When Erickson Elementary School teacher Kayla Dillion asked Erickson paraprofessional Kallista Walker and two other community members to record themselves reading a book, it sparked a grassroots initiative called Our Community Reads that has caught fire in the Ypsilanti area.
"That was the first time I'd been referred to as a community leader, and I was so honored, so I put on my afro wig and recorded myself reading 'Ellington is Not a Street,'" Walker says, referencing the party wig she wears each time she records herself reading a book.
About a week after recording the video, the Ypsilanti resident had a phrase repeating over and over in her head: "A community that reads together grows together." She says she knew God was speaking to her. All day, she thought about what that must mean, and the names of people she'd like to record themselves reading books to children began to come to her.
"As I reached out to people, this project took on wings of its own," she says.
In less than two months, Walker has created over three dozen read-along videos featuring leaders of color including small business owners, pastors, firefighters, public safety officers, and public figures like Ypsilanti Mayor Lois Richardson and Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton. The videos are all available on her Community Reads YouTube channel.
Walker says the project's goal is to replace all the negative, traumatic stories that Black and brown children see growing up, including images of people of color being shot, with positive stories. Before readers begin reading the chosen book, Walker encourages them to talk a little bit about their careers, educational backgrounds, and other life details to give young viewers a sense of the possibilities for their own adult lives.
"I believe this project is divinely inspired, due to the simple fact that, for so many books I've chosen and for the people I've chosen to read, there have been such beautiful match-ups," Walker says. "I don't necessarily know some of these people very well, but something draws me to them, and I reach out. I'm really careful and try to be aware of the energy they bring to the table."
14B District Court Judge Erane Washington was one of the public figures who participated in the project, reading "Equality's Call," a book about the importance of voting. Washington says she is excited about the wide variety of people Walker has recruited for the project – "not just people involved in politics, but people who own their own business or who are making a difference in the community." Erane Washington.
"She asks the readers to say what they do for a living and where they went to school," Washington says. "That gives the kids an opportunity to see that they might be in elementary school now, but in the future they'll be an adult, and it helps them to see that their goals are attainable."
Growing up on the Southside of Ypsilanti, Walker knew many parents who were married to each other for years and fathers who were deeply involved in their children's lives, although she says that "isn't the narrative the world would have you believe."
She refers to reading stories to children as seeds she is planting that she trusts God to grow. When the world shows the children ugly stories about themselves and their communities, she hopes they will instead remember stories featuring children of color being read by respected community members who look like them.
"You have to be careful what kind of seeds you are planting," she says.
One of Walker's first cheerleaders in the Our Community Reads project was her aunt, Aquilla Robinson. Kallista Walker and Aquilla Robinson.
"I chose to read 'Thank You, Omu' because it's about a Nigerian woman, and my twin sister who passed away six years ago was married to a Nigerian and her kids are half-Nigerian," Robinson says.
She says reading the book was a fun experience that reminded her of working at a summer day camp alongside her twin and reading to children, as well as reading to her own daughter before bedtime.
Another early supporter was Geri Ott, a third-grade teacher at Erickson Elementary who is teaching remotely this semester. Walker is a paraprofessional in Ott's classroom, and Ott has begun using an Our Community Reads video each day in class, partly in response to Ypsilanti Community Schools' (YCS) district-wide emphasis on culturally sensitive materials and curriculum.
"My hope through the Our Community Reads program is that it will really strengthen this base of exposure to kids with literature and people in their community that are successful that look like them," Ott says.
She says the books spur fun discussions, like one about hairstyles after seeing a video of barber Ryan Griffin reading the book "Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut" by Derrick Barnes.
"It talks about all kinds of different hairstyles in a really fabulous way," Ott says. "The kids were responding to it, saying things like, 'I've got that haircut,' or that they know someone with that haircut. They got very involved and were talking about things going on in the story."
Another Erickson teacher, Keisha Dukes, has also been using the videos in the classroom, and says the timing for Walker's project couldn't be better. Keisha Dukes.
"It's a wonderful initiative, and something I think is very useful to teachers who are doing remote learning right now," Dukes says. "When Kallista approached me with this, it was a perfect fit, because we're scrambling for anything we can do to keep our students engaged."
Dukes says she appreciates how engaged the readers are with the material.
"Kids love picture books, and when you read aloud to them, you're demonstrating how to read fluently with inflection, and it's modeling the way they should read," she says.
One of the videos Dukes used in her classroom featured Mentor 2 Youth Executive Director Darryl Johnson reading "The Undefeated" by Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson. Johnson had visited the classroom in person, so many of the children recognized him.
"They saw it was him reading and they were excited because they already had a rapport established and he was a familiar face," Dukes says.
Dukes says the project is a great fit for cross-curricular teaching, with children learning not only language skills but also history, arts and culture, and more. After seeing the Our Community Reads project, the children also watched a short video clip of Guyton talking about the Heidelberg Project and got to see the real project on film.
The project has only been underway a little over a month, but Walker already has big plans for the future. She says she would like to expand the cultures featured in the books and bring in picture books with Latinx and Native American characters as well.
Her dearest hope, however, is to create an entire library of videos so they can be used as a resource in classrooms and at home. She recently had teachers outside of YCS reach out to discuss how the videos can be used in their own classrooms.
Robinson says she knew as soon as she found out about the project that it was a great idea that was going to take off. She says she wishes that someone like a fire chief, nurse, or doctor who looked like her had read to her when she was in school.
"It's not going to stop here," Robinson says. "Kallista loves kids so much. When she told me about this project, I was so excited. I knew in my gut that something big was going to happen. I told her, 'Things are going to take off for you. It's a really good idea.'"
All the Our Community Reads videos are available on the project's YouTube channel.
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.