feature image photo by GIORGIO VIERA / Contributor via Getty Images
Two years ago, Florida moms Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovich started a group called “Moms for Libertywp_postswith the goal of ‘standing up for parental rights’ in America. Their rallying cry implored parents nationwide to band together to protect their children — an undeniably powerful message — but their idea of “protectionwp_postswas extremely specific. It started out opposing Covid mask mandates for students and has since expanded into an influential nationwide movement to push anti-LGBTQ and anti-Black laws, strip classrooms of critical thinking, and ban queer and race representation from libraries and curriculum.
Today, Moms for Liberty (or M4L) is one of the most powerful far-right, conservative advocacy groups in America’s public education. A June 6 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled the group “extremistwp_postsand “one of the most recognized names in the anti-student inclusion movement”, owing to the dramatic power they have amassed in their fight against ‘the woke agenda’ in schools. And they are alarmingly fast-growing.
In its short existence, the group has spread to 250+ county chapters across 42 states. It boasts over 100,000 members — primarily conservative families who are made to feel empowered by “protect your childrenwp_postsmessaging and then used as foot soldiers to peddle a far-right agenda. And it’s not just this army of parents that bolsters their growing power; it’s their strong political backing, corporate influence, and ability to sway public opinion.
Let’s take a look at how they wield some of that power.
In their home ground of Florida in 2022, M4L’s inaugural national summit keynote address was delivered by governor and Presidential race runner Ron DeSantis, a vocal supporter of the group’s work. Soon after, he helped the group’s members get appointed to school boards across Florida, and they worked hand-in-hand with lawmakers to push the state’s perilous Don’t Say Gay/Trans bill among other conservative actions.
DeSantis then nominated M4L leader Bridget Ziegler to the board of Disney World, thus enabling them to dig their claws into the children’s entertainment giant and drive content decisions. Last month they even attacked an elementary school teacher for screening a Disney movie with a gay character, nearly ending her career. Ziegler continues to be vocal about getting more anti-LGBTQ legislation outside of just Florida, masquerading it as a parent’s right to be involved in their child’s education.
It’s no surprise that M4L’s state chapters are borrowing similar pressure tactics and political favors to reshape school boards and advocate for conservative legislation across states like South Carolina, Tennessee, Wisconsin, New York and Ohio. These efforts are backed by Republican politicians and leaders with great influence. For instance, Presidential race runner Nikki Haley has recently added to their public voice. Former President Donald Trump and DeSantis are both on the list of speakers for this month’s M4L summit — not coincidentally, happening during Pride month. This movement is quickly gaining momentum as the ‘new face of the Republican party’ and their agenda threatens queer liberties in the classroom and beyond.
Another issue this group is zealous about is banning Critical Race Theory materials in schools. Take a look at this North Carolina M4L member who is all for teaching truthful history, but against “labeling people as oppressors and victims solely based on the color of their skinwp_posts— a confusing way to teach the “truthfulwp_postshistory of race. Interestingly, in her point about how we mustn’t see color in racial history, she invokes a Martin Luther King quote — an age-old tactic to co-opt historical figures and distort their message. She continues to warn parents of terms like social justice, diversity, equity, inclusion, saying that “those inherently good things are being used to disguise a biased political agenda.”
Most recently, the group has been the most influential voice behind the book bans that are catching people’s attention nationwide. Of the nearly 1,500 instances of book bans last year, one-fifth of them were a result of far-right advocacy, and these Moms were at the forefront. A quarter of the titles banned were because of the presence of queer characters or themes (8% contained trans representation). Books have also been banned for mentions of race, abortion, mental and sexual wellbeing, and teen pregnancies, among other things. This saddening suppression of free expression is just another nail in the coffin of public education, being hammered in by M4L as a part of their manifesto against progressive learning.
M4L’s Manifesto: An offensive anti-queer distortion
One of M4L’s main talking points in schools is to tear down Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), an educational framework that centers on inculcating traits like self-awareness, social awareness, good decision making, cognitive skills, growth mindsets, values, empathy, equity, and perspective. Essentially, the key traits and abilities that make young people well-rounded humans. However, M4L’s manifesto frames it a little differently…
‘Don’t be fooled,’ it warns in its Guide for Parents. ‘The goal [of SEL] is to psychologically manipulate students to accept the progressive ideology that supports gender fluidity, sexual preference exploration, and systemic oppression.’
As an education researcher at NYU’s Metropolitan Center and as a Brown, queer person, this highly offends me. So let me set the record straight real quick: Decades-worth of evidence shows social and emotional skills are essential to learning and life outcomes. When they are integrated into school programs, systems, and teaching strategies, they can improve academic outcomes, physical and mental well-being and future success, and decrease emotional distress.
The attack on SEL is just a new page in the far-right playbook against critical thinking and acceptance. More importantly, it is a dangerously slippery slope that erases the identities and lived experiences of young queer and trans people and racial minorities, creates unhealthy and unsafe familial situations, and stunts the growth of students. The SEL framework of pedagogy is central to the liberties of diverse young people — which is exactly why M4L is distorting and attacking it.
This Pride let’s learn from these Mobs, I mean Moms
‘Our founders are Tiffany and Tina,’ M4L’s website reads, ‘moms on a mission to stoke the fires of liberty.’ In reality though, the only thing they’re stoking is the narrative of fear, and their tactics are extremely effective. They use words like “protectionwp_postsand “rightswp_poststo ironically build cages around gender and trans expression and racial realities. Their accumulation of power is strategic — in messaging, political positioning, corporate partnerships, and grassroot mobilization nationwide.
So this Pride, let’s learn from our opposition so we can beat them at their game.
Let’s put our collective strengths toward organizing, mobilizing and taking seats of power where they matter in public education. Like the coalition Defense for Democracy — frustrated by M4L’s takeover of their school board in the Hudson Valley, they started a counter grassroots movement in New York that has now spread to Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, gaining national traction against far-right crusaders. They work hard as allies of the queer community by rallying at school board meetings, supporting public school librarians facing pressure from M4L, working with elected officials to protect civil rights through Pledges, and wielding social media to expand their state chapters.
Let’s pay attention to distorted narratives and hypocrisies in school politics to act swiftly against them. Like the National Center for Lesbians that filed a lawsuit against Florida’s Don’t Say Gay/Trans bill, or GLAAD and Equality Florida that are dismantling the bill’s legitimacy in public forums, organizing protests with students, and creating trackers to monitor anti-queer rhetoric and misinformation by public officials.
Let’s channel our pride towards making schools safer, more inclusive, and more representative of diverse identities by playing the game that these Mobs are playing, but better.
This Pride, let’s fight fire with our fire.