Decatur book club for children raises awareness about race relations

DECATUR-Last summer, when the Decatur Public Library began having Zoom book discussions on race relations with a diverse group of fifth through eighth graders, eight students showed up for the first discussion. For the second discussion, 26 middle schoolers showed up. When 48 of the 99 registered youth and their family members attended the third discussion, the library staff realized that race relations was something that families in their community wanted to talk about.

"We were really blown away. It was wonderful," said Susan Bishop, library assistant for the Children's Section of the Decatur Public Library. "It was the third of this particular book discussion, called 'Conversations with Kabedi and Kareem,' and it kind of had been building on itself, but this just completely outdid all of our expectations."

The Decatur Public Library used a $2,500 Healing Illinois grant to host the third book discussion last February with New York Times bestselling author and illustrator Jerry Craft on his newly released book called "Class Act," a companion to the book "New Kid," and to provide free copies of "Class Act" to youth who registered for the discussion. Young adults Kabedi Mulomede and Kaream Williams facilitated Craft's talk about his personal journey and "Class Act," which is about how a kid named Drew handles being one of the few kids of color in a prestigious private school.

The Decatur Public Library is one of several organizations in 26 counties that received one of the $125,000 in Healing Illinois grants issued by the United Way of Decatur & Mid-Illinois. The Healing Illinois grants were funded by the Illinois Department of Human Services and administered by the Chicago Community Trust to promote racial healing activities throughout Illinois.

Debbi Bogle, president of The United Way of Decatur and Mid-Illinois, said that the Healing Illinois grants enabled community organizations in her territory to expand their conversations and audiences. In addition, United Way organizations across Illinois engaged in what they called a 21-Week Equity Challenge, featuring a curriculum of activities and educational resources to raise awareness of and promote dialogue about racial inequities.

"This has really been significant across central Illinois and throughout the state," Bogle said. "Just the ability to find new programs and projects, highlight existing projects that were already underway, and bring more people into these conversations about race relations was invaluable."

Attracting 100 families to its book discussions is pretty unusual for the Decatur Public Library, which is planning future youth discussions on race.

"When 100 families sign up for this kind of a program, it reinforces our understanding that there is a need in our community to have these conversations, and it definitely is going to continue," Bishop said.

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