Cleveland Students Lead Initiative To Diversify School Libraries

Inspired by Jacqueline Woodson's "Brown Girl Dreaming," three middle schoolers and their classmates created a project to impact the lives of younger students and literacy rates in Cleveland.

When three Cleveland seventh graders read Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, the Citizens Leadership Academy (CLA) students didn’t know about the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement in the publishing world. They had never heard about mirrors and windows. Kiara Ransaw, James Kline, and Jayla Henderson knew only this: They had never read a book like this before, and they had never felt like this about a book before.

“It was a first,” says Ransaw. “We were reading this book and we could relate to it—they grew up in Ohio, the childhood of Jacqueline Woodson, all those things we could connect to as ourselves. Moments we really felt like, ‘Oh yeah, this happened to me before.’ “

 

From left to right: James Kline, Jayla Henderson, and Kiara Ransaw led a project to diversify libraries in the elementary schools that feed their Cleveland middle school. Photo courtesy CLA

 

That connection and realization sparked an idea for a project that grew beyond anyone’s expectations. In the end, the three charter school students, with help from classmates along the way, led a project to diversify the libraries at the elementary schools that feed their middle school. It took nearly two years to complete and included an inventory of the elementary school libraries, a presentation to their board of education, a grant application and interview, as well as a book drive, Amazon wish list, reaching out to authors and publishers for donations, and going through the Cleveland Kids' Book Bank to find books that had a protagonist of color or were written by an author of color.

When it was over, the group had more than doubled the number of diverse books in each of the elementary libraries and added some to the middle and high school, too. They also created an administrative and staff awareness of the need for titles that show inclusion and diversity.

But first, in that seventh grade English classroom, they discussed Brown Girl Dreaming with their teacher, Evelyn Clarke. She allowed them to dig deeper and search to understand why that book was so special to them.

“I am so grateful to their teacher for taking their comments seriously and investing the time in exploring them,” says Meghan Park, director of curriculum and instruction at CLA.

As the group dug deeper, they wondered why they hadn't read books like this before seventh grade.

“We were like, why don’t we have more books like this—more books that we can relate to, more books that we can connect to?” says Ransaw, who just graduated eighth grade and turns 14 in August.

Why, they wanted to know, hadn't they read Brown Girl Dreaming sooner? With that thought, they moved their focus to younger students.

“You know how parents want their child to have better than them?" says Ransaw, who noted she and Henderson have younger siblings. "We want the kids to have better things, better opportunities, and better experiences reading books."

 

Jacqueline Woodson's book Brown Girl Dreaming inspired students to make a difference.

 

As they discussed possible plans for a book drive to diversify the schools’ libraries, Clarke took them to see Woodson speak at a nearby high school.

“After that, that’s when we really put the project in high gear—‘Ok, we need proper plans, we need to do this,’” says Ransaw.

They went to the elementary schools and found that in a system with nearly 97 percent African American students, only 17 percent of the books in the libraries had a protagonist or author of color.  From there, they wrote a presentation for the board and grant application detailing why it’s important for kids to read books they can connect to. The presentation even explained that giving students these books “is necessary to solving the literacy crisis plaguing Cleveland’s youth.”

They did it all for their goa of giving younger students something they didn't have. They did not get graded or school credit, and while they did get pulled out of class at times, much of it was handled after school on their own time. They so impressed the decision makers in their grant interview, according to Park, that they got not only the $1,500 they originally asked for, but hundreds more.

“We made them cry happy tears,” says Ransaw. They more than doubled their original goal of collecting 300 books total and were able to get bookshelves and decorate them, too. When the books were sorted and shelves finished—as the there were approaching the end of eighth grade and middle school graduation—Ransaw, Kline, Henderson, and a few friends went to the elementary schools and read some of the books to students.

 

Citizens Leadership Academy (CLA) middle schoolers Jayla Henderson (left) and Kiara Ransaw (right) read books to elementary school students. Photo courtesy CLA

 

“They loved it,” says Ransaw. “They were smiling and laughing. I thought, ‘My gosh, I think I want to do this more.’”

The middle schoolers did more than just read, according to Park.

“They talked about diversity in books, asked ‘How many of you read books with people that look like you?’” Park says. “It wasn’t something we had planned or thought of, it happened so organically.”

Park and her peers were as affected by the project as the elementary school students. “It opened our eyes to clearly examine our school library and classroom reads,” says Park, who realized the middle school doesn’t have a book with a gay main character. She recently ordered a book that helps educators find LGBTQ-Inclusive literature and helps with classroom instruction. This ripple effect isn’t something Ransaw thinks about too much, even after the fact.

 

Students at Citizens Leadership Academy in Cleveland show off donations for their diverse books collection.act.

 

“I was just doing something, because I knew from the bottom of my heart it was the right thing to do,” she says. “I noticed the impact, but seeing those kids smile was enough to me.”

As it turns out, though, she is already thinking about doing more.

“Seeing how well this went and how this made me feel happy and joyous, how I like seeing kids reading different kinds of books—not even just black kids, white kids, all different kids—when I get into high school, if we could get more people on board and make it a bigger thing, we could continue to do this,” she says.

And if she ever got a chance to speak to Woodson, Ransaw knows what she would say. “Thank you. Thank you for writing that book,” she says. “I would say, ‘You’re an amazing author.’ I would be so nervous if I could talk to her, but I would say so many things.”

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