Last June, my kids and I attended a terrific program at the Cambridge Public Library. Wee the People, a Boston-based social justice project for kids, led a summer reading kickoff that included activism stories, sign making, and a march alongside a Honk! Band.
It was so inspiring to see how Wee the People connected powerful picture books (including A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara and The Youngest Marcher by Cynthia Levinson and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton) with real conversations about injustice, teaching kids about standing up for what they believe in and actually getting out on the streets.
Wee The People organizes free events and workshops for kids ages 4-12, exploring social justice and the power of protest through arts programming and interactive games. The organization, now two years running, hosts a social justice storytime twice a month in partnership with Boston Public Library, and recently launched “Wee Parents,” a workshop series for adults on starting difficult conversations about racism and injustice with kids.
I recently spoke with co-founders Tanya Nixon-Silberg and Francie Latour to learn more. From the first question, the bond between these two women was clear, as the two sometimes finished each other’s sentences and traded knowing winks.
Alison: Why did you start Wee the People?
Francie: We were just talking last night about how this would probably be the first question!
Tanya: Exactly! So, there’s a lot of ways to tell the story of how Wee The People started. But basically, in 2015, after [the choking death by police of] Eric Garner, we went to a workshop together called “The Trauma of Racism” hosted by several organizations in Jamaica Plain. It was a really big turnout, and a LOT of feelings and pain came out. And one of the things that happened almost immediately was that people of color in the group gravitated to each other and started gathering to figure out, how can we take action? What can we do to respond to this? And for us as parents, that was a challenge. Because you have a lot of action happening with Black Lives Matter but so many of the actions took place at night when we’re at home, putting our kids to bed —
Francie: — As a parent, part of the dilemma was like, okay, how am I going to chain myself to a highway when I have to pick my kids up from karate? So there are these real responsibilities, and at the same time, this is history unfolding. This is our lives, and I didn’t want to ever look back on this moment and feel like I didn’t act, I didn’t do something.
Tanya: Right. So it was really important that whatever we did, we had to find a way to involve our kids (now spanning ages 5 through 13). So we decided to plan a kids’ march for black lives. We worked with the women who run JP Porchfest to put together a program at our local Jamaica Plain library branch with the JP Honk! Band. We had a storytime, we read A Is for Activist for the little ones and Freedom On the Menu by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue for the older kids, we made signs and we had a big march through Jamaica Plain, and then ended with a speech by a local middle schooler. As we began to plan it, so many ideas came out and we realized one event wasn’t enough. And that’s how our programming and events evolved.
Francie: In a lot of ways, in our own parenting at home, Tanya and I were both doing things with the same intentionality and social justice approach that we do with Wee the People. The Valentine’s Day card-making event we did against Islamophobia, “To Islam, with Love” was based on Valentine’s card-making parties I had already been doing at home with the kids and their friends. And Tanya at home was already talking about big feelings with her daughter using a puppet, so she understood the power of theater to engage little kids about bigger messages.
And then as black moms, we were introducing ideas about injustice to our kids, and particularly since all of our kids our biracial, we were struggling and figuring out how to do that in ways that didn’t leave them feeling divided within themselves. So when we first started developing Wee The People it was like, our brains just started firing and the things we were doing at home became ideas for workshops around inequity and racial injustice. And a lot of those ideas were based in books. I’ll never forget when Tanya first came over my house for brunch, and there was a Curious George book on the table. My kids loved Curious George. And Tanya says to my daughter, “Hunh – who decided his name would be George? And how is it that he’s so far from home and he’s happy? How do you think you would feel if you got taken from your home to some place far away?”
Tanya: Reading children’s books critically was a seed. We haven’t gotten rid of the Curious George books. Instead, what we like to say is we’re detecting and disrupting the narrative of the books and helping the kids see that there is a narrative. A lot of parents skip over that page in the kid’s book that’s uncomfortable, or they skip the challenging stuff, or take the book off the shelf. This often happens with conversations about racism. Parents avoid it, don’t talk about it, and hope it’s not sinking in.
Francie: Whereas what we want to do is give kids credit. We know kids are noticing racial differences and making meaning out of them. So we name it and call it out for what it is. Just like we tell a child, “Here is the stove, it gets really hot.”
So when we figured out that we didn’t just want to do one event but an ongoing project, we knew books were going to be pretty important. We read a lot to our own kids and find through books there’s a lot of ways to open the door to these difficult conversations.
And in doing this work with kids, it’s a very iterative process. There isn’t just one time when you sit down and have THE TALK and explain racism to kids. It’s not like that. That is way too high-stakes and it would paralyze any parent! It’s really a continual, evolving conversation. In our workshops we want kids to notice when something doesn’t seem right, and to get them to question, why is this? And we use some kind of activity to reinforce the conversation in the kids’ bodies, to make it an experience they will remember.
Alison: Can you talk about how you use children’s books in your programs?
Tanya: We talk about books a lot. We go back and forth and discuss a lot of books to see if they are in alignment with what we want to talk about. It could be race, gender identity, immigration, environmental racism, and so on. Books are usually a jumping off point for how we do the rest of the workshop. The book has to speak to us first.
For our workshop on gentrification, we used Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson, and created a game. The game challenges kids to compete and explore, what are all the things that make up CJ’s neighborhood? And what’s going to happen if some of those things start to go away?
Francie: We also have a workshop called “Everywhere and Nowhere” that explores the immigrant experience. We looked for books with kid protagonists who are going through this. We read The Ugly Vegetables by Grace Lin and Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation by Edwidge Danticat and illustrated by Leslie Staub. And we use those to talk about belonging and home and loss, and what it’s like being separated from people you love and who love you.
Tanya: We use books to talk about really hard issues, develop a game, and then we sometimes have a take-home activity, craft, or prize, based on what’s happening in the book. We want our workshops to be a tool for parents to start conversations. We look for kids’ books with kids of color as the protagonists. Sometimes it can be kids just being kids, and sometimes they are kids overcoming adversity.
Francie: In the books we choose, the protagonists have to have a lot of agency. Things happen to them, but they also take action. This makes the story a really powerful springboard because then kids can really start to imagine themselves as capable of action. We give kids a lot of credit for being able to hear and see difficult things, like in The Youngest Marcher when kids are lined up and arrested. Our activities help kids practice having agency.
One challenge is finding books that take place close to our time. One of the things I’ve noticed about what white kids learn about race is this idea that it all happened “a long, long time ago” and then it all got fixed.
Alison: What are some of your favorite picture books?
Tanya: Last Stop on Market Street, Yesterday I Had the Blues by Jeron Ashford Frame and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, and Innosanto Nagara’s books.
Francie: Mama’s Nightingale. Visually, it’s so beautiful. It does such a great job at making something difficult accessible, explaining the idea of “papers.” Mama can’t stay in the US because she doesn’t have the right ones. And the way the child makes change and gets her mother back is by telling her story. That’s so powerful for kids.
Milo’s Museum by Zetta Elliott and illustrated by Purple Wong. This book is a really great way to talk about systemic racism. And what I mean by that is… So, over the summer my kids were called the N-word in a store. We reported it to a manger, and the manager’s response to my kids was that “sometimes people are just mean.” And that’s often how we talk about racism – openly hateful people saying or doing openly hateful things. We are craving books that talk about racism as a system—the legitimate, every day, structural systems in all our institutions and ways of life that we all participate in every day, that normalize racial advantage and disadvantage. When I read Milo’s Museum I thought about that moment in the store instantly. This story isn’t about someone being mean. Milo’s whole world is invisible in this place, this museum, which her grandfather explains to her is the place where people put the things they think are important.
Alison: What other books would you like to see?
Tanya: I’d like to see a children’s book about skin color without likening kids to flavors!
Francie: With lots of children’s books that deal with race and racism, the lens is on the person who is being impacted by the racism. The idea of whiteness and what whiteness means also needs to be a focus. White kids for the most part grow up feeling that they are the norm and that their whiteness isn’t a subjective position, but is somehow neutral or universal. It’s so important for kids to understand the privilege of whiteness if we’re going to get anywhere with any of this. I’d like to see a book that somehow tackles whiteness and tells the story of how whiteness came to be.
Alison: What’s next for Wee the People? How can people get involved?
Tanya: This year we’re expanding our social justice storytime, Little Voices, Big Change, with the Boston Public Library. So we’ll be doing two each month, at different library branches. We have six modules of our Little Voices, Big Change program for 5-8 year olds: Black Lives Matter; Bridges Not Walls; Whose Trash Is This? (about environmental justice); Tutus for Batman (about gender identity); What is Racism?; and Gentrification.
We’ve also launched “Wee Parents,” a workshop series for parents, educators, and other adults to talk about how to have conversations about race and racism, how to use children’s books to do that well, and how to read children’s books critically.
We’re also really excited to be hosting Innosanto Nagara for events on November 6th — R is for Rulebreakers at the Frugal Bookstore in Roxbury and We Blocked the Gates at the Jamaica Plain Branch of the Boston Public Library.
Organizationally, we’ve got a couple big goals – one to find a fiscal sponsor and figure out how to make this more sustainable long-term, and the other is to develop a website.
Alison: Thank you, Tanya and Francie!!
Banner photo by Tess Scheflan