The PEN Pod: Empowering Youth to Use Their Voices with Jessica Bohrer
This week on The PEN Pod, Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s director of Free Expression and Education, spoke with Jessica Bohrer, who has been protecting and empowering journalists for over a decade. She is the vice president and editorial counsel in the newsroom at Forbes, and she also serves on the Leadership Council of the Committee to Protect Journalists along with her father, Sandy Bohrer, who is a First Amendment lawyer. She recently published a children’s book titled Your Voice is Your Superpower: A Beginner’s Guide to Free Speech (and the First Amendment), co-authored with her father. We spoke to Jessica about the origins of the book, how to talk about the First Amendment with children, and the importance of free speech protections for journalists. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Jessica begins at the 10:49 mark).
Tell me about the book. What did you want to achieve with it, and how did the idea come about?
My dad and I are both First Amendment lawyers who spend most of our days working with journalists to protect their rights to free speech and freedom of the press. We were talking and asking questions like, “When do people learn about the rights of freedom of speech and freedom of the press? When in your childhood or adulthood do you really come to value something like free speech?” We thought it would be a really fun idea to talk to young children about freedom of speech and frame it through the prism of using your voice, and that your voice can be your superpower.
So we decided to write a children’s book about the importance of freedom of speech, and the power of using your voice in the hopes that we can encourage children to both understand what freedom of speech is and also value the importance of protecting it. That’s what ended up becoming Your Voice is Your Superpower, and it’s been a really neat project to work on together.
“We were talking and asking questions like, ‘When do people learn about the rights of freedom of speech and freedom of the press? When in your childhood or adulthood do you really come to value something like free speech?’ We thought it would be a really fun idea to talk to young children about freedom of speech and frame it through the prism of using your voice, and that your voice can be your superpower.”
You’ve been promoting the book in schools, among teachers and librarians. How has it been received?
It’s been really neat! Of course, because of the pandemic, we aren’t able to meet with our readers in real life, so we’ve been doing events via Zoom and all of the interactive apps. It’s been really amazing to interact with the readers, from usually about kindergarten age to third grade both in classrooms and in libraries. We’ve done a whole bunch of them around the country. In fact, last weekend we just taped a reading and an art activity with the local library in my neighborhood in Miami, FL. It was really neat, but it’s amazing to be face-to-face with the readers to see their faces, especially when they’re hearing you read the book, and you can see the impact that the messages in the book have on them.
I had a reader who said to me that she used to be really shy, but after reading Your Voice is Your Superpower, she felt really empowered and strong and was excited to use her voice. And that’s the kind of experience we were hoping to get when we wrote the book—to make kids feel empowered and to make them really understand the value of protecting the rights to free speech. These kinds of interactive experiences have been really amazing.
Your father is a First Amendment lawyer, and you certainly have some knowledge of First Amendment cases, but it seems tremendously complicated for young children. What do you say to those who think that kindergarten is really just too young to learn about the First Amendment?
It’s a certainly tough concept for children as well as adults in some respects, but when we talk to young children—so kindergarteners who are four, five, and six year olds—we talked to them about rules. We talked to them about rules in their house, in their classroom, and in libraries, and when they go out into the world, they already know that there are rules. So we kind of frame it like the First Amendment is one of those rules, and what’s so great about this particular rule is that it gives us this amazing power, this amazing opportunity to use our voices. So we don’t focus on the language of the amendment itself and the Constitution so much as the spirit that’s behind it.
We really focus on giving the readers—the children and their parents, frankly—a lot of tangible examples of ways they can use their voice, as well as the concept that, in fact, they don’t actually always have to use their voice. Sometimes it’s important to just have the space to be quiet and to listen. We’re trying to really give the message that everyone has a voice, and there are so many ways to use that voice, and we want them to feel empowered and respectful of other voices.
“I had a reader who said to me that she used to be really shy, but after reading Your Voice is Your Superpower, she felt really empowered and strong and was excited to use her voice. And that’s the kind of experience we were hoping to get when we wrote the book—to make kids feel empowered and to make them really understand the value of protecting the rights to free speech.”
What we found especially in the classrooms, as well as in the libraries is that that’s a really challenging topic for little kids, but it’s so important. When you’re starting your first years in informal schooling, you’re interacting with lots of kids, teachers, librarians, and administrators, and so being able to find the right way to express yourself is a really important tool. I think the message really resonates, I hope, with both the youngest students who are reading the book and their family members, their parents, their guardians that are around so we can all have better communication.
We know that the climate these kids are growing up with and in is often one of conflict. And they see that grownups are having trouble with talking to people that they disagree with, being good listeners, and allowing other people that they disagree with the space to share their feelings and their opinions, so I think it’s an amazing tool to start working on at an early age, instead of waiting until you’re in college or out there in the professional world.
Absolutely, I’ve done a lot of work with college campuses in the past few years, precisely on the issues you’re talking about—not just empowering people to use their voices, but understanding the importance of respecting when other people are using their voices too. I think there aren’t a lot of models, as you said, in the political sphere and in other areas for young people, and certainly for teenagers now, to look at and see respectful dialogue. So it’s certainly a politicized and polarized issue across the country. Have you had any negative responses from teachers who are concerned about how they can effectively broach these topics in schools?
Well, we haven’t had negative feedback, but I’ve certainly had teachers who said that they have students that maybe have an outlier of a viewpoint from the majority of their class, and that they struggle with how to get all of the kids to be respectful of each other’s voices and opinions and feelings. I definitely have had conversations with teachers before we set up our actual classroom visit to talk about ways we can emphasize how hard this is. Just like you’ve been saying, college students have trouble with this, little kids have trouble with it, grownups have trouble with it—listening to people we don’t agree with is hard. It’s not always easy, especially when it’s something we care about very much, but I think it’s a great space to talk about that.
“We really focus on giving the readers—the children and their parents, frankly—a lot of tangible examples of ways they can use their voice, as well as the concept that, in fact, they don’t actually always have to use their voice. Sometimes it’s important to just have the space to be quiet and to listen. We’re trying to really give the message that everyone has a voice, and there are so many ways to use that voice, and we want them to feel empowered and respectful of other voices.”
When we’re talking about the book itself, we use that as a nice jumping off point, and then let the kids sort of take it where they want to go. When we launched the book, it was also right before the election, so a lot of the children were experiencing the events happening in the United States. They were hearing people talk about the election, they were hearing people talk about different viewpoints, and a lot of it’s heated. Maybe they’re going to protests, maybe they’re hearing their parents upset about what’s happening in the news—it’s a really heated and emotional time. So I think it’s been a nice moment to have this conversation with kids and students in that setting.
It’s certainly challenging when there’s one kid in the class who maybe comes from a different perspective, but I’m very sympathetic to that challenge. And believe it or not, of course, kindergarten students can have political views too. They can disagree on things like the environment, the government, decisions in their school, the way families should operate—all these things that adults think about, children are thinking about them too. As a free speech advocate and a free speech lawyer, that’s definitely the most challenging aspect of freedom of speech that I encounter with our young readers, as well as with adults in the real world. I think that’s often the most challenging piece of it.
Oh, absolutely, kids certainly have political opinions, especially as they’re trying to make sense of the world, and this book offers one way to help them do that. As you’re describing, they haven’t been sheltered, they’re seeing these things going on in their lives, they’re seeing what their parents are talking about—they’re listening all the time. So having a way to broach those topics for teachers in schools, to me, seems like a real asset.
Thank you, me too. To build on that, one of the points that has been interesting to bring home with some of these children is that using your voice doesn’t necessarily mean speaking and talking with your mouth out loud, and that there are lots of other ways to express things you care about and what’s meaningful to you, what makes you feel good, what makes you feel bad. It’s been empowering to see, especially when some of the students are a little bit more shy and don’t think of themselves as super vocal, we’ve been able to show them some examples of ways you can express yourself—whether that’s in what you wear, something symbolic, or a practice you do at home or outside of the home, whether it’s religious or other kinds of cultural traditions, or whether it’s writing a letter or a poem, or creating a poster that you put in your window and people see when they drive or walk by your house or your apartment.
That’s been really nice because I think children sometimes feel a little bit of pressure in this environment to be, or act, or express themselves in a certain way—either to fit in or to stand out. One thing I hope we’re doing in our readings and interactions with our kids and readers is making them feel empowered to find their own ways of expressing themselves and to let others do that too.
“One of the points that has been interesting to bring home with some of these children is that using your voice doesn’t necessarily mean speaking and talking with your mouth out loud, and that there are lots of other ways to express things you care about and what’s meaningful to you, what makes you feel good, what makes you feel bad.”
You’ve developed a guide, materials, and other resources for teachers to complement the book.
That’s right. We have a PDF full of educational activities that teachers, librarians, and parents can use at home or at school. It has a bunch of tangible exercises to do either as an exercise they can do before we come in and do a reading, or just independently after the reading or when they’re at home. So those exercises include everything from writing a letter to the president, the vice president, your mayor, your principal, or someone else who you look up to about something that you care about, to making your own poster to either bring to a protest or put up in your house or on your lawn. And even making a cape!
Our book talks about the fact that some superheroes wear capes, but of course you don’t necessarily need a cape to be a superhero, although I find that a lot of young kids really like wearing capes to be superheroes. So that’s been a fun one too, and we encourage them to draw and write and create something that feels symbolic of an issue or a person that they care about. Seeing how those resources are being used has been really fun.
Finally, I just wanted to ask, for your career, you’ve done all of this work protecting and empowering journalists. How does this book fit into the work that you’re up to otherwise on a day-to-day basis?
Two ways—one is that as someone who works day-to-day protecting and empowering journalists, and working for the right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press, I have a vested interest in more people growing up and believing in those principles and those values.
So the first reason we wrote the book is that we want to hopefully inspire more of the next generation to value freedom of speech and the First Amendment, and all of the things that come with it. That’s really the first goal.
And the connection to my work is that I work with journalists who are exercising those rights, and frankly, those rights are in danger almost every day, given the current climate. We’re hoping to inspire more people who believe in it and generations who will feel motivated to stand up to protect it. The second connection is that I do some advisory work and am on the leadership council of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Because I feel so strongly about the important work they do, we’re donating a portion of the proceeds from Your Voice is Your Superpower to the Committee to Protect Journalists. So that’s been a nice connection for us, and we’re happy to be able to support them in any way that we can.