(story)time: We Stories and “Of Thee I Sing”

A few nights ago I found myself in several fascinating conversations about children’s literature (more on that in moment!), and on the ride home my thoughts again turned to books. I used to be more regular in writing my (story)time posts, and for awhile I was averaging one every week to two weeks. But like so many other things that I try to wedge into my dwindling free time lately, that kind of writing has dropped off a bit. Our bookshelves are still overflowing, and now that we have four readers in the family, we have no shortage of new reads on our bedside tables. And then it hit me – why not have everyone else in the family contribute to these posts, and bring them back on a more regular basis? So I think I’ll give it a go. 

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Earlier this year, I was listening to St. Louis on the Air on our local public radio station. Most days I’m already plugged into NPR, but I was particularly interested in listening to this show because one of the guests was the director of our county library system – a client of my husband’s, and a friend of a dear friend as well. I wasn’t familiar with the topic of the discussion, but I figured it had something to do with books, and it’s always fun to listen to someone you know being interviewed on the radio.

The interview was with the founders of a new organization called We Stories, and as the conversation got rolling I was immediately drawn in because it taps into so many things that I’m passionate about.

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We Stories was founded to help local families engage in conversations about race with their children – a topic that is frequently discussed in families of color, but rarely happens in white families. Their mission is to use “the power of children’s literature to create conversation, change and hope in St. Louis, and a stronger, more equitable and inclusive future for all”.

I’ve written here before on the topics of race and racism, and how I have distinct memories of those discussions within my family, even when I was very young. I credit that early exposure as the foundation for so many of the decisions that I make in my daily life, and that we make as a family. Race and racism is a frequent topic of conversation in our house; it is not glossed over and it is not reserved for when the girls “are older”. Research shows that the earlier these conversations happen, the better. Listening to Adelaide and Laura talk on that show made something click that morning.  I stopped eating my lunch and immediately sent them an email. They graciously read my ramblings, and invited me to lunch. We’ve lunched some more, emailed back and forth (where I still ramble), I’ve introduced them and sung their praises to other groups that I love, and M and I were excited to join them last week at the launch party for Page Turners.

“PAGE TURNERS ARE A POWERFUL GROUP OF WE STORIES CHAMPIONS WHO SUPPORT OUR MISSION TO ENGAGE A CRITICAL MASS OF FAMILIES IN THE ST. LOUIS REGION WHO ARE COMMITTED TO A STRONGER, MORE EQUITABLE AND INCLUSIVE FUTURE FOR ALL.”

We met and talked with so many amazing people that night, and many asked about our connection to We Stories. At first I wasn’t sure what to say – it was difficult to describe how moved (and motivated) I was after hearing that interview. Their pilot program worked with 80 local families – introducing diverse books for their libraries so that they could begin talking about race in a way that feels natural and comfortable with children – while providing a platform for safe discussion and questioning, meetups to explore every corner of this amazing city, and reading groups for the adults as well.

So here is what we said, in conversations with new friends. We Stories touched a part of me that I think had been simmering for a very long time, without a name. We own all of these books – we seek them out on our bookstore visits. Our children attend a school where these books are not only on the shelves, but are displayed, covers out, embraced, and celebrated. We live in a diverse neighborhood, within the city limits. We have made very deliberate decisions throughout our family life to seek out diverse spaces to learn and play and worship and shop and give.

I do not say this in a self-congratulatory way, simply as a statement of one of the main drivers we use to make decisions together. It has not always meant the easiest of decisions, or the most comfortable. But being intentional about it is important – to us, and to our children. We point out racism to them, and we challenge them to see it and to call it out. We read, all of us, and then we talk, and we listen. We talk about injustice, we talk about the importance of protests.* We ask ourselves this question, always: who’s missing from this place, this picture? Why? And what can we do about that?

That all sounds lovely and so very good of us, but as the conversations went on that evening, I started to realize something. We’ve created something of a bubble for ourselves, one that’s fairly easy to be self-satisfied within. We were talking in length to one woman about her difficulties in getting her beloved church congregation to even broach the subject of race and racism, and that struggle is really causing her to question so many things. [As she spoke, I thought about our church, and how active we are in numerous areas of social justice activism, how we have these tough conversations on a weekly basis.] Another woman spoke about the complete lack of diversity at her daughter’s school, how everywhere they go they are in the majority, and most people are perfectly happy with those circumstances and don’t want to be bothered with heavier discussions about people they don’t associate with on a daily basis.

St. Louis is such a segregated city, where deeply seated racist attitudes exist. I won’t link to all the ugly here, but there was a powerful This American Life show called The Problem We All Live With, that would give you a glimpse into the hyper-segregated school districts we have in this region. And we have sought out the exceptions to that rule – we’ve been so very fortunate in our school choices, both private and public, and I tell the girls they are lucky – lucky to be in schools as diverse as theirs. They aren’t easy to find around here.

But again, that bubble. It’s taken me awhile to see it, but I know it’s there. I think I connect with We Stories because I need that push to get out of my comfort zone more. My comfort zone has a different definition than it would have had twenty years ago, but it’s still comfortable because we’re surrounded by people who also think the way that we do. We can talk all day long about these topics and never risk a thing. And so maybe I don’t get that self-righteous pass I requested earlier.

I should get connected, I must broaden that conversation outside of my own circles, I can lend support to a movement that is vital and necessary. I’m grateful for the nudge that conversation gave me earlier this year, and I’m listening to where it might take me. Stories are powerful things.

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We Stories was selected to participate in SXSL (South By South Lawn – the White House’s version of Austin’s South by Southwest conference and festival) that happened yesterday. Adelaide and Laura took a copy of President Obama’s Of Thee I Sing to give to him. They took it around to schools and libraries and families involved with We Stories and filled it with notes and signatures before they left for D.C. We had a chance to add our name and small message – I thanked him for this story, a favorite on our shelves.

We read this book last night and here’s F’s review:

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“I really love the pictures in this book, because all the kids get to dream about doing the things that other people did, like astronauts and baseball players. My favorite page is about Helen Keller because we studied her at school. My second favorite page is the one with all the kids on it.”

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*Here’s a link to a great post on children’s books about protests to navigate the conversations around current events. I encourage you to spend some time on their website, follow them on Facebook and Instagram, and consider plugging in as a family or by lending your financial support to this important work. I know I have so many book sellers / lovers as readers here – I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. 

3 Responses to (story)time: We Stories and “Of Thee I Sing”

  1. I have several notes that tie together, but I’ll list them out seaparately:
    1. I also heard the episode of This American Life about the importance of school integration and how we’ve lost so much ground. Charlotte and Mecklenburg County are similarly wracked by resegregation (see The New Yorker for a piece on that this week). It’s going to take generations and loss of opportunity and probably more loss of life to recover from loss of integration and that’s if we make a concerted effort to re-integrate.

    2. I’m reading Who Is Michelle Obama with my kids and she spent hours every day riding the bus to a magnet school in Chicago because SHE COULD and WHY WOULDN’T SHE because it was the best option. And now most kids don’t have that choice, but even if they did the burden is on the disadvantaged to get there (I have so many more thoughts on this, but will leave it at that).

    3. A book called The Big Sort was brought to my attention last night at a panel we hosted. The idea is that we sort ourselves into likeminded groups that continue to deepen social/political rifts. I need to read further, but it reinforces feelings I’ve been having, and the work you are describing here seems aimed right at breaking through social self-sorting.
    http://www.thebigsort.com/home.php

    I think there is a common thread among these points, but it’s late and I’ll leave it to readers to pull these thoughts together.

    • It is late, but this is so good. More on these thoughts later.

      Thank you.

      PS All Things Considered is doing several long pieces this week on this topic. (points 1 + 2). http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/10/05/495504360/looking-back-on-50-years-of-busing-in-boston

      Incredible that Audie Cornish was doing the interviews, and she was part of this “resorting” program in Boston.

      This happens in my daughter’s magnet school as well – kids are bused from all over – some leaving their houses just after 5am, and not getting home til after 6. We’re in the city, but kids are bused from the county, too. And I see kids on our street on the corner at 6am waiting for buses to who-knows-where. It’s a crazy system, but when you look at the MAP scores out last week , the differences in performance are not just startling, they are criminal (in my mind). What a squandering of potential over constructs of power and otherness.

  2. Here’s the link to The New Yorker article Adah referenced above, if anyone is interested. The last six lines are spot on.

    Thanks for sharing, Adah.

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