Sunday, September 25, 2016

Books Can Help Us Talk abt #BlackLivesMatter

I have black friends and colleagues disappointed with their non-black friends because they are not speaking up about why #BlackLivesMatter. Some of my white friends say this topic is out of their comfort zone. They are embarrassed by what is going on and don't know how to speak up because it is a touchy subject and they fear sounding, offensive, stupid, or being attacked. As a result they are silent, and when fear gets in the way of conversation, there are no winners.

As a white educator who has worked in Harlem since the 90s and lived here since 2001, the topic certainly hits close to home. I was the young Jewish girl came who came to teach at a school in Central Harlem, not as an idealistic young white TFAer but rather as one who worked my way through college to earn my masters degree to end up exactly where I wanted to be: in a school full of excited kids who I knew I knew little about and who in return knew little about me. We all had a lot to learn.

This is the story of how schools in general, and libraries in particular, can play a role in being a part of the solution.
Something that struck me as the school librarian was the dearth of books that featured black people. No wonder these kids weren’t interested in reading books that looked nothing like them and seemed to have nothing to do with them. My first year I focused on getting the fiction, historical fiction, non-fiction, picture books, and poetry from authors like Claude Brown, Sapphire, Walter Dean Myers, Linda Michelle Barron, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and many others, that would tell their stories.

Many students, even in middle school, had never read a book before these books came into their school. I couldn’t blame them. We learned together as I, then they, held book talks that told their stories. We ate the stories up. It was easier for my students to get to know the books, and topics because rather than the Dewey Decimal System I put books in baskets so instead of search via an old card catalog, they went to a decorated basket featuring their favorite author. This made it easier to get lost in the worlds of the authors they loved.
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I wanted my students to have meaningful conversations not only with one another but with other adults. I was just one person and one perspective. I was learning along side them. They deserved more than only my viewpoint.

I brought a program into the school called Power Lunch where people from the neighborhood read books with our students during lunch. We were building community with conversations around stories that mattered to them.  
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What we were doing in my library in Harlem might be the very thing that could be useful in communities today.

What would happen if we would collect the books, the videos, the poems, the articles, and the essays that tell the stories that matter to the community? What would happen when we invite the community into schools to read these stories with children and other adults? What kind of conversations would result when we discuss what we have learned about and discovered?

Could that help remove the discomfort people have with charged topics. Reading and talking helps reduce the fear. Discussing a book, story, or video helps break the silence.

Schools are great breeding grounds for change. Schools that have invited the community in to have significant conversations may even be ready to take the next step: to consider what breaks your heart about this issue.  Then generate ideas that address them. When talk turns to action, the community benefits from of all those students and adults who are excited to share their contributions and make a difference.   

What could this look like in your school or classroom? Why not start by asking students and families to bring in books that matter and then come together to share ideas about addressing issues that matter. If teachers can help start these conversations and move them to action, they can set the example and become those who really are able to not only #Race2TheTalk when it comes to why #BlackLivesMatter but also help students be the change they want to see in the world.


  1. Silence implies consent. Concerned white people need to go ahead and speak out against racism, and risk being embarrassed or putting foot in mouth. Just apologize if that happens and get better at it. Meanwhile, I commute to my campus four days a week, and my wife is worried about what could happen to me during a "routine" traffic stop. On balance, I'd rather have people deal with the difficult conversations.

  2. Lisa wrote...
    When fear gets in the way of conversation, there are no winners.


    Many students, even in middle school, had never read a book before these books came into their school. I couldn’t blame them.

    Lisa, you drew a bullseye on the root issue and at the same time modeled what can happen when we as a society begin to address the real enemy, Fear.

    Living in Charlotte this week puts one on the front row to see how blame and fear get in the way of progress.

    As a society we have learned to play the blame game. It’s worth understanding how blame is what we humans often do to deal with our personal feelings of pain and discomfort and these feelings have roots in the same type of fear that leads others to carry guns and self-medicate.

    When we are able to deal with our own fears in a healthy manner then we will be able to see solutions like you offer in your blog post for dealing with the underlying causes of traumatic fear.

    It is traumatic fear that lead to circumstances where one human being is face-to-face with another human being carrying a weapon and using a gun looks like the best solution for dealing with the situation. And as you point out it is fear that gets in the way of conversation that would lead to real solutions.

  3. As an educator in the elementary school system, I encourage teachers to bring the topic into the classroom. I am starting to talk about my third graders and the fact that their opinion matters. I will scaffold that discussion eventually into the black lives matter discussion. It is all about slowly scaffolding their learning and opinions