If the 2016 election has taught us anything, it's that our nation is divided. So-called Red States and Blue States don't have much in common -- or at least they don't know if they do. Each side is stuck in its own bubble. And, if there's anything you learn, working with kids, it's that their capacity for empathy and understanding is tremendous -- but they find it hard to come to that empathy in the abstract. Telling a student that it's not kind to call someone "gay" is a hard sell. "Everyone says it!" they will reply. But, have that same child befriend a gay student or student with gay parents, and suddenly that child is a champion for kindness who starts calling out his friends for using hurtful language.
For our students, like so many children, the gateway to understanding is giving them some specific shoes to walk in. It's hard to say, "Imagine you're an immigrant, or a Muslim, or have a learning difference." But, it's easy to say, "How do you think Omar might feel about that?" Or, "If you were Alexandra, how would you react to that?" And we are very lucky. We live in one of the most diverse zip codes in the country (ranked number 7 in Los Angeles on the Diversity Index -- and that doesn't even account for how many different countries, regions, and religious backgrounds students in Palms come from!). Most of our students know a Muslim, a Sikh, an undocumented immigrant. These are their friends -- and they defend them. But, our students do not know rural America. If you ask them where milk comes from, they almost always reply, "The store!" with a "no-duh" kind of expression. For all of their worldliness, these kids don't know how to work with their hands, how to build things, how to grow food, or raise an animal, even what it's like to see stars on a really dark night.
So, we keep thinking: what can we do to educate children -- our children and other children -- about others. How can we get kids to "meet" kids and worlds and lives that they don't know? How can we increase the number of "other people's shoes" that they can walk in?
For many of us, so much of our understanding of others comes from friends that we've made between the covers of a book. I may not personally know people from all over the world, but I've met them through reading.
And, what we do at EdBoost is read with kids. We read and we talk -- and we help kids to read and think better. (In the photo above, our tutors are reading Shel Silverstein poems with a group of kids at the Children's Collective in South Los Angeles -- working on "finding the funny.") We decided that the best way for us to help build empathy is to hold big, free events, with as many little and big readers as possible, and read books that will help them explore humanity.
We came up with MEETRead.
And what is MEETRead? (For the acronym curious: MEET stands for "More Empathy Empowerment and Tolerance.")
- MEETReads are reading and talking events -- that will be held 3-4 times a year at EdBoost (or somewhere else if we grow too big!)
- We'll pull together an amazing set of books with characters of ALL types (from all over the world, from all different racial/ethnic/religious/class/cultural backgrounds, with all kinds of strengths, weaknesses, struggles, and identities) that are thought-provoking AND fun to read (we'll need your help finding these books!)
- We'll have different sessions for kids of different ages. In each session, we'll read a book (or the first chapter of longer books) to the students and then lead a discussion and let the kids talk and explore and share their own experiences as they relate to the books.
- We'll send the kids home to finish and reflect on the books we started (or, for the little ones, with similar books).
- We'll meet again to discuss the books they read, and record those discussions to be disseminated as podcasts.
How MEETRead helps spread empathy, empowerment, and tolerance:
- We'll crowd-source the best books that contain a wide array of characters: expanding kids' worlds through amazing books. We'll post these lists online so teachers, parents, and community members all over the country can introduce their kids to these books.
- We'll create packets of background information and discussion questions (as well as a list of "heads-ups" for adults so that they know what tender topics might come up while reading, and suggestions for how to handle them) for each book, and make those packets available online so anyone who wants to host a MEETRead in their own community (or just do some great reading) can start quickly and easily.
- We'll distribute the podcasts, so that teachers and parents and reading group leaders who might not have access to the diversity of Palms can supplement their own discussions with the voices of our students.
- Finally, we'll build a reading community here in Los Angeles, grounded in regular events (with snacks and fun) and, hopefully, an on-going community of folks who care about reading, education, empathy, and learning.
How you can help:
- The first thing we need are book recommendations. We have a huge list of books that we use here (EdBoost Executive Director, Tiffani Chin, has been thinking a lot about her personal list, past and present), but we know that it isn't complete. We need more books for small kids, more books about gender/transgender issues, more science fiction, mystery, and adventure books that also deal with issues of difference. We're crowd-sourcing this! Go to our Facebook page and join the discussion: what other books should we be looking at?
- Next, we'll need volunteers to read to kids, facilitate discussions, record and edit podcasts, and help out in general. Do you want to make a difference? Spend Saturday morning with a MEETRead! If you're on board, we're compiling a general go-to list. We'll get details out about the first event ASAP (probably just after the new year).
- Finally, we're going to raise some money. We'd love to give students the books we'll be using at the MEETRead, so the kids have no excuse not to dig in. We'd also love to do some promotion of the discussion guides and podcasts that come out of the MEETReads. You can always donate through our website (note MEETRead in the purpose box), but we'll do a proper fundraiser in a few weeks.
What's the long term vision?
We woud love to see MEETReads happen everywhere. We'd love to see MEETRead discussion packets and podcasts being used in schools, homes, afterschool programs around the country. We'd love to be a small part of the force that will be pushing the next generation OUT of their bubbles to learn more, about more types of people and more different lives, and create a better, more compassion world. Smarter kids, better world.