PEN America’s Freedom to Learn Student Summit – Southern California

Freedom to Learn Student Summit -Southern California

PEN America is coming to the Lawndale Library this May to host our first-ever Freedom to Learn Student Summit for high school students in Southern California! This unique day of thematic workshops and activities led by PEN America student leaders and staff will help equip students with the knowledge and skills necessary to combat book banning and educational censorship to preserve the freedoms to read and learn in their schools, libraries, and communities across the region and beyond!

Our program will begin with brief presentations that introduce students to PEN America as well as the state of book bans and educational censorship issues locally and across the United States. Breakout discussions and activities will follow, where students can engage on some of the most difficult questions related to free expression and schools today. Students will be tasked at the end to work together on presenting advocacy campaign ideas to address freedom to learn challenges, exploring new and innovative ways to address the issues together through creativity and activism.


This event is open to students in any level of high school and is free to attend. Lunch will be provided. Capacity is limited so register as soon as possible. If you have any questions, please contact us at [email protected].




Program Itinerary:


Activity: Starts: Ends:

Welcome, Ice Breaker, and Opening Remarks from PEN America

10:00 AM 10:30 AM

Workshop: What’s Happening: Book Bans and Educational Censorship in the United States

10:30 AM 11:15 AM
15 min Break 11:15 AM 11:30 AM

Workshop: Why It Matters: Celebrating Literature and It’s Impact

11:30 AM 12:15 PM

Lunch with Activities

12:15 PM 1:00 PM

Workshop: What Can We Do? Success Stories and Tips for Advocacy 

1:00 PM 1:45 PM
15 min Break 1:45 PM 2:00 PM

Guest Speaker: Brooke Harper

2:00 PM 3:00 PM
Closing and Group Photo 3:00 PM 3:30 PM
*Subject to Change*



Guest Speaker:


Brooke Harper HeadshotBrooke Harper is a parent, advocate, educator, and arts professional based in Orange County. In 2020, she organized a petition condemning the Orange County Board of Education’s school reopening plan that garnered over 60,000 signatures. She has since turned her focus to her local school board in the hopes to serve the historically underrepresented families and students who live in Placentia-Yorba Linda. Through this work, she has discovered a large contingency of equity-minded families throughout her community.


Student LEADERS:


Hello! My name is Gianna Goodman-Bhyat and I am the founder and president of the Banned Books Club at Mira Costa High School. I started the club because I wanted to create a space for students like me to discuss ideas that are not necessarily addressed within an academic setting, and to do so in a way that is lighthearted, compassionate, and grounded in genuine curiosity. Books have always been my favorite way to appreciate the world, and I hope to play a part in the mission to ensure that no student is denied access to such magical educational tools.

Hi! I’m Sofia Williams, a junior at Mira Costa High School. I am the co-director of Teens For Press Freedom, a national youth-led organization that aims to promote media literacy and the free press. I am also the managing editor of La Vista, my school newspaper, and am a member of my school’s orchestra. I love reading, writing, drinking coffee, music, and movies. I think that free speech is an incredibly important issue for students; it is the cornerstone of democracy and allows for exposure to various ideas and perspectives.




Hi! My name is Sebastian Asiddao. I deeply enjoy writing, both poetry and music, and I joined the team for the Freedom to Learn Summit because I know that the freedom to learn is the freedom to live. My mother is Jewish and my father grew up during Marcos’ dictatorship of the Philippines. From both sides of my parentage, I have learned that education is the opposition to oppression. The censorship of education in the US makes way for the rise of oppression. As such, we have an obligation to protect education. We do this by freeing literature.

My name is Lily Boettcher and I am the vice president of the Banned Books Club at Mira Costa High School. I also lead an environmental club called Every Small Act Matters, which aims to prove that ordinary individuals have the power to enact genuine change in the world. I am passionate about the freedom to learn because I understand the importance of elevating voices that are silenced, and allowing young kids to see themselves represented in the stories they read.

My name is Elizabeth Goldman. I am currently a senior at Mira Costa High School and a passionate member of the Banned Books Club. I’m also Editor-in-Chief of La Vista, Mira Costa’s newspaper, as well as Executive Director of Anchorless Productions, a local theater company for young adults with disabilities. In my free time, I like reading, writing, listening to music and spending time with friends. Some of my favorite books include Everything I Never Told You, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Starless Sea and The Great Gatsby.

Hi, I‘m Rachel Khoddam. I love climbing, playing water polo, and of course reading! I also love cooking and I am currently learning how to knit and speak German. Education is one of the most powerful tools we can possess as students. It is important to protect our freedom to learn, because it is our greatest strength in disrupting the status quo. 

Hi, my name is Ray Parikh! In my free time, I enjoy writing poetry, participating in cyber security competitions, and working on web development projects. I am also a tutor at Mathnasium, a program that aims to engage children in math using modern teaching techniques, and I am passionate about promoting accessibility in education. I have always been a complete bookworm, and I believe very strongly in the power of inclusivity in literature.

Hi! My name is Anfissa Pruitt and I’m a sophomore at Mira Costa. I run the 180 Days Around the World club at Costa which seeks to diversify education and give people an opportunity to explore and speak about their culture. As an artist, writer, and avid reader, I believe that the freedom to express oneself is one of the most important rights to recognize. By exercising this right and learning about the historical struggle of artists that work against oppression, we not only become more educated about the past, but become more capable citizens of the future.

Hi, my name is Mareen Shah and I am a sophomore at Mira Costa High School. I am also a percussionist in my school’s concert band, a member of the Mira Costa Indoor Drumline, and I play the bass in the Marching Band. Feeling trapped and unable to express yourself is suffocating, but the music program has become an outlet of expression for me. I want to help protect other forms of expression by advocating for freedom of speech.

Hello, my name is Karyme Valeriano. I am an actor and a member of the Mira Costa Banned Books Club. From a very young age, I connected with the book I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sánchez, because I was able to see myself reflected in the story. As a first generation Mexican American and an older sister, there is this pressure to be perfect, be a role model, without any guidance or direction. I’ve recently found out that the novel has been challenged, and it hurts to witness a work that I identify with being disregarded.


PEN America Staff:


headshot of Nicholas PerezNicholas “Niko” Perez is the program manager of free expression and education at PEN America. In this role, he advances PEN America’s efforts to catalyze a more informed, civic culture through free expression education for the rising generation and the general public, and supports advocacy, analysis, and outreach in the national debate around free speech and inclusion in higher education.