How We Stories Uses Children’s Books to Transform Families into Advocates for Social Justice

 In Culture, Event

When our little ones ask us to read them a story, as parents we often grab the first book off the shelf—or psych ourselves up to tough it through their favorite Disney princess book for the millionth time.

But when we’re intentional in how we stock our kids’ home libraries—when we choose books in which children of color are the protagonists rather than characters on the sidelines or slip history lessons in between readings of “Llama Llama” and “Barnyard Dance”—we can ignite important conversations with our kids and help fuel the movement for racial equity.

Since the autumn of 2015, We Stories has used children’s books as a catalyst for change in a segregated St. Louis. Through its Family Learning Program, the nonprofit has taught more than 900 families, the majority of them white, how to use picture books as a tool to jump start discussions about race, develop family habits to offset the biases that start in childhood and become allies in the fight for social justice.

Changing St. Louis one story at a time
Like many Gen Xers and Millennials, We Stories board president Maggie Klonsky grew up in a white household where she was taught that everyone was created equal. While the intentions behind her parents’ message were heartfelt, that colorblindness gave moms and dads an excuse to sidestep difficult discussions about race, leaving kids with more questions than answers regarding the cultures and experiences of those who didn’t look like them.

“The fact is kids as young as 3 make distinctions based on race, and by age 7, they’re reflecting social status bias,” says Klonsky, who is also the mother of two young children. “If we only encounter people that are different than us in certain spaces, especially where there’s also an economic difference, kids who aren’t provided with enough information make an assumption that people are in a situation because of the color of their skin or an individual decision they’ve made. They lack the understanding that there are larger systemic structures in play.”

How We Stories Uses Children’s Books to Transform Families into Advocates for Social Justice

To help end the cycle of discrimination and segregation in St. Louis, the founders of We Stories knew change had to happen first at home. For the past five years, its 12-week Family Learning Program has introduced families to diverse children’s literature featuring—and most often, written by—people of color to help stop racial bias before it starts. Infants are exposed to beautiful board books that allow moms and dads to point out the differences and similarities between different races and cultures while their older siblings get a deeper insight into history and racial injustice in the U.S.

“There’s such a richness in the written word. You can open up so many different experiences through books that you’re not always able to access in real life,” explains Klonsky. “Having these books as a starting point for conversation and being able to return to them again and again is so powerful.”

Parents also get access to supportive curriculum materials, and the whole family can participate in discussion groups and special events. We Stories has expanded beyond the home as well, partnering with schools, library systems and even the Heart Center at St. Louis Children’s Hospital to ensure children have a diverse home library to build upon.

Whereas the focus of We Stories has been to give children a solid foundation for respecting others’ differences and experiences, parents have been equally impacted by their participation in the program. According to Klonsky, many We Stories moms and dads have taken the next step by using what they’ve learned to advocate for racial equity through their family’s school or house of worship or by running for—and winning—positions in local government to level the playing field for all St. Louis residents.

Diversity & Inclusion Conference presentation
On Feb. 27, as part of Webster University’s fifth annual Diversity & Inclusion Conference, Klonsky and Dr. Lori Markson, a developmental psychology professor and director of the Cognition & Development Lab at Washington University, will share insights from a collaborative research study that investigated the impact of participation in We Stories on children’s child’s racial attitudes and preferences.

In addition to discussing how biases are first formed, the two will speak to how parents can counteract its development through three key steps, including regular conversations about race, intentional education on the history of racial discrimination and bias and increased cross-group exposure and contact—all of which are backed by empirical data.

The conference, which features educators, journalists and political activists from across the country, will run from Feb. 24-27 on Webster’s main campus. While there is no cost to attend the Conference, registration is encouraged.

Images courtesy of Michele Verna Photography.

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