There’s a slew of books that many students across the country are expected to have read by the end of high school to influence their worldview. The Great Gatsby, Animal Farm, and Romeo and Juliet are three that come to mind, but many of these stories fail to consider a world where queer people exist. Through pieces of work such as Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin, the beloved YA book The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and others, the organization Hope in a Box is showing that there is much more young people can read about than just straight protagonists saving the day or following the green light.
By donating boxes of LGBTQ-inclusive books and curriculum resources such as soundtracks and movies to classrooms, Hope in a Box wants to change how rural and low-income schools think about LGBTQ diversity and mental health. Joe English, the founder of the nonprofit, grew up in a rural, upstate New York town with 1,900 people. Every song he heard, every magazine he picked up, every movie he watched focused on heteronormative narratives.
“I remember feeling acutely alone. I think this is still the reality in 2019 for many, many kids who live in rural and low-income America, even while liberal and cosmopolitan cities like New York and D.C. or L.A. become more inclusive of diverse identities,” he tells Teen Vogue. “It's a disservice to read this literature and open your mind and then just stay in urban centers and liberal bubbles for the rest of your life. I feel a deep interest and obligation in bridging the two worlds that I come from.”
While studying at Yale University, Joe’s world was opened up to a diverse array of literature beyond what was available to him as a teen. After graduating, Joe returned to his high school to have a frank conversation with his former teachers about those feelings of isolation he had during adolescence, and about the texts he became familiar with as an undergrad. He learned that many educators want deeply to support their students but don’t always know how because there’s uncertainty surrounding the resources to use, how to incorporate topics appropriately into curriculums, and, of course, school-budget constraints.
So about a year and a half ago, he created the nonprofit Hope in a Box. They worked with more than 50 university professors and high school teachers across the country to create the definitive primer of LGBTQ literature for young adults and sent their curated boxes to educators in need. The selections are inclusive when it comes to sexuality and gender, but the list also includes stories about people from all races, socioeconomic statuses, ages, time periods, and backgrounds to provide the most inclusive, intersectional stories available. There are picks for readers as young as sixth or seventh graders up to the AP literature classroom with high school juniors and seniors. The result is a range of material including The Miseducation of Cameron Post, The Color Purple, and authors like Oscar Wilde and Gloria E. Anzaldúa.
Even if you aren’t taught about LGBTQ people in the classroom, there are now plenty of resources online. But Joe is aware that not all students have an internet connection readily accessible.
“Our hope is that moving forward we can provide e-book copies in addition to the physical print copies, but print still has a really important place in the American education system,” he says. “For better or for worse, that is how a lot of reading happens in schools, especially in rural and low-income schools that might not have the resources to invest in laptops for all their students, or in tablets.”
Julie Jee, a 10th- and 12th-grade English teacher at Arlington High School in upstate New York, is one educators who has been able to expand her classroom library through the help of Hope in a Box. She first found out about the nonprofit via Twitter and was “deliriously happy” to see the number of books, movies, and more that she received. The Dangerous Art of Blending In, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and Will Grayson, Will Grayson have been favorites among her sophomores.
“It’s been really nice for them to either understand the experiences of characters that identify as LGBT or see themselves reflected in the literature around them,” she tells Teen Vogue. “I think we have an idea of what is quote-unquote normal in society, and students that identify as LGBT feel that they aren’t part of that normal. When we have books that identify their identities, it’s an affirming way of letting them know that they belong, they’re heard, they’re reflected, and they’re part of the normal.”
Hope in a Box has only gone through a pilot program so far, with informal word of mouth and networks of teachers reeling in almost 200 schools from 35 different states requesting to work with them over just a couple of months. There’s currently a wait-list due to the demand, but the people behind Hope in a Box are working away, encouraged by the intense interest from educators to make their classrooms more inclusive. Joe’s aspiration is to support hundreds of schools in all 50 states by the end of the 2019-2020 academic year.
“In a few of the districts where we've been working there had been a little bit of hesitation, from school board members in particular, and from some parents. That's understandable; it's to be expected,” he says. “The important thing in these conversations is to understand that no parent wants to see a child ostracized, no teacher wants to see a student bullied. This is not a conceptual or nebulous conversation about civil rights. At its heart, it is really a human conversation about how we can ensure that students are safe at school.”
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue