Tennessee Mothers Organization Creating Classroom Libraries

Moms for Social Justice has started its 2019 initiative, putting a diverse collection of books into Chattanooga classrooms where school library collections are woefully inadequate.

Over the summer, Moms for Social Justice (MSJ)—a grass roots organization in Chattanooga, TN—took part in a cleanup project at a local high school. While working at Brainerd High School, Taylor Lyons found herself in the library where she looked through some books. There weren’t very many titles, nothing particularly challenging, nothing representative of the student population, and, most shocking to her, not one of the books she saw had a copyright date later than the mid-1990s.

In one moment from that visit that really stuck Lyons, and stuck with her, the Brainerd principal looked her in the eye and asked if she'd send her kids to his school. When she left that day, she called her friend and one of her fellow MSJ co-founders Mari Smith, and began brainstorming ways they could help—focusing on the library.

She said, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could overhaul their library?'" Smith recalls. "Then we said, 'Oh wait, we have no money.'"

Volunteers from Moms for Social Justice All photos by Nicole Manning/Show Me a Smile Photography

But Lyons didn’t let the daunting finances end the conversation. She spoke with MSJ’s contact person with Hamilton County Opportunity Zone schools (the area’s lowest performing schools), who told her this wasn’t an isolated problem. Libraries like this were the norm at these schools. (According to U.S. News & World Report, only 8 percent of Brainerd High School students were “on track” with reading proficiency scores in 2018, with 92 percent “approaching” or “below” proficiency.) 

Lyons, Smith and others reached out to more MSJ members and friends within Chattanooga about the responsibility, need, and ways to bring these resources to local students. A friend who is a local teacher shared an article about the efficacy of classroom libraries, then the women began doing their own research. Moms for Social Justice was founded in August 2017 and has spent most of the time since organizing and educating mothers in the community about issues, volunteering, funding small projects through personal donations, and trying to decide on its larger platform and plans. This could be exactly the kind of project that would meet the organization's mission, make an impact on the community, and be achievable.

One room at a time

With that, The Classroom Library Project became the Moms for Social Justice 2019 initiative. They have a goal of five classrooms in Opportunity Zone schools, but are hoping to exceed that number. The idea is to take a corner of a classroom, add better lighting, new paint, a new rug, some comfortable furniture, and, most importantly, new books. 

Sorting through teacher-requested books before shelving.

“We’re specifically interested in getting books that are written by and feature characters that reflect kids that are going to be reading these—so authors of color, LGBTQ authors, women, basically any minority or marginalized group—we’re particularly interested in bringing these groups into the classroom,” says MSJ’s Natalie Green. “The kids in these schools are not all white, not all rich, not all male. Representation is very important, and we want to make sure we are helping nurture that in these schools.”

The teachers give MSJ their book wishlists and the organization has also reached out to social justice and library organizations for booklist resources. They will be sure to have multiple copies of each book so children can take them home to read if they want and so more than one student can read the same book at the same time.

Volunteers get to work to transform the classroom.
The after.

The organization got a jump start on the new year's initiative, putting in classroom library No. 1 in a ninth grade room at The Howard School in mid-December. MSJ expects each library to cost between $1,200 and $1,500 and are currently funding it by asking friends, family, and personal networks for donations. The organization also plans to continue to update the collections over time. This is an ongoing commitment to each classroom, Lyons says. 

She has started reaching out to local businesses in hopes they will sponsor a classroom library and also believes that after MSJ finishes five or six libraries and has “proof of concept” the organization can apply for a grant or other funding and "aggressively do many more" in the 2019-2020 school year.

For now, their county contact has reached out to teachers who have enthusiastically responded to add their classrooms to the list.

“We’ve had several teachers reach out and say this is amazing,” says Green. “The schools don’t have the money, and the teachers certainly don’t have the money to do it for themselves.”

Balancing community response

For MSJ, which is something of a controversial group in the South especially in these particularly divisive political times, this is an effort they hope everyone in the community can get behind.

“We really thought this could be a unifying initiative,” says Lyons. “To some extent, we’ve seen that come to fruition.”

There has been some pushback, some accusations of a liberal or socialist agenda, even objections to the “Harry Potter” themed initiative launch. They also must deal with the criticism of being the white suburban moms who seem to realize there is inequity and want to ride in and save the day.

While the group has become more diverse, Lyons admits they have more to grow before it reflects the kind of diverse, inclusive organization she envisions.

Lyons owns the optics and understands and accepts whatever comes their way. The women of MSJ don’t hide from any of these conversations; instead they face them head on. It's not comfortable. It's not easy to talk about, but it must be addressed.

“Every time we go into a meeting, we’re like, ‘Just so you all know, we know we’re white, we know we’re privileged, we’re trying to use the privilege we have to do good,’” says Smith. 

Says Lyons, “A bunch of white suburban moms can’t march into our underserved communities in Chattanooga and say, ‘Hey we’re here to help’ and expect any sort of positive reaction to that without first building trust. So that’s what this first year of this organization has been about. It’s also about shaking the white suburban moms in our community who have lived comfortably in this space thinking that they’re good people, that they’re not racist, so therefore they don’t have any responsibility addressing the racial inequity in our community and saying no that’s not good enough.

“There are disgusting and unacceptable socioeconomic disparities. It’s called the city of two Chattanoogas for a reason. As parents, that should be unacceptable to us that there are children going to school two miles away from us that don’t have books in their libraries, that have exposed plumbing in their bathrooms, that’s—if part of our job is to shake fellow white suburban moms—and I’m including myself.

“For me to see those problems, with my own eyes, was a very sobering moment, it was a watershed moment for us,” says Lyons. “This is a collective responsibility for all of the parents in our community. This is a crazy notion that we should advocate for other people’s children as much as we advocate for our own.”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is senior news editor at School Library Journal.

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