Above: Children's Social Justice Reading Group. Photo: courtesy East lansing Public Library
Reaction to the 2016 presidential election led to the creation of the Children’s Social Justice Reading Group at the East Lansing Public Library (ELPL). Spearheaded by MSU professors Dr. Dorinda Carter Andrews and Dr. Georgina Montgomery, the group began as just a semester project with the Michigan State University College of Education in the spring of 2016.
But a year following the first event, the program continues to flourish with a constant attendance of around 70 people.
Taking place on the third Saturday of every month, the Reading Group is targeted towards youth from preschool to fifth grade. Volunteers read multiple books to a small group, separated by age group, followed by discussion questions and a synthesis craft that ties the group conversations and the theme together.
Jason Shoup, ELPL’s Assistant Director, explains how the Children’s Social Justice Reading Group acts as a way to address tough topics to younger community members. “The idea behind [The Reading Group] is that we wanted to set up an environment where we do not just talk about the topics with kids, but model how to have these discussions for children and their caregivers,” Shoup explains. “We want the caregivers to be right there with them, we want them to be part of the conversation.”
Shoup went on to explain that the program relies heavily upon volunteers. “The ideal set-up would be four children with their caregivers and one volunteer,” he explains. “And most of our volunteers are students.”
Sadie Shattuck, am MSU Junior and intern with the East Lansing Community Relations Coalition (CRC), volunteers with the ELPL Reading Group as well as with similar events in the area as a part of the local non-profit. At a recent Group event, a gaggle of kids aged two to eight years old, sat in a semi-circle around her as she read Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, which challenges young students to contemplate the causes and the effects of homelessness.
“This is my first semester working with the [Reading Group]…hopefully I can do it again next year,” Shattuck said.
Outside of her work as an intern and volunteer, Shattuck finds personal fulfillment within the Reading Group. “It’s been really nice to get to know people…before I started my internship at the CRC I didn’t know anyone that was here…I had never been to the East Lansing Public Library,” she said. “Which is really weird since I lived on campus for a year and a half,” She said. “It’s really good to get to know people like that.”
Over the past year, the reading group has tackled subjects such as immigration, race, gender, LGBTQ+ rights, civil protests, indigenous rights, environmental justice, and many more. This has led to other libraries in the state to take interest in starting a similar program, including libraries in Novi and Kent, Michigan.
“We’ve had several libraries from across the country as well as across Michigan contact us about how we do this program, and we’ve been able to kind of share what we do and what works, as well as what didn’t work so much,” says Shoup.
But for Shoup and the volunteers at the East Lansing Public Library, the root of why they provide these events lies in the kids that show up. “As long as people show up and they want to do [The reading group], I’m going to keep doing this because it seems like a great program.” Shoup said. “Usually you walk away feeling great, after the day. You feel like you’ve done something good.”