Speaking at the American Library Association Annual in San Diego on June 30, MSNBC anchor Ali Velshi said that “there’s no world I can imagine in which I would be addressing a major international gathering of librarians” if not for the present political climate.

Velshi’s perspectives on social justice, immigration, and freedom to read intersect neatly with those of frontline librarians, and he got the gig due to his memoir, Small Acts of Courage: A Legacy of Endurance and the Fight for Democracy (Macmillan), as well as his Velshi Banned Book Club segments. Lisa Rubin, a former corporate lawyer turned MSNBC correspondent, interviewed Velshi for the ALA keynote, which covered everything from his grandparents’ experiences under South African apartheid to his parents’ political careers in Canada to his media career.

In 2021, Velshi told Rubin, he introduced the Velshi Banned Book Club as a segment on his MSNBC show Velshi. He had to persuade the network to air it: “Nobody said ‘no’ to us, but it didn’t get a ringing endorsement,” he said. “I didn’t know it’d be a ratings success.” The show’s popularity made him realize “I have the power to move the needle” toward free expression.

One of Velshi’s first guests was journalist and professor Nikole Hannah-Jones, who discussed The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. Velshi said he “felt like a child going into a library” for fresh information: “I had no idea of how this could be a threat to anyone,” yet a conservative furor greeted Hannah-Jones’s reframing of textbook America. Velshi has now interviewed dozens of authors facing book challenges, including George M. Johnson (All Boys Aren’t Blue), George Takei (They Called Us Enemy), and Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale). The day before his keynote, he brought ALA president Emily Drabinski on the show.

“In history, there is no society in which books were banned or burned that got better,” Velshi told the ALA assembly. “It literally ends up with the destruction of that society. It’s the worst thing in the world.”

Velshi said that his family’s decades-long fight against racism, and their migration to countries where they might find a better future, turned him into an advocate for free speech and immigration. “This is not a hot take for me,” he said: “Democracy does not hold itself up on its own. And that’s what led to me deciding to write a book called Small Acts of Courage.”

Born in Nairobi and raised in Toronto by an Indian immigrant family, Velshi grew up with stories of his grandfather’s life under South African apartheid. “My grandfather, who died in 1961 after fighting apartheid from the age of seven, could not have imagined this conversation happening,” Velshi said, referring to his presence at ALA. “There were no public libraries in South Africa, and if there were, they certainly wouldn’t have been for nonwhite people.”

When Velshi’s parents stood as candidates for election in Ontario—his father, Murad Velshi, eventually became the first Muslim South Asian elected to Canadian Parliament in 1987—they achieved a public recognition past generations scarcely could have imagined. Velshi now feels “we are more tribal than we need to be” in the U.S., and Small Acts of Courage represents collective and individual efforts toward a more open society.

Velshi told an optimistic story, but remained realistic about book bans and threats to education, limited community resources, and policies that don’t serve diverse populations equally. He likened advocates to firefighters confronting a blaze: “Your option is not to get in your firetruck and leave,” he said. “How do we create the system that my parents imagined, that brought them to these shores?”