16 October 2023

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

An Open Letter to My County Government

Dear Anderson County (TN) Official: 

At the October 9th, 2023 meeting of the Anderson County Commission Operations Committee, Mayor Terry Frank issued a call for some potential reforms in regard to the Anderson County Library Board. Essentially, the Mayor is asking for paperwork from each city in Anderson County with a public library in hopes to "untangle the web of governance" (her words). My wife and I fear that these reforms may end up harming our libraries. We do not see the tangled web. Our Library Board has repeatedly followed its processes well and even strengthened said processes through the controversy over a couple of books that started back in February. 

We are aware that some faction of the Operations Committee and some members of the County Commission would like to exert a particular control over the public libraries in order to remove certain books based on extremely partisan, ideological (perhaps, as Commissioner Verran said, “discriminatory”) reasons. We are aware that at least one member of our Commission has even, in the past, questioned whether the county should fund libraries at all. We are aware of the presence of an extreme right-wing contingent on our Commission. We do not support extreme politics on either side.

Over the past few months, we have joined many Anderson County citizens on a mission in support of all current books staying on library shelves and for better treatment of our local Library Directors and our Library Board, who have been on the receiving end of hatefulness from members of the Anderson County Republican Party’s extreme right faction. In early August of this year, Republican Commissioner Anthony Allen of District 6 commented in agreement with a string of libelous Facebook posts by a fellow citizen in which I (Kevin) was referred to as a “pedophile,” a “groomer,” “commie trash,” and accused of “peddling porn.” My job as a teacher was directly threatened. Mr. Allen has since continued to accuse me (in direct discussion and in other closed forums on Facebook) of being unfit for my job because my family supports the LGBTQ+ community and the retention of every single challenged book.

I was raised in Clinton, graduated from Clinton High in 2002, left a few years for college in Murfreesboro, came back in 2009 and stayed. I got married to a wonderful woman, also an educator, and we have a beautiful, talented son in Kindergarten at Clinton Elementary School. I have taught English at Clinton Middle School for the past 14 school years and have dedicated my entire adult life to teaching, coaching, and mentoring Clinton and its surrounding communities’ 12-14 year old children, a most impressionable age in which, I 100% agree, PARENTS, first and foremost, must stay as involved as possible even as children this age inevitably push them away.

We teachers are merely filling in the gaps with state standards and state approved curricula. We form relationships with these young people in the classrooms and hallways and sporting facilities. We do it because we were called to it. Because we care about children. We care about the future of our community and our state and our country. We are mostly not political, and never engage in political issues or reveal our personal beliefs regarding politics or religion. We purposefully collaborate on how best to address societal issues, especially those of controversy, as they arise in the classroom. We are responsible professionals.

We balk at the inflamed rhetoric (and subsequent bills, and now laws, by people like our own Rep. John Ragan) that downgrades public schools, public school teachers, and school and public librarians. We are not villains as right-wing social and cable news media would suggest.  

Librarians are not villains.

Public librarians are educated humans of the highest order of human—the well-read. They know what is valuable when they see it. They know that their professional organizations are in the business of aiding them in curating a modern, robust, and diverse collection of books and print and digital resources that will reach each person, every type of person, with any type of question about anything.

This controversy over the books in the library is not, to my view, about protecting children. If it were, then we would be talking about the rampant uptick in the use of nicotine and cannabis vaporizers among school children as young as 11. If it were, we would be talking about the often heinous adult content that children consume and post on social media. If it were, we would be trying to raise the poor out of poverty and the addict out of addiction with good jobs and affordable housing, so I can call home and talk to a parent instead of an aunt, uncle, grandmother or foster parent. If it were, we would be full force into using our libraries to open our children up to a world of understanding, empathy, and passion. If it were, we would not shy away from how books, even and especially provocative books, can offer, perhaps better than anything else, knowledge of ourselves and knowledge of the world.

This controversy is about a nation-wide extreme partisan culture war manufactured by careless politicians and social media and cable news machines. These wars are built to distract and pit citizens against each other while partisans in public offices make decisions to the citizens’ detriment and the politicians’ gain. 

The extremist faction on our Commission makes outrageous, emotionally-charged claims about sexual education texts for teens being “pornography.” The word “pornography” can most recently be found in relation to those couple pages from that one book deliberately ripped from context, photocopied, and illegally littered on lawns and driveways, then posted on Facebook.

(Because these books’ opponents DON’T want children to see these pages, I suppose they decided free home delivery was the best option?? Pfft. Please quit it with the “pornography” argument. If a teenager wanted to find pornography they could do so in approximately 6.2 seconds on the $700 computer phone in their pocket.)

One of the major books in question is called “Let’s Talk About It” by Erica Moen and Matthew Nolan. It’s always the same page (posted on Facebook, mentioned in the newspaper, plastered on local television and radio by way of WYSH, and sprinkled on lawns in plastic baggies), the one page that advocates “paying for porn” viewed on the Internet, while also informing on issues of ethics and legality of viewing pornography online. In a capitalist society, wouldn’t it be better for these often exploited sex workers, mostly young women who provide a service in high demand, to at least get paid and offered more protection? That seems to be one intended inference from that page. Then, over the next couple of pages, the authors go out of their way to talk about the dangers of pornography consumption and addiction.

I have read "Let's Talk About It" cover-to-cover. At the end of the day, while provocative in its hand-drawn cartoon illustrations, it is a book about modern sexual health, wellness, and awareness and carries positive messages about identity, relationships, the toxic and the healthy, openness to discussion about wants and needs and the importance of consent and general safety. We would call that a blessing in an area of the country that does not value realistic sexual education for young adults. At least, parents and/or their teens/young adults might find something of value at their public library on these topics.

And, even now that it has been made infamous along with "Gender Queer" by Maia Kobabe (unread by me at this point), these books would be massively hard to dig out from under the tens of thousands of books in, say, the Clinton Public Library. The propaganda, the labeling of these books as “bad,” is just making them popular. The book banners will just never learn I guess. Nobody was checking these books out, according to Tommy Mariner, of the Anderson County Library Board. Now, like it or not, more people have. 

This whole thing is embarrassing and unbecoming of our community. It is disrespectful to our children, who are much smarter and more worldly than we could ever imagine. It is quite clear given the overall vibe, if you will, of the Operations Committee meeting re: Library Board is that this feels like we are now trying to fix something that ain’t broke. In that regard, it is disrespectful to the taxpayers, most of whom just wish for business to be done smoothly.

The emphasis on seeking clarity vis-à-vis Mayor Frank’s request is valid, but when we consider the bigger picture, fundamental changes to the current system could begin a slippery slope towards weakening our public libraries in myriad ways involving funding, personnel, and even a design towards ideologically-driven book selection/removal, which is not currently the case.

Let’s keep it that way. So, let’s get some paperwork found or new paperwork drafted.

If we are to eventually draft some new agreement, let us keep the current system in place, one that has worked wonderfully for over 80 years.

Let us make sure that extreme partisans unsuccessful at getting books banned are not able to damage our public library system in retaliation.

Let us recognize and respect that many Anderson county citizens do not like the notion of challenging or conceivably banning any public library books.

Let us also remember that we have, on record, opponents of certain books proclaiming, as recently as last Thursday night-10/12/2023, that they will not stop until the books are removed, and that we cannot meet in the middle as long as threats of lawsuits, distribution of propaganda, hate speech, and inflammatory rhetoric are in play. To “protect Anderson County” is also to protect each of its citizens regardless of politics.

Let us stop harassing citizens and littering their driveways over this. Let us act like adults and show our kids that we can make the business of serving and empowering all Anderson County citizens our obvious number one priority.

Let us allow our Library Board to do its job. Let us adhere to its protocols, which, as a silver lining, have become more thorough and effective through this controversy.

Let’s move on.

Let’s enjoy our wins, cut our losses, and let’s live life and try to understand the world we currently live in, hopefully by letting books challenge us as opposed to the other way around. Hopefully, books obtained for free at the public library. (There’s no need to pay more than once for most books. Our taxes have them covered. This isn’t healthcare.)

Here’s my final call to action: Whatever happens on the issue of the Anderson County Library Board in the coming weeks, we implore you, Commissioners, to vote in such a way that stands behind the decisions of our Library Board thus far, vocalizes your support for our great public institutions, and makes sure every single citizen, especially the poor and most vulnerable, have access to as much information pertaining to themselves and the world as possible. And may you each work to influence your constituents to seek out more positive ways to help the community’s children, ways that do not seek to unfairly limit the means of free information to the local populace. 

We do not and will never stand for any political move that seeks to weaken our public libraries.

If you wanna talk about strengthening them, getting more kids to read books, or actually help children in productive ways, let us know. My wife, Amanda, a reading and literacy specialist, is at Clinton High School serving as an Assistant Principal. I am at Clinton Middle School helping over one hundred of Clinton’s 13- and 14-year-olds learn how to write the English language, doing PA announcements at home basketball games, and coaching some baseball in the spring.

We appreciate your leadership and willingness to serve our community, especially those among you willing to stand up fervently for knowledge, empathy, and civility. 


Kevin and Amanda Powers

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