When "Woke" Is Weaponized | Read Woke

Tools for handling challenges to diverse books programs.

With nearly 100 Read Woke chapters from Quebec to Scotland, it’s clear that exposing readers to ­diverse narratives is not a trend. It is a movement.

However, some schools haven’t been able to implement Read Woke. An elementary principal who was launching a program in her school invited me to visit for the kickoff. When I arrived, she looked sad. A parent had complained and, after a meeting with them, the principal decided not to follow through.

I was disappointed, but not shocked. The recent weaponization of the word “woke” was nothing new to me.

Before I left the school that day, I visited the library. There was a beautiful Read Woke bulletin board that the school librarian had worked hard to create. The librarian told me she was still going to do the program—but she’d change the name.

I was proud to know that the mission would still exist, and that students would continue having access to diverse books. After all, that’s the main gain, and changing the name ­allowed her to continue her work. We keep in touch regularly, and she says things are going well.

Here is advice for educators facing challenges to Read Woke initiatives in their schools.

• Know your district and school policy on book challenges and be prepared. Don’t wait until a title is banned to find the policy. Know it verbatim and update it if needed.

• Get buy-in. Work with your stakeholders and get their input. This includes parents, teachers, community leaders, your principal, and students.

• Lead with the book. Make sure everything you do is centered on reading. Our goal is to provide the students with access to resources. Begin all programming by reading a book or base the entire program on a theme taken from a book.

• Get parental consent. This is especially key for elementary students. Send home a newsletter or parent consent form regarding the program. If a student wants to opt out, allow them to do so. I would rather have one student not participate than the whole school be prohibited because of a larger complaint later.

• Start where you can. Everyone’s activism looks different. Having a book display, bulletin board, and book purchasing plan are all integral to this process. You may have to start with just a display for diverse titles. That is OK, and it may be all you can do.

• Remember: Diversity is not only about race. Try highlighting other Read Woke topics, including ­mental health awareness, body acceptance, cultural dating ­expectations, and homelessness. It might be easier to begin with these issues and build up your program to ­encompass other topics. Also, discussing these issues will lead students to bring up others. Be prepared to provide books for further reading.

• Do strategic programming. Attend team meetings and department meetings to find out what units classroom teachers are planning. Then, curate booklists that align with their units and the educational standards and create related programming. This will support teachers and is a great way to validate your reading program.

• Take action! Write to your local legislators about the power of intellectual freedom. Sign petitions and join groups on social media who are fighting back.

Despite the backlash, innovative Read Woke programs are flourishing. The Cedar Rapids (IA) Public Library uses Beanstack to allow readers to engage in the program and earn badges in various categories, from Asian American Voices to Social Injustice. The library has also created a plethora of related YouTube content. My favorite, Read Woke: Be Heard, is a podcast with teen voices that is part of a partnership in which library staff visit teens at Linn County’s Juvenile Detention Center to talk about books. Listening to these young people discuss how reading impacts them took my breath away.

These stories inspire me to keep doing the work that I do. Has your program been challenged? Share your experience in the comments.

Cicely Lewis (Twitter: @cicelythegreat) welcomes suggestions.

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