Like many other organizations that focus on in-person interaction with children, Washtenaw County's Black Men Read
(BMR) had to pivot to virtual programming during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the nonprofit, which hosts children's events spotlighting local Black men as storytellers and community leaders, is bouncing back with new partner venues and a return to in-person reading events.
Ypsi residents Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha and Yodit Mesfin Johnson founded the nonprofit in 2016 after a local teacher asked Mesfin Johnson if she knew of Black men who would be interested in reading to children. Tucker-Ibarisha, whose children went to the same elementary school as Mesfin Johnson, came on board after the two became friends and started brainstorming.
"For some of these Black students, having someone they could identify and connect with reading to them could be a really great experience," Tucker-Ibarisha says.
Black Men Read co-founder Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha.
They began having monthly reading events at Black Stone Bookstore and Cultural Center
, 214 W. Michigan Ave. in Ypsilanti, as a mutually beneficial way to introduce the reading program to the public while supporting a Black-owned business.
In the early years, the program was run entirely by volunteers and self-funded by the two founders, but a 2018 grant from the United Way of Washtenaw County allowed BMR to hire two part-time staff and expand its reading events into 11 locations throughout the county.
Going virtual: a hard pivot
In an email to BMR supporters, Mesfin Johnson calls the switch to virtual programming in 2020 "a hard pivot for us, when so much magic was in our in-person program." Tucker-Ibarisha says that, at the beginning of the pandemic, "We had a lot of traction online."
"We'd been stuck in our houses, and people were really excited and primed for the idea of these virtual interactions as a way to stay connected and in community," she says.
Will Jones III was a BMR program coordinator at that time and helped create a reader corps of regulars. Jones has moved on from his staff position but remains a volunteer reader with BMR.
"We decided to work with a handful of guys who could commit to reading regularly over the course of the year," Jones says. "It was a lot of fun, but reading online was still not super interactive."
During his time at BMR, Jones helped institute online book parties that had more of an interactive component.
Will Jones III at a Black Men Read event at Booksweet.
"The kids would join on Zoom, we'd read the book, and I'd ask what they liked about the books," Jones says. "We'd do an activity and then share back what they learned with the other kids."
This past summer, BMR was able to shift back to some in-person outdoor activities at Ypsi's Riverside Park and an outdoor space provided by locally-owned Ann Arbor bookstore Booksweet
"That was a blast. The kids loved being able to see their friends and talk to the readers," Jones says.
Tucker-Ibarisha says she's proud of the virtual programming BMR has done in the last two years, but the program is ready to pivot again.
"We probably won't ever completely give up on virtual programming, but so much of the magic that happens with Black Men Read is about the connections that happen between readers and participants when we're in those spaces together," she says. "It's hard to replicate virtually, and that's what's driving us back to in-person programming."
Bringing a love of reading to a new generation
Ann Arbor author Dwight Wilson
recently read to children ages 3 to 5 at Ypsilanti's Bottles-N-Backpacks
daycare center as part of BMR's return to in-person programming.
"I thought they might be a handful," Wilson says. "But they were fun. They were chatting as children will, but when I started reading, they were quiet and attentive and asked questions."
They were all masked and observing COVID-19 protocols, but one little boy couldn't resist coming over to give Wilson a big hug.
Wilson says he was inspired to volunteer with BMR because his parents, especially his mother, modeled a love of reading for him and his siblings. She became pregnant with Wilson when she was 16 and kicked out of school, but retained her love of reading.
"My mother was reading all the time, even though she spent her whole career as a maid. She thought reading was the key to freedom," Wilson says. "My father was kicked out of school in seventh grade because they said he was 'too smart for a Negro.' He quoted Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Margaret Sanger, even though he was a janitor or garbage collector my whole life."
Wilson went on to be a headmaster at a school in Detroit and says reading to elementary school pupils every Tuesday morning was the highlight of his week. He says he missed that interaction with children and was happy to be asked to be a BMR volunteer reader.
Branching out into subscription book boxes
As a way to help fund BMR's work, the nonprofit recently launched a "swag shop" of BMR merchandise like sweatshirts and tote bags, as well as a subscription book box service
. A box of books is curated and sent to subscribers four times a year. The funds raised will support future BMR events.
The book box idea grew from a push in the early months of the pandemic to give book kits to more than 100 children around the county.
"All told, by the end of 2020, we had given out about 300 books," Tucker-Ibarisha says. "That planted the seed. We have this book box giveaway. What would that look like as a subscription box?"
Black Men Read subscription book boxes.
The boxes not only contain a curated packet of books, but also an activity guide and other related items like bookmarks and stickers. The first box of 2022 contained stickers custom-designed by two local women, and Tucker-Ibarisha says that sort of collaboration will continue.
"Every box this year will have some connection to a Black maker, creator, or artist," she says. "It's a way to promote local artists and talk to the kids about the idea that these were crafted by people in their community who are just like them."
More information about the book boxes and all BMR programs is available here
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.