You’re invited to expand your understanding of social justice through a community book read

If you want to better understand the social justice issues dominating the nightly news in recent months, then you’ve got a couple opportunities this month.

The Bay County Library System, Saginaw Valley State University Writing Center, and the Center for Community Writing, are working together to bring “The Justice Read Project” to the community. The project consists of two parts – the dedication of a Justice Library in Downtown Bay City and a Community Read of the novel “All-American Boys.”

The community is invited to read "All American Boys," and participate in discussions about social justice themes. (Photo courtesy of The Justice Read Project)The first event is the dedication of the Justice Library at 4 p.m. April 21 in Waterfall Park, 101 Third St. The adult and children’s books inside this lending library will focus on racial justice and will be available for loan to any community member, free of charge. The YWCA Great Lakes Bay Region is running the Justice Library.

The Justice Library dedication will include an interactive story-telling activity for community members of all ages led by local author Rae Ama-Camylle Chesny. “The Justice Library serves as a physical symbol of a community that is ready to contribute to building a just world by having vulnerable conversations designed to understand the experiences of others,” Chesny says.

The second event calls for people to read a book and then join discussions about it. Helen Raica-Klotz, who heads up the SVSU Writing Center and the Center for Community Writing, says the idea came from people trying to understand the Black Lives Matters protests last summer.

The project began when Thor Rasmussen of the Saginaw Art Museum mentioned to Raica-Klotz that he couldn’t find books at the library about social justice. They were all checked out. So Rasmussen started a Social Justice Library in Saginaw.

Raica-Klotz wanted to bring the concept to Bay County and take it a step further. Raica-Klotz asked herself, “How could we get them to read books and then have conversations? What we’re really trying to do is create some community.”

The answer was a community-wide book club. Early in 2021, Saginaw held an organized community book read of “Kindred,” by Octavia Butler. About 64 people joined a Zoom conversation about the book.

“We had some really good conversations,” Raica-Klotz says. 

The Bay County Justice Read book is available at the Bay County Library System. (Photo courtesy of The Justice Read Project)Now, the program moves to Bay County. The book is “All American Boys,” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. Free copies are available at the Bay County Library System (BCLS). Anyone with a BCLS card can borrow an ebook to read for the program too.

The program seems especially important in Bay County. “For those of us who are white in a predominantly white culture, these conversations are even more important,” Raica-Klotz says. Without these conversations, many people in this community may never understand the viewpoint of other people.

To encourage as many people as possible to join in the conversation, the committee looked for young adult titles. They are hoping the book will appeal to people ranging from young teens through adults. 

In the award-winning novel, two teens (one Black, one white) deal with the aftermath of a single violent act at their school. Racial tension divides their school, their community, and the country.  Raica-Klotz says the book focuses on empowering the characters, not showing them as victims.

The library ordered 125 copies of the book to give to anyone who asks. Those who accept the book are asked to attend one of four scheduled discussions. The discussions are via Zoom at 7 p.m. April 29, May 11, and May 26. An in-person discussion is set for outside Sage Library, 100 E. Midland St., at 10 a.m. May 22.

“The goals for the program are really simple,” Raica-Klotz says. “We want people to read and we want people to talk. It’s community and it’s reading and it’s using the book as a way to enter into our own experiences and have some conversations.”

Between the Justice Library and the community book read, Raica-Klotz hopes to encourage conversations about tough issues.

“It really opens the door to some cross dialogue about how our backgrounds and how our biases come into play when we see different experiences,” Raica-Klotz says. “How does that change our understanding?”

All conversations are free, but participants are asked to register for a session in advance by visiting the Justice Library website.

Future projects related to the “All American Boys” read include a community art activity, scheduled to take place in Downtown Bay City later this summer.

Funding for this program has been provided by a grant from Women in Leadership Great Lakes Bay. Other collaborators include the Bay County Public Library System, SVSU Community Writing Center, the YWCA Great Lakes Bay Region, and Leopard Print Books, Gifts &  Curiosities.