“C is for Civil Rights” Children’s Social Justice Book Club

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #14 in April 2014]


In late 2012, Mariame Kaba, one of the co-founders of the Chicago Freedom School (CFS) and a board member of the organization, wrote to her Facebook friends asking if they would be interested in organizing a social justice book club for children. She’d been considering the idea since the inception of CFS six years earlier. The response was enthusiastic, with many people pledging their help as volunteers and donors. These volunteers included Jake Klippenstein, who is a member of the Chicago Childcare Collective (ChiChiCo). ChiChiCo and Jake would prove to be key partners in organizing the book club.

A small ad hoc group[1] met through the summer of 2013 to search for books and envision the structure of the book club. The ad hoc group decided early on that we would focus on the Black Freedom Movement (often referred to simply as the Civil Rights Movement). We suspected cisforrightsthat quality books about the Movement written for children (ages five through eight) would be limited; our assumption proved to be well-founded. Even though the Black Freedom Movement is one of the most written about topics in American history, most children’s books focus on leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. They usually address subjects like segregation and racism in a tangential and stereotypical manner. After some research by Asha Ransby-Sporn, a college student who joined the project as an intern, we selected a series of books that covered a range of protests, actions, and strategies utilized by Black freedom fighters including sit-ins, freedom songs, freedom schools, boycotts, community organizing, voter registration, and marches.

We chose to bookend each two-hour session with an opening and a closing freedom song. We selected “Woke Up This Morning with My Mind on Freedom” and “Ella’s Song” respectively. In between songs, a volunteer read the selected book, which was followed by a break and finally an art activity. Each session was coordinated by a volunteer who organized the logistics, including connecting with readers and artists, opening up and closing the space, and troubleshooting as needed. Coordinators also were responsible for developing the curriculum of their session. On our website (c-isforcivilrights.weebly.com), we provide an outline of some of the curricula we created. We hope to encourage similar efforts to engage children in a social movement and social justice history.

We were lucky that one of the people who responded to the initial status update posted by Mariame was a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Nicole Marroquin volunteered her students, who were studying to become art teachers, to help with the project. This was a fortuitous development for us as the students were accountable for their work to their course and to their professor. In addition, they were excited to apply what they were learning in class to a community-based setting.

Drawing by Stephon Gilbert

The book club ran for eight weeks from September 22 through November 10. The sessions were held Sunday from 2–4pm at the Chicago Freedom School. Parents and caregivers were invited to accompany their children to the sessions. We capped the number of participants at 15 and encouraged people to only sign up for sessions they were sure they could attend. In all, there were four coordinators, 12 readers, 16 activity leaders, and 29 kids signed up. When Mary Scott-Boria coordinated the reading of Freedom on the Menu, she intentionally used her 15-year-old and nine-year-old grandkids as readers. She explained that she wanted them to become more involved in different facets of social justice work and that this was a great opportunity.

Eight-year-old Stefon came to every session of the book club. He was a very enthusiastic participant and eventually became a self-motivated assistant. From the beginning, he helped prepare the space, answered the door, and wrote welcoming messages on the board. Stefon perfectly modeled how older children, who might otherwise become bored, can practice leading as a form of play, share their knowledge/skills, and inspire younger children to participate, too. As the sessions advanced, he wanted a more active role and started leading the “movement stretches,” which were a big hit. An example of the activity is below:

Stretch high to reach our goals,
Bend low to touch our roots,
Stomp out oppression,
and blow in the winds of change.

[Credit: Ana Mercado]

It’s a fairly simple exercise that we used to transition between activities (though there is a complex, longer version on our website as well). All that’s needed is to say the lines and follow the actions. The last action is really open to interpretation and it is a good opportunity to move around space and trade spots with people if desired. If you do it a couple of times, you can go faster and faster, or slower and slower, or quiet then LOUD, depending on the mood you’re trying to create. There are more of these transitioning activities listed on our website with the book club curriculum.

kids drawingThe teaching artist-led activities that accompanied each reading were all arts and crafts–based except for the week we read “Let Freedom Sing,” which focused on singing freedom songs. Other activities consisted of making puppets, blues instruments, protest signs, a memory tree, our own cardboard city, and more! Some memorable slogans the children created while making protest signs included: “No Timeouts,” “Stop Killing,” “Make White & Black Be Equal,” “No Sharks” [held by a seal], “No Cages,” and “No Closing Schools.” These activities were important in processing the stories that we read and also helped bring our own understanding of the world into the narrative of collective struggle. The art pieces that we left with told a story of how young minds were coming to contextualize and acknowledge their experience in the story of civil rights.

To put all of this together required the hard work and dedication of many people. We want to thank everybody who contributed, led, and participated in this first book club series. Below are some of the lessons that we learned in implementing “C is for Civil Rights. We plan to incorporate what we learned over the course of our eight weeks of movement, songs, art, reading, and creativity as we plan our second series which will focus on Latin@ social justice history.

Lessons Learned

Although we had a successful fall session, we learned a number of important lessons to help us improve the project. Based on feedback from participants and our shared analysis, we came up with a few suggestions for how to move this work forward in a meaningful way.

No-timeoutsAlso, a parent pointed out in their feedback that “the art activity about blues [music] seemed to caricature blues in a way that seemed inappropriate.” With this in mind, coordinating meetings would be especially important in order to define our shared values and philosophy. We are already planning to work with ChiChiCo volunteers and Nicole’s teaching artist students again, so this will provide us with some continuity. We hope that this will make it easier to build consensus about our values and philosophy.

We learned that practicing our ideal of making the space child-centered is a major commitment and responsibility that we must actively work towards because so much of the world is not set up this way. At the beginning of each session, informal discussion with children provided an opportunity to listen to the ideas and issues that they were bringing into the room. This was important since no children were involved in the planning process. For example, the idea of playing a name game to introduce ourselves was suggested by one of the children and these name games became essential to building relationships and encouraging group participation. In the future, we recognize that it is important to develop activities so that we can bring more of ourselves into space. We don’t envision that these introductory activities will need to be particularly involved or complicated. Sharing a fun fact, and how we are doing will help us to be better prepared to be responsive to where children are coming from and for the children to be open to sharing something about themselves and their thoughts in a group setting.

As we share stories of struggle with children, we concurrently need to make sure we’re practicing our values. Consent and self-determination are important to the movement for justice and are also important to children. For example, we must be mindful of asking before touching them or before doing a task for them. By modeling our values and how we want to interact without having to stick to inflexible schedules with prescribed outcomes, we can make room to engage with issues that we really care about. One question we are asking is, how can we plan to structure the sessions and space to be fun, engaging, and active, but not necessarily mandatory, strict, or rigid?

This question is important because children would “check out” if they weren’t interested or inspired by what was going on and their unfocused energy became distracting to the group. One idea is to make a space for children to chill out if they don’t want to participate. This seems like a good way to honor a child’s autonomy within boundaries that we can set and later question together in order to facilitate a collective learning environment. Another option would be to lay out a piece of white paper for children to draw on while we’re reading. For example, the whiteboard became a free place for expression in the interstices between activities and if we were to also ask the kids to draw about the story, those drawings can be used as a reference during discussions. This also acknowledges another type of sensory processing, so children not fully engaged by the auditory or visual stimuli might be grounded by the physical sensation of a crayon in their hand. Finally, if we ask the kids for feedback at the end of each class, in a similar manner to how we asked their parents and caregivers, the children can provide critical reflection. If the kids don’t participate, we can find out why.

When we listened to how children responded to the stories we read, we found that, of course, children are still dealing with issues that were central to the civil rights struggle but often without the tools to dismantle them or similar stories to relate to their struggles. For example, the narrative in many books assumes that the problem of segregation is now solved. One of the children, very astutely, mentioned after a reading that segregation was one reason for why the schools were currently being closed. With such a limited and often overly optimistic focus, many of the underlying and interconnecting issues that the children are also struggling with were not addressed, including gentrification, police targeting, and incarceration. It was hard to engage with these struggles without a common bond, narrative or story, which was what the books were meant to provide. One way to fill that gap might be to invite people, particularly elders, who can talk about their thoughts and feelings about present struggles and how they relate to the past. This is something to consider but might eat into the time that was allotted for programming. We found that two hours was the maximum amount of time to constructively engage the participating children. Extending the sessions beyond that time would be problematic in terms of holding the attention of young children.

Spring 2014

We are excited to see this project continue on into the future and hope that you will join us. This spring, we will once again be at the Chicago Freedom School and this time we will be focusing on Latin@ social justice history.


[1] This group included Kristen Atkinson, Mary Scott-Boria, Mariame Kaba, Jake Klippenstein, Eva Nagao, and Asha Ransby-Sporn.

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