The Power of T-Shirts for Change

After the school board told teachers not to wear “Black Lives Matter” shirts, Lucy McGary took matters into her own hands, advocating for the teachers who advocate for her, day in and day out.

The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This series is made possible by a grant from in support of teen journalists and the series editor, Katina Paron.

Just before the beginning of her senior year, Lucy McGary saw a photo online of faculty members at her school wearing T-shirts with the phrases “Black Lives Matter,” “Love is love” and “No human is illegal.” Seeing those T-shirts made McGary feel proud to be a student at Dublin Scioto High School in Dublin, Ohio.

“When you see someone saying, ‘I got you, I got your back,’ you’re heard, you’re loved, that means so much,” McGary said. “And especially when it’s a big name like administrators, who have high power and teachers. It is an insane feeling.”

T-Shirts for Change
“Just because things have been done a certain way, doesn’t mean that we can’t evolve and fix them,” said Lucy McGary. (Photo courtesy of Lucy McGary)

However, not everyone felt the joy McGary did: The school board told staff members not to wear the tees. This was too much for McGary—especially following a summer filled with protests and calls for racial justice. Part of Scioto’s 42 percent minority student population, McGary felt angry, confused and hurt.

In response to the school board decision, McGary designed her own T-shirts, with “Black lives matter, love is love, gender equality, science is real, no human is illegal, women’s rights, kindness is not political, it’s empathetic” on the back in multi-colored letters. What started out as just an idea shared with her best friends turned into 578 orders over the course of a few months, advocating for the teachers who advocate for her, day in and day out.

T-Shirts for Change
McGary and her classmates wearing the shirts she designed. (Photo courtesy of Lucy McGary)

Dublin City Schools, a predominantly white school district, is governed by a board of education composed of five white members. The county the district is located in was one of the seven districts in the state that voted majority Democrat in the 2020 election. The school board passed a resolution regarding racial injustice over the summer and is hoping to hire a diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator.

The ban on the T-shirts came from the school board’s decision to uphold its 1996 policy about controversial topics in the classroom.

School board member Lynn May calls the message behind the T-shirts “beautiful,” but defends the ban. If a teacher is allowed to wear a shirt with phrases like “no human is illegal,” then a teacher could also wear a t-shirt with a phrase against immigration, May said, which would be detrimental for immigrant students.

“When we started getting angry phone calls from parents saying that teachers shouldn’t be making a political statements, and the fear that arose from that is quite ugly, quite frankly, and we realized that we had to follow the policy that we’ve had in place,” May said. “Once it becomes political, it’s hard to keep education at the forefront.”

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Parent Ajmeri Hoque said the school board decision felt like “a slap in the face” to every minority person who lives in this city. As the creator of the Dublin BIPOC Alliance group, Hoque provides a place for BIPOC parents and students to find support, and McGary’s shirts embodied the ideas Hoque advocates for in the Dublin BIPOC Alliance.

In response to the controversy surrounding the T-shirts, Dublin Scioto’s news magazine conducted a school wide poll, which showed at least 60 percent of student respondents agreed with every statement on the T-shirt.

Dublin Scioto High School wasn’t the only school district in the area with these issues. The superintendent of nearby Clearview district, who is Black, addressed systemic racism and police brutality in a back-to-school letter, and faced criticism from community members and the Clearview School Board for the choice. Staff and faculty, unlike students, teachers are not considered public citizens when it comes to freedom of speech, according to Sara Clark, chief legal counsel at Ohio School Boards Association.

For Bob Scott, Scioto’s principal and one of the staff members wearing the T-shirts, McGary’s shirts were not controversial or political—they were supportive of the students who make Scioto great.

“[Lucy]’s just a large part of our spirit in the building,” Scott said. “It’s not a one time event for her. It’s not a T-shirt event for her. It’s a way of life for her. It’s just who she is.”

McGary said that her experience creating the T-shirts showed her just how broken the community really is, but it also allowed her to see just how many people are working to “piece it back together.”

It “just shows me to be thankful for the community that I’m in,” McGary said. “But also to see problems are in the community and to understand that just because things have been done a certain way, doesn’t mean that we can’t evolve and fix them.”

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Kyra O’Connor is a student journalist at Elon University in North Carolina.