said these laws ensure that everyone's history gets taught in Illinois schools at all grade levels which is what AWAKE Illinois and Moms for Liberty are attacking because "they want to deny our existence and justify their cruelty. We will not let them do that." She also encouraged pro-equality citizens to run for elected office at every level in Illinois to push back on the very training that was happening that day at the hotel.
Spahn spoke about how she and other Downers Grove residents have been pushing back against extremism in all forms in their community. She said the COVID-19 pandemic caused outrage over mask mandates and remote learning that was directed at the school board. Spahn added that once schools re-opened the focus moved to "fabricated outrage over culturally responsive teaching standards which extremists in our community, and we now know across the country, call Critical Race Theory (CRT). This outrage was sparked by our district's commitment to recommendations in the district's Diversity Equity Inclusion audit. Parents in our community pushed back.
"When the extremist's efforts failed with regards to CRT, they refocused on the LGBTQ+ students and their community by attempting to ban LGBTQ+ books in our school libraries. The focus of [their] attacks was the book, Gender Queer. They tried to threaten and bully us. A Community High School District 99 parent was responsible for bringing the hate group, the Proud Boys, one of the organizations that collaborated on the attack on the [United States] Capitol on January 6, 2021, to our school board meeting. This meeting made national news highlighting the strength of five high school students who bravely stood up to these bullies amid taunts, jeers and name calling. Parents supporting our right to intellectual freedom also spoke out in support of diverse literature in our libraries. We won that fight, too.
"School boards across the country are responsible for so much that make for a dignified school day for all our students. In the wrong hands, as we have seen around the country, groups like Moms for Liberty, are having a terrible impact on our Black and Brown and LGBTQ+ students … Due to being outspoken, I was attacked verbally at meetings, and my employer was called by someone [several] times who claimed I was a groomer and should not be around kids. Despite this, my job is intact and the students at District 99 can read books that our experts at school find appropriate, for now. Stand up for our school boards, stand up for our students, pay attention to who you are voting for in our elections and all the rest. There is a lot at stake."
Limjuco said she has two children attending CUSD 200 and decided to speak out because she is "alarmed by the extremist agenda of AWAKE Illinois and Moms for Liberty.' She added that in her district, people who do not have children in the schools, come to board meetings to "stand up and yell hateful names at our board members that cause disruptions and chaos" with the goal of banning books, weaking sex-ed standards and dissolving equity and social/emotional learning initiatives. Limjuco said these people hold the minority viewpoint in the community.
"The parents leading these groups inside the Marriott claim to be protecting our children, but they have an agenda that is anti-equity and anti-family, and they continually model the worst bullying behavior possible for all our children," said Limjuco. "I have seen them target and harass, in person and online, school board members, administrators, teachers and even parents who speak out against them. Their motto: you can't cancel us. Yet, they want to erase anyone who does not hold their belief system or look like them."
This harassment causes people who care about diversity and inclusion in schools from running for school board positions because they do not want to be targeted, said Limjuco.
"I will not stand by while my public schools, or yours, are under attack," said Limjuco. "Please, go to your school board meetings. Consider running for school board. Public schools are the backbone of our democracy. We must do everything we can to make sure they remain strongto protect the rights of all children and all families in our communities."
Thompson, who is also a teacher in another district, spoke about the difficulties of remote learning that took place in the winter of 2020-2021 for everyone involved. He added that during the subsequent 2021 municipal election cycle he discovered that there was a "slate of anti-everything candidates" running for school board who would then make up the majority, so he vowed to prevent that from happening and on election day none of them won. Thompson said he was relieved and thought "it was over" but that was not the case.
"We all know what happened next," said Thompson. "A similarly failed candidate from District 204, formed AWAKE Illinois. By mid-May, she was already speaking at area board meetings, including 203 on May 18, raging against 'the evils of CRT' … The individual leading training for parents here in Des Plaines and around Illinois, who is part of a larger network of moms groups with a similar agenda of exclusion and hate, has not made much traction in her own town. As AWAKE trains parents around our state and Moms for Liberty sprouts chapters across the country funded by dark money and dark ideals, we will continue to push back against these radical, hateful, dangerous ideas and keep them far away from our schools, our parks and our cities."
Jacobs, who is also a queer lesbian teacher, said Niles Towship 219 is very diverse with students from many countries, even those at war with one another, and her school district works very hard to provide an inclusive culture and curriculum for everyone. She said that recently she was featured in a "pink slime" news story that was shared by AWAKE Illinois on social media due to her advocacy work.
"Next door at the Niles Township Library, [there was] an extremist takeover of the board with a slate of candidates who ran and won to defund the library, exclude texts that were not in English. An anti-equity, anti-equality agenda is creeping into our public spaces. This is not only a Niles thing, or an Illinois thing, it is much bigger thing … I hope you will all stay informed and do your research for school boards, and public spaces. School board races are not until April, 2023. I am asking you to please run for school board, library board and park district board races. These are very important places you have help make a difference."
Illinois Families for Public Schools Board Member Huu Nguyen read a Lurie Children's Hospital statement, "Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago stands in support of LGBTQIA+ students and curricula that reflect and include these identities. As a leading Illinois hospital, Lurie Children's recognizes that there are numerous negative health outcomes tied to rejection and harassment in schools and therefor remains committed to supporting access to inclusive and affirming education. According to the GLSEN National School Climate Survey, 85 percent of sexual and gender minority students are subjected to harassment and discrimination at school. Research consistently shows that LGBTQIA students face heightened risk for violence, harassment and social exclusion in school, which are linked to lower levels of school engagement and academic achievement and increased health risk behaviors such as substance abuse, suicidal ideation and depression. Hostile school environments are harmful for LGBTQIA+ students and negatively impact all students. Everyone deserves to feel safe and supported at school. Affirming and inclusive practices create an environment where students of every gender are given an equal opportunity for educational attainment.
"Lurie Children's stands in opposition to hate, transphobia and homophobia in schools and calls on school boards to ensure that public schools remain a beacon of safety for all students. School districts must set an example of understanding, kindness and respect for the entire community, especially for students. We remain a resource to districts that are committed to providing a safe and inclusive learning environment where all students of every identity can learn and succeed."
"ADL Midwest is proud to join this impressive coalition of community leaders and organizations speaking out today in support of Illinois' LGBTQ+ community," said Anti-Defamation League's Midwest Regional Director David Goldenberg in a statement read by Creswell at the press conference. "It is deeply disturbing that school boards and local governments have become the front lines in the fight to protect and celebrate the LGBTQ+ community. But they areand we cannot afford to be silent. Let's be clear, there is an organized and funded campaign underway to target local elected officials who support inclusive communities and policies, intimidate members of the LGBTQ+ community and supportive businesses, ban books and school lessons and preach hate and intolerance to make community members feel unsafe and unwanted.
"Perhaps most concerning, extremist groups like the Proud Boys and others like AWAKE Illinois are carrying out this shameful campaign at a time when national data shows a dramatic uptick in hate crimes targeting members of the LGBTQ+ community, and especially those who identify as trans. Their campaign is rooted in lies, and it is downright dangerous. Schools should be a place for students to learn and grow, and public spaces should be where community members gather freely and express their identities without fear. As groups like AWAKE Illinois and the Proud Boys continue to target the LGBTQ+ community using new and vicious tactics, we are committed to working with our coalition partners to disrupt this cycle of hate and guarantee our communities are more equitable and safer for all."
The press conference received no pushback by any AWAKE Illinois or Moms for Liberty trainers or attendees at the time.
Equality Illinois, Illinois Families for Public Schools, ADL Midwest, Illinois NOW, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | Chicago, Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, National Council of Jewish Women - Chicago North Shore, American Association of University Women - Naperville Area, Buffalo Grove Pride, Indivisible Naperville, Northwest Side Organizing for America (NWSOFA), North/Northwest Suburban Chicago Chapter of NOW, Peoria NOW, DuPage County NOW, Will County NOW, 360 Youth Services were among the co-sponsors.
Creswell also noted that Indian Prairie CUSD 204 parent Asafonie Obed was unable to attend due to a family illness and directed people to watch a video where she tells her story at wevideo.com/view/2553497295.