It’s been almost a year since INTO spoke to Zander Moricz when he was catapulted to national renown as the youngest plaintiff against Florida’s HB 1557 – better known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Since then, Zander has continued the fight against this injustice, helped to establish ways for more to join the cause, was featured as part of INTO’s 20 Under 20 series, and started his journey at Harvard University.
Despite his busy schedule, Zander Moricz was able to sit down with INTO once again to check in on where things are one year on. He was accompanied by Anya Dennison, the Head of Staff for the Social Equity Through Education Alliance (SEE). The whole organization is geared towards helping to fight bills like Don’t Say Gay and to providing a safe space and proper education to those who need it, but can’t receive it from the state.
So to start off simply, how has the last year been for you folks?
Anya Dennison: It’s been it’s been pretty good. I mean, the college transition has definitely been pretty crazy. But nothing too out there.
ZM: No, it’s all been too out there. She’s totally lying.
AD: Oh, ok.
ZM: But very exciting.
So when we spoke a year ago, the Don’t Say Gay bill had just been signed, and you were really getting thrown into the international spotlight. How has that transition been as far as finding yourself in that world while also trying to start university?
ZM: Well, and it’s been absolutely terrible (laughs). I should have listened to academic advisors who suggested that I take a year off right away. But I didn’t. I obviously thought that I had all of the answers that Harvard professors somehow didn’t. And I said “no, I will be able to balance this.” And it was a terrible flop. Crazy things happened right at the start of orientation. Pete Buttigieg sent me and the rest of the SEE organizers a letter thanking us for all of the campaign work that we had been doing. And I so excitedly posted it to my Twitter… and doxxed myself to like 20,000 human beings. And so second day of school, I’m in a bathroom with lawyers, Anya, my family, and people were like “Okay, everyone get out of the house, like there’s been a death threat.” And I’m just sitting here at school going “Oh, my God, I just started this. And there’s no one to tell me how to do it. And it’s going poorly.” It’s been a mess.
ZM: But an exciting time with a lot of crazy. And that’s all the personal side. But professionally speaking, it’s been absolutely unbelievable.
It feels like a sad situation once a bill is signed (or not signed), the public consciousness very much moves on for the majority of people. Meanwhile, you’re talking about months down the line, August or September, and you’re still getting death threats?
ZM: I think that there are two things to recognize here. The first is the problem with digital activism. There are so many pieces of legislation and so many tragedies and so many actions, and the Internet is pumping them out into everyone’s collective consciousness, and no one can keep up. So no one’s actually engaging with specific occurrences, everyone is just running to one after another, trying to keep up, trying to stay aware. People think that the most valuable thing they can do is stay aware: but in reality, it’s not that helpful if someone in Tampa, Florida knows everything that’s going on with someone in San Francisco, California. People need to redirect their energies and attention to their local communities. When they do that, they can be more aware school boards like Sarasota County working to integrate the most harmful pieces of the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation onto a district level, and they’re going to see books getting banned, and libraries being shut down. And they’re going to see all of the really harmful detrimental generational impacts of this legislation. And if they focus their energies locally, they’re going to be able to do something more impactful about it.
That’s one of the biggest things that SEE has been doing and that is why we’re continuing to stir the pot and receive the consequences that we are, and I think that’s part of the problem. When you take action on a local level, when you leverage the cultural and electoral power that community members have within their specific communities, pressure is created. And politicians feel that. And politicians do not like that. And their supporters don’t like that. Our protests have been counter-protested, and we’ve had politicians retweet insulting articles about myself and our youth organizers. It’s more humiliating for them than us. But it’s definitely a very clear representation that, even though it’s youth organizing, there’s no one off-limits. Once you enter the political space, people just stop treating everyone like human beings. Anya, do you have stuff to add? You spoke at the testimony and people cried and also spat.
AD: We see so much of this. For example, Manatee County is 45 minutes away from where I’m sitting right now and there have been pictures trending across the Internet of their bookshelves being covered in paper, because they have to close them off.
Yeah, we’ve been seeing more trends of book banning, and those pictures that show whole bookcases covered over: how has it managed to get so bad?
ZM: Because it’s so vague. And because there are no guidelines on how to follow the law. Because the legislators don’t want you to follow the law. They want you to break the law. There’s no way to know what’s off-limits because of the vague phrasing. So teachers and districts, out of fear, have been instructed to cover all books. And what you have is this really dystopian result, which is you’re in a school with no books, and it’s horrifying.
You said the legislators don’t want you to follow the law, they want you to break the law. Can you expand on that a little bit?
ZM: Yeah, so the law is written so confusingly, so vaguely, and so intentionally unclearly, that people either break it and suffer the consequences and create publicity, or they self-correct so severely out of fear that they end up self-censoring more than whatever would be legally impossible to legislate. Either way, it’s a win for the people who create it. If you self-censor to an extreme, you’re executing the goals of the legislation for them. If you break the law, perfect. You’ve just made yourself the laws big news that they’re going to peddle across the state, publicize, prove that it’s a success, prove that there’s “need” for this legislation, setting new guidelines because, look, people are already breaking them, and it’s a very evil, toxic trap because it’s all built around fear. And it goes further than that. Anya, do you want to talk about what happened at New College?
AD: So New College is a progressive, sort of untraditional school, you’re able to design your own degree program and everything like that, here in Sarasota. They basically had their entire board overthrown. DeSantis appointed a bunch of people on his own agenda to push his views into the school while trying to reframe the school’s position in the educational space from that progressive-leaning institution to the more restrictive view that he’d like to see.
ZM: He named a private Christian school in Michigan that he said he wanted to remodel New College of Florida after, and the two institutions couldn’t be more different. So he specifically stated his intentions were to create a more conservative traditional school out of this intentionally progressive and untraditional school. And what you have are people who have been proponents of pushing things like critical race discussion out of academia being put on the board of a school that was able to be at the forefront of that. And the detriments are also going to be super terrible because the students who selected to go to New College selected to go there because they felt it would be a safe space for them, and then it has just become particularly and specifically unsafe, really quickly, and without anyone’s consent.
When you instill a bunch of government-appointed people onto this new progressive school’s board, more than anything, it creates a culture of fear it sets a new tone. That’s what DeSantis has been doing across the state. Anywhere DeSantis can appoint someone, he has. And he’s doing it to a very aggressive, extremist conservative degree.
It’s a lot, because then when you get into this year, he reapproved AP European History statewide, and then banned AP African American History statewide. And when you have all of these things coming into play within a year of the “Don’t Say Gay” law and the “Stop Woke” Act, what is very clear is that DeSantis saw “Don’t Say Gay” and “Stop Woke” as huge successes for him publicity-wise and huge successes for him in terms of the conversation about his presidential race. He’s doing it again to prepare more pressing media attention for his future candidacy as well.
Okay. Absolutely. So, what you’re saying is: Everything in Florida is terrible.
ZM: Yeah. Welcome!
So, on a wider level, presidential elections are coming up and this is clearly going to be a big part of the conversation during those campaigns. With the anti-LGBTQ+, and specifically anti-trans laws being such a big focus of conservative policy. I know that we’re very fond of saying, “well get out and vote,” but what can people do, and what are you folks doing right now? Zander, you’re the executive director for SEE, and Anya, you’re the head of staff. When Zander and I talked in May of 2022, he described SEE as a national movement that works on local levels to empower activists and energize voters so that we can take back the United States.
ZM: That stands to be correct. But we also have a crystallized mission statement now: we are a big and growing alliance of youth organizers collaborating locally, connecting nationally, creating for the future, and fighting for the present to build power for young people.
Obviously SEE has grown immensely in the past nine months. The need and the attention have obviously been a big driving force for that. Can you talk a bit about how it has grown and how you see it progressing from here?
AD: We started off as a coalition of students across the state, right? And then eventually, nationally, we were able to expand. But beyond that, over the last nine months, I think that our biggest point of growth has been from a coalition to an organization. We were able to file for nonprofit status for both the (c)(3) and the (c)(4). We’ve had so many people come on, with backgrounds ranging from being juniors in high school to experienced workers for the Human Rights Campaign. They know that we are the ones who are going to make an impact, which has just been honestly just wonderful to see.
ZM: Yeah, it’s been very affirming to just see and receive so much energy for what we’re doing because it’s essential. I think our arc of growth has been really strong. We founded SEE in 2019 in response to Sarasota County’s oppressive school board policies. That board has been pushing anti-queer, anti-Black, anti-trans legislation, in our district since any of those legislations have existed. We haven’t had a Democratic county commissioner in 50 years, our county commissioner is the vice chair of Florida’s Republican Party, and his wife founded Moms for Liberty, and she’s on our school board. She helped write the “Don’t Say Gay” law, and our entire county has become this cesspool for conservative censorship tactics. It’s a direct pipeline to the policies coming to and from Tallahassee, and that is clear and harmful in our education system particularly.
So I wanted to do something about all of that, and we began organizing around classrooms in our school boards and pushing new policies and working on new campaign aims, starting discussions, fundraising, and doing everything that we could. After we spread our efforts around the state and met with organizers around the state, people naturally came to us around the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, because it literally destroys social equity in education, and we are the Social Equity through Education Alliance.
What ended up happening was some of the biggest progressive funders in the social justice space essentially realized that what was going on in the digital realm was not working. Social media activism was failing in bringing people offline in a way that was sustainable. What they saw time and again was that people will come offline for a tragedy, but they will not consistently organize, they will not devote themselves to specific policies, they will not sustain movements, they will not drive local meaningful efforts, because social media activism just isn’t enough. These funders said, we need to try something new, because we know that it has to be youth-led. If these policies are coming after young people, we cannot just turn to the established movements on the ground. They’re all run by adults that do not relate to, understand, or are capable of best addressing those policies that youth communities are facing. What was decided was that there needed to be a ground movement, by and for young people, where all of the money, all of the choices, everything was directed by young people. And we were already that.
So when my speech went viral, and these people were immediately exposed to all of the real-world work that we had already been doing, they got so excited, because instead of just talking about our intentions, we were able to talk about our impacts. Instead of showing the amount of people that follow us on social media, we were able to show the amount of people that took direct action in their communities. That sparked a lot of interest, and funding and excitement. And because of that, we left 2022 as the most well-funded, and the most-awarded youth-led nonprofit in the United States.
We received a $1 million grant from the JDL Foundation, which is the largest of its kind in history. It’s given us this huge electric current to be able to drive resources and energy and action to Florida. A part of that growth process has meant that Anya and I are leaving our dream institutions for a semester each. We are telling everyone else to go to Florida, we can’t not do the same. So we are headed to Florida, headed to Sarasota to open our very first SEE space.
We talked a little before the interview about these SEE community spaces, so I’m eager to hear more about them. Can you talk about what they are, how they operate, and what they’ll achieve?
ZM: SEE spaces are youth-staffed Community Action and Resource Centers. And this will be the first youth-staffed community center in Florida. We’re doing this huge, incredible progressive first in the face of all of these really terrible firsts that are occurring in Sarasota County. And we’re excited because it is needed. In that space, we have a coalition of young activists and established Black professors who are cultivating a comparable AP African American History curriculum. So what we are doing is creating the curriculum and preparing a comparable exam that will be delivered in either standardized or accommodating test environments. We are going to create the certification for African American history that will certify that a student has received at least what would be considered a three or above on the AP exam, which is all that it takes to get the AP credit. In addition, we will certify that the student has taken some type of civic action in their communities and they have attended a certain number of digital or in-person classes. We are now going to be the only way that most students in Florida can take African American history, because it was banned from Florida Public Schools. So I think that also highlights a really crucial opportunity for community schooling, and for community-focused efforts, because we need to turn our perspective away from just government-regulated and run institutions. We can’t trust or rely on those right now. So I think when you see a ton of academic industry professionals and icons coming together to create this curriculum that is actually more diverse than the original AP African American history curriculum, it shows that there is a very clear and simple way to navigate the censorships and restrictions that we are experiencing.
You’ve talked about SEE being the first youth-led version of something like this in Florida, so what does that all look like?
ZM: So for the general model of a SEE space is you can come and do your work, or you can join our work. So, if you’re doing your work, we provide free Wi-Fi, free seating, and our SEE space is open until 10pm. A lot of people don’t have sheltered community environments or home environments that are conducive to success, and we want to make sure that we are providing one. We also have free food and free coffee, and we have a wonderful SEE Space director who has a comprehensive understanding of and can help anyone navigate Planned Parenthood resources and things of that nature.
If you want to come and do our work, we offer volunteer hours every single day, and volunteer hours are required for Florida students to graduate. We offer volunteer hours for students to engage in any of our community action projects or protests, and those might look like a phone banking session, a door-knocking campaign, taking part in our voter registration efforts, or participating in one of our civic curriculums. We have a lot of civic engagement lessons that are going to be going on in this space, civics lessons will be a huge part of what we do. And then we also have interactive social programming. So things like Deep Dishing, which is where everyone gets ingredients to make their own personal pizza while the instructor discusses a critical part of our nation’s history that is banned from Florida schools.
AD: The fact that we’re offering door-knocking campaigns and phone-banking in a manner that is nonpartisan is really important. A lot of youth are becoming civically disengaged because the movements that they’re able to get involved in are, for example, local races that have two parties, and they don’t want to be affiliated with either, especially at such a young age, they don’t want to make that decision already. And so us being able to offer them the opportunity to get experience in the field without having to be associated with a certain party, or having a certain name on their shirt is really, really important.
If there were people elsewhere in the country that wanted to see a space like this, what advice would you give them? Is it something that SEE can help with?
AD: It is!
ZM: Yeah, and this is one of the best things ever. We’re obviously prioritizing people in Florida, because that’s where we feel the most critical need, but anyone anywhere can submit a proposal to start a SEE site. So a SEE site is an organizing coalition that we will work with to at some point in time attempt to create a SEE space there. So we cannot confirm that SEE sites will turn into SEEI spaces outside of Florida for now. But what we can do with SEE sites is fund staff, fund projects, provide resources, provide amplification. If there are movements going down and there’s a critical team needed we can fly people out. If there is a project and people need funding for printing or posters or voter registration information, we can provide that and so it allows us to create a series of SEE spaces across the state and country that create communities of activists and organizers that will eventually run their very own SEEI space.
I know that a huge part of efficiently working at those local levels is community partnerships with the groups that are already there. Does SEE have a particular relationship or particular policy around reaching out to wider community groups?
ZM: First of all, there are several wonderful groups that do similar work in Sarasota, Florida. There are none that specifically developed activists. So I think that that’s where there’s need, but I think, because there are just communities of care in Sarasota and because there are citizens impacted by this legislation, and there will be in every community everywhere, naturally, these wonderful coalitions have formed. So we have wonderful community partners like Also Youth, and Project Pride SRQ, that do really wonderful, meaningful work. I think one other really fun thing to highlight is that Anya and I are actually renting a van that is our SEE Mobile, and we are traveling across the state to make sure that we are doing just as you acknowledged, meeting with all of the community stakeholders that already exist, making sure that every resource and connection has been taken into account before we take action and also making sure that the people that we’re taking action with want the action or know how to lead it, because we are never entering the community with instructions. We’re entering communities with opportunity and resources and then we’re giving them to the people there to lead them and to direct them. And so this is going to be our SEE state tour where we are really connecting with all of these pre-existing coalitions and organizers to see how we can work with them and help them and uplift each other because the conservatives are smart, they’re doing that, we need to.
You’re getting grants, you’re fundraising through social media and locally. Are you finding that you’re getting support from any of the political movements at all?
ZM: Yeah. We’ve been invited to the White House on several occasions, we advise on the IRA and how to distribute information about its impacts to young people. We’ve connected with the Department of Education and the Education Secretary to Cardona to talk about Florida to talk about SEE’s work, to talk about future strategies. And there I also delivered a speech and we’ve been able to connect with a lot of we’ve been able to connect with the climate movement in England. People are running a lot of those organizations and it’s been incredible, I believe we reached 101 countries with our “Don’t Say Gay” organizing and so the international support has been one of the most exciting and important supports we’ve had.
With all of that, what does the future look like? What are your goals, plans for growth, etc.?
ZM: The biggest immediate action, and our most important, is going to be “Walkout 2 Learn” on April 21. “Walkout 2 Learn” is going to be our whammy. Essentially, we are very, very fortunate to have established a digital connection in 90% of Florida schools. And so we intend to mobilize one of our state’s largest protests in history with a mass student walkout. The students from colleges and high schools who will leave their classes and walk out to learn, they will walk out from the classes and they will go listen to one of their peers, instruct them on a piece of banned curriculum that SEE has trained them to deliver and provided them with. So we’re going to establish one community organizer and as many college and high school campuses across Florida as possible, we will train them on how to give a lesson on either critical racial or critical queer history that we will have created and provided them with. And then we will incentivize students across the state to walk out and listen to this lesson. And so what this will also do is when everyone walks out and comes to sit down for the student lesson, the student is also going to lead a huge voter registration drive, we’re going to be able to mass incentivize everyone on that day to be able to take action in those ways. We’re going to Airdrop everyone with education packets on things that need to be taken away from this and future actions to take. And we’re just very, very excited.
AD: On a larger scale, we obviously have more actions planned throughout the year. But then moving forward, it is intervention, SEE sites, and eventually, those are to become physical brick buildings, rather than a pop-up situation. So we plan to expand those across the state to the places that need the most, which we’ll be able to figure out by gathering data from the SEE sites, and then eventually moving into other states like Texas and Georgia, and eventually across the country.
You’ve mentioned a lot of focus on community support and pushing for voting. Is there any particular policy work that you’re doing, or is the focus towards making sure people are informed and voting?
ZM: First, speaking as executive director of Social Equity through Education Alliance, the (c)(3) organization, this year we will be registering 25,000 young people under the age of 25 to vote, which will be absolutely record-breaking and huge. But beyond just registering voters, we’re going to help ensure that they’re educated about who and what they’re voting on. And then we’re going to help make sure that they actually make it to the ballot.
On the policy side, I speak as a board member for Social Equity and Education Alliance. I know that this wonderful (c)(4) organization is working on creating policies that will ensure that school board races are open to young people. They should be able to dictate educational experiences happening around them. And so we want to make sure that those races are accessible to all constituents, I’m pretty sure over the age of 18. And then we also are working on policy that would eventually nationally ban conversion therapy, that’s obviously a much wider discussion. But that is something we’re actually taking a specifically national approach on, is attempting to ban conversion therapy for children. You cannot ban conversion therapy for adults, I guess. But banning conversion therapy for children is something we’re not going to attempt to do within the state because that would just not happen so that’s something we’re taking a national approach for. And I would say that’s, that’s the policy lens, making sure school board elections are fair and open to everyone so that it’s not just privileged young people handling those things.
AD: I think that on the (c)(3) side of things as well, as the Social Equity through Education Alliance, we have an outreach team hard at work on doing research on all the school boards in Florida, to eventually distribute something we’re calling a noncompliance agreement. So it’s not a legally binding document, of course, but it is a pledge that we’re going to ask school board members across the state to sign basically saying that they’re not going to uphold the visibly vague “Don’t Say Gay” law. So to their understanding what they’re being asked to do, is not in alignment with their responsibility to provide students with a quality educational experience. So when presented with the question of whether to uphold it or not, they pledge not to, and so that data will do a couple of things. Number one, it’ll provide us with information on what areas of the state and what school districts are safer for students. So for example, we make that information publicly available as a digestible visual of where the compliant and noncompliant members are so that if parents are considering where in the state to move, they’re able to reference this. And know that at least for the next four years, this district is safe while this district is not. And then more on the (c)(4) Social Equity and Educational Alliance side of things, that data will eventually inform what school board seats maybe need to be flipped in the future. But that’s more of a long-term situation.
So you guys are doing a huge amount with all of this. How many people are actually working for SEE at this point?
ZM: We are onboarding and off-boarding all of the time. So many people work at very different levels. We have a team of 2000 organizers across the country. But I would say that’s more of our coalition organizers. In terms of paid staff who are pummeling in results, I would say we have a team of 30.
AD: I think it’s a good size, where you’re small enough to be able to really form relationships with the people that you’re working with. Everyone is there because you’re bought into the mission, and you want to make an impact. You know that this is where you’ll make the largest impact. So everyone is just very excited to be there. It’s a great way to be a part of it.
So if people wanted to get involved, what are the best things that they can do to either join your organization and help your organization or help their communities?
ZM: They should go to seeourpower.org and they should go to “Join the Alliance,” where every opportunity for engagement is going to be in a single form. And so young people in their communities can become SEE organizers, and they can take action in their communities, and they can work with us on our broader mission. After three months of quality, consistent work as a SEE organizer, we will pay you to do organizing work. And after three months, as a organizer, you’re also able to submit CAP proposals. So those are Community Action Projects, and protests. So if you have done work with us for three months, and you’ve helped us advance these greater missions, and you’ve done great organizing work, then we also want to make sure that we’re supporting your organizing work. And so if you have an idea for your community, we will resource it. And so those are great ways to get involved. If you are not a young person who wants to be in the streets organizing, you do not have to, from that form, you can also donate, sign up for our newsletter. If you have particular expertise. Let us know and we would be happy to have you on the advisory board. Every single person with energy can help.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about the things that you’re both doing or the things that SEE are doing?
ZM: People who check their voter registration through us, or get involved with activism through us, get tons of free stuff and tons of really amazing incentives. I would say, that’s one of our biggest perks. We know that organizing labor is particularly hard and emotional labor. And so there are tons of benefits and accommodations and compensations that come with doing our hard organizing work. And that is not something you will find in most youth movements. And so I think that’s a more shallow but profoundly important bit.
AD: Something that is just generally cool is that in the 158-year history of Cornell, there has never been another person approved for off-campus independent study. So during my time away from school this semester, I’m actually going to be getting a full semester’s worth of credit as though I’m there on campus for the work I’m doing with SEE, which is pretty awesome.
Let’s talk about books, because people keep banning those things. What are you reading?
ZM: My most recent read is “Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope” by bell hooks.
Hey, you know what? It’s on brand.
ZM: I actually took a community-based education course my fall semester. We focused on youth-based movements for justice. It was a tremendous force to take at the time that I did because the professor, Professor Baldrige, is an absolute genius in the field. And this was one of the readings we got, and I think it is tremendously valuable.
AD: My book is it’s called “Gastronativism: Food, Identity, Politics” by Fabio Perasecoli. It’s basically just the intersection of food and politics. So this fits really well. And I have been enjoying it so far. ♦
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Social Equity Through Education (SEE)