Spotlight- Social Justice Begins with Me: Children Learn Empathy, Diversity and Acceptance through Social Justice Book Club at the Grand Rapids Public Library

By Kayla Sosa

It has long been said that children are the future, that each generation has to be better than the previous to carry on a good society. At the Grand Rapids Public Library, parents and their children are putting that into action with the Social Justice Book Club. Once a month, children and their parents gather to read children’s books that promote acceptance and diversity.

Lyndsey Kelly was happy to bring her two young kids to the book club to not only get them reading, but also to meet new kids of all different backgrounds. And living in a political and sometimes polarized society, there are many topics adults talk about and kids may hear bits and pieces but not fully understand what’s being discussed. The book club provides a space for kids to learn about loving others for their differences, without bringing up “grown-up” topics like politics.

“As parents we try our best to talk to them about what’s going on, but they don’t always get it,” Kelly said. “And at school you don’t know exactly how they’re putting things, either, so I think this is a perfect way to actually understand it.”

At the book club, children ages 4-11 are divided into three different age groups to read the chosen book. Afterward, the facilitators lead discussion groups about the book. Past topics included gender and equity, immigration and refugees and celebrating diversity and difference. The program is produced through a partnership with the library and Jessica Anne Bratt, Youth Services Supervisor, and Paola Leon, Grand Valley State University Professor of Social Work.

Both Leon and Bratt are mothers with small children and have interracial families.

“Even though he is only in Kindergarten now, my son has come home with questions about our racial differences since he was about three and a half years old,” Leon said. “As parents, we felt we needed to provide a space where he could articulate things that were being said to him at preschool by his peers and that we needed to allow him to formulate his own thoughts and ideas about these experiences before placing on him our own take on what he was experiencing.”

Her son noticed imagery in books that showed families who were not diverse and asked if his family was considered a “real family” because “we don’t match in skin color, hair color, eye color.” This prompted Leon to choose books with more diversity and promote that ideal from a young age.

“It is a gentle introduction to hard topics and, because children have a tendency to want to read the same book several times, it gives us an opportunity to revisit our conversations and watch his growth in how he develops his thoughts around an issue,” Leon said. “Many times we shut down children’s thoughts and ideas surrounding issues that are seen as taboo or controversial because we’re afraid that what is coming out of their mouths is inappropriate. However, it is developmentally appropriate for young children to react to what they’re seeing.”

Modeled after an East Lansing club, the program is now a year in the works, and Bratt said she saw a high turnout and positive feedback from the community since the beginning.

“It’s restored a lot of people’s faith in humanity,” Bratt smiled. “This doesn’t have to be a scary conversation.”

Bratt said she wants parents to feel empowered to have these conversations with their children, because it’s simpler than many think.

“If something comes up, then they can figure out in their little ‘tools’ what’s the best way to handle that,” Bratt said. “And I feel like this helps them for when they do get to those difficult conversations that I think will arise with this next generation; like consent, and police brutality, and sexual assault, race, even sex ed.”

This month’s book club is at 10:30 a.m. Dec. 8 at GRPL, second floor. The monthly topic will be disability and ableism.

What: Social Justice Begins with Me: A Book Club for Kids

Where: Main Library, 111 Library Street NE

When: Dec. 8, 10:30 a.m.

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