Building Power on the Margins: Social Justice Holiday Children’s Book Fair 2017

Most any significant endeavor calls for accomplices.
– Phillipe Petit

If you flock to high-profile exclusive events with VIPs and groupies, flashy swag bags and passed hors d’oeuvres (I had to look up how to spell that), the Social Justice Holiday Children’s Book Fair was not for you.

It all started with a conversation between two Bay Area bookmaker friends, that led to an email to a few more bookmaker friends: “Anyone want to do a social justice children’s book holiday fair in six weeks?”

Sprouting reader and their dad enjoying independent book offerings at the Social Justice Holiday Children’s Book Fair.

The fuse was lit. Innosanto Nagara, Laura Atkins, Robert Liu-Trujillo, Maya & Matthew Smith Gonzalez, and I — six friends who’d for years crossed paths, lunched, cheered each other on, commiserated, and sat on panels together — jammed on it through email and shared google docs to organize the first Social Justice Holiday Children’s Book Fair.

We called friends at Chapter 510 & the Dept. of Make Believe in Oakland (a non-profit youth writing center that’s part of the 826 Chapter Development Process). — Venue? Check.  We called friends at  Alphabet Rockers (a change-making hip hop group that’s been a staunch educational and social justice advocate). — Performers? Check. We called friends at Tandem Partners in Early Learning. — Community literacy partner? Check.

The road must be wide because everyone has something to share in different ways at different times.
— Maya Smith Gonzalez

These accomplices proved vital to the effort, amplifying outreach and bringing in a kids’ bookmaking station, a book donation drive, Two Mamacitas Pop Up Kitchen to sell tacos, and DJ XCAIROCITOSX to keep spirits high. We invited other local bookmakers, and as word got around, sadly had to turn many away as we ran out of tabling space.

Alphabet Rockers performing songs from their Grammy Nominated album RiseShine#Woke at the Social Justice Holiday Children’s Book Fair. (The Grammy nomination was announced only days after they confirmed participation in the event!)

We hadn’t collaborated as a group before, and the ease of it was surprising at first. Soon I realized this ease was a manifestation of the Trust we’d been building for years.

The countdown to the big day was both exciting and suspenseful. Laura describes it well: “There was a sense of anticipation and the unknown since this was the first time we’d organized an event like this. We had a big response on Facebook, but we couldn’t know how that would pan out.”

We want to spend our money in ways that signify our resistance. We want to create positive, engaged, and activist communities for our children to be surrounded by, despite the despotic regime they are growing up under.
Innosanto Nagara

It all culminated just over a week ago, on December 9th, 2017 in Downtown Oakland, California.

Chapter 510 (not a tiny venue) was packed. Makers, families, teachers, librarians, advocates, friends, and strangers all gathered in support of independent efforts to spread social justice through children’s books. Though no one knows for sure how many people came through, estimates run from 400 to 1,000.

“It was great to see so many people genuinely interested in talking to each other and supporting various books they’d never seen before,” Robert reflected on the energy and spirit of support at the event. And it was true. Kids, adults, and grandparents alike could play and explore together without judgement or inhibition.

Innosanto described Book Fair attendees as folks who “want to have these conversations with our kids. We want to spend our money in ways that signify our resistance. We want to create positive, engaged, and activist communities for our children to be surrounded by, despite the despotic regime they are growing up under.”

Tiffany Golden sharing her Midnight Stories Series with Book Fair attendees.

So what do the successes of this event tell us?

Here are some lessons learned:

  • Collaboration, trust, and community are key. Half a dozen organizers, an engaged venue, locally celebrated performers, and 15 independent bookmakers and community partners all amplified the event and made it better. Robert put it best: “We truly are more powerful when we work together.”
  • People want community building events like these that elevate justice and equity values. Kaitlin McGaw of Alphabet Rockers explains, “People are hungry for media and experiences that reflect our diverse families and that give us space to feel freedom, rooted in the reality of our needs for common language and understandings around social justice.”
  • Place matters. Innosanto noted how many social justice themed book projects there are, just in the San Francisco Bay Area: “I’ve talked to a lot of people over the years from all over the country who are trying to bring a social justice lens to children’s books, but this is definitely a hub.”  The event wouldn’t have come together as it had without the Town. Oakland’s rich Movement history, strong nonprofit and organizing culture, current experiences of gentrification and displacement, and of course the current national context were fertile soil for the Book Fair to sprout and thrive.
  • Being outcasts can fuel success. The bookmakers at this event were from POC, Native, LGBTQIA+, and other communities that have been excluded from and underrepresented in the children’s book publishing industry. In the face of that, we’ve made books independently, and joined forces with others doing similar justice work. We’re building, joining forces with communities of support, claiming our relevance, and creating our own spaces.

Laura connected the Book Fair to the larger publishing industry: “(These books) show what the world can look like, and how publishers and booksellers are missing the boat. WE get to make the stories, create the spaces, envision the world that we want to live in. It’s a total example of people power, grassroots efforts, and an alternative to the crazy profit-driven way so much of our world seems to be functioning within these days.”

As Maya explained, “knowing we can stand together and create together and flow through time is revolutionary and healing. This is how we serve. Inside out. I think the folks who attended (the Book Fair) could feel that.”

Many of us are still riding the wave of positivity and energy from the event. People have asked if and when we’ll do it again. I pose the question to you:

What event or action do you have brewing with your crew?
It can all start with something as small as a conversation.

No mythologies here; we’re still marginalized and on the fringes. But we’re together, and on the rise.

Peace and Love to you and yours this holiday season.

“Close the Year, Open Your Heart.” Young change-makers tagging up Chapter 510’s chalkboard wall after we’d cleaned up from the event and a long and beautiful day.


Event Roll Call…

Special thanks to Chapter 510 & The Dept. of Make Believe for hosting us! As you close out your year, please consider making a donation to support their literacy and bookmaking work with low income youth. Donate now and your contribution will be matched by the Oakland Fund for Children & Youth!