Reading for Justice: One Community, One Book
I have wanted to work with community partners to unify the community in which I live and work through a One Community One Book program since I first became a librarian. I saw colleagues and friends starting their programs, which only made me more motivated to pursue this project. Once I obtained my dream job as the librarian at Westerville South High School, I finally started thinking about this project and its undertaking. I was terrified at the scope of it and the amount of work that would be involved, but I knew it would be a unifying force in our community. I didn’t know how fast it would all come to fruition. I share my experience now in the hope that it will inspire you to take the leap in your own community!
Over the summer of 2020, as the country began to erupt into protests at the news footage of Black men being killed by police, the public libraries in central Ohio with The Ohio State University worked together to create a One Community One Book program that centered around racism and social justice. Their plan was to have their community members read Jason Reynolds and Dr. Ibrham Kendi’s book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You. For educators, the plan also involved the reading of the professional development book Not Light But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom by Matthew R. Kay. This would culminate with a virtual discussion with Jason Reynolds in late January.
Since I had worked with them previously, the Westerville Public library contacted me and the Executive Director of the Westerville Education Foundation to help integrate our schools into the community discussion and marketing. I knew to make this program work, we needed to get students excited about the opportunity first, and the only way to do that was to reach out to the resources already in each secondary Westerville City Schools building: the media specialists. They (or the point person they designated) communicated with their students about the project and gauged interest. We have over 200 students across our middle and high schools participating.
Next, we needed to get the staff involved. I worked with our district communications department and curriculum coordinators, the point people, and department heads at each building to get the word out to our district staff. Staff had the option to participate as a community member (discussion only), to take this as a course I developed for contact hours or graduate credit through a local university, or to do a combination. We have over 220 staff members across the district participating, from educators, district office personnel, secretaries, support staff, transportation services, and food services.
Finally, it was time to reach out to the community. Thanks to meetings with various community partners, we were able to get the word out far and wide across Westerville and we now have over 200 community members participating.
I had community buy-in. But now we needed books. We did not want any barriers to any community member, student, or staff member being able to participate. How would we get so many books in such a short amount of time? Thankfully, we have very generous partners in our community. Within 24 hours of hearing our situation, the Westerville Education Foundation (WEF), Westerville Partners for Education (WPE), and Kemba Financial Credit Union donated the money to provide copies for Stamped for all our participants (and then some). A sticker for the inside of the book was designed to recognize the contributions from these organizations.
Before I knew it, hundreds of books were in my library space. With the help of a few colleagues, we were able to get the books stickered, counted, boxed up, and delivered to schools and community members within a matter of days.
To get community members, staff, and students talking about race, social justice, and our community using the book Stamped as a catalyst, I developed a reading schedule and set dates for virtual community discussions. Each weekly meeting starts with a question around the book’s content, and I have been so impressed with our community discussions and the thoughtful dialogue that came out of it. All members are learning something from the book and the subsequent conversations. I can’t wait to hear the follow-up conversation after we meet with Jason Reynolds.
There was a lot of heavy lifting upfront, but I am so glad I did it. I am so proud of our students. In our last few conversations, they issued a challenge to our community – to get involved. Our community’s voices are heard – and heard loudly. If we want change in our community it has to start somewhere. It has to start now. By Reading for Justice as One Community One Book.
So proud of you spearheading this and all the time, energy and effort you put into this project. I’m sure many students, co-workers, and community people appreciate your work.