Erin Brennan was reading “Ron’s Big Mission” out loud when her 5-year-old daughter stopped her.
They were learning about how astronaut Ron McNair, who grew up black in Jim Crow times, would go to the library to read about flight and space – but was never allowed to check out books.
How was it possible for someone to be denied getting their own library card, Ms. Brennan’s daughter wanted to know. “Books are for everyone!” she declared.
More than 550 white families have been having such conversations through We Stories, a nonprofit started in 2015 by two white moms in the suburbs of St. Louis. In the country’s fifth-most segregated city, We Stories is working to raise “big-hearted kids” who will better understand the diverse backgrounds of their black and brown fellow citizens. The group, which provides a private Facebook forum for participating families, has become a catalyst for broader change across the St. Louis area.
Part of the group’s success in reaching a wide variety of parents, says co-founder Laura Horwitz, stems from the relatively easy entrance into tough issues that children's books provide.
“Everybody knows that nothing terrible will happen to you when you open a children’s book,” says Ms. Horwitz, We Stories’ executive director. Plus, she adds, reading them with someone leads to questions and conversations. “That is completely the opposite mind-frame that we as a nation often take to issues of race. We don’t start from, ‘Boy, I might have a lot to learn about this.’ ”
Horwitz, a St. Louis native who had moved away for school and her early professional career, happened to move back in 2014 on the very day that Michael Brown was killed by a white policeman – an event that broadcast St. Louis’s racial tensions on TVs all across America. But in white suburbs, there was a lot of silence.
So Horwitz and her co-founder, Adelaide Lancaster, were shocked at the response they got when they launched We Stories the following year. They hoped that within a month, they could recruit 60 kids for their Family Learning Program. But within 48 hours, they already had double that number signed up.
While We Stories includes a small subset of multiracial families, the focus is on white families because that’s where the cofounders see the greatest need for more robust conversations about race and racism.
“Why white families? We're glad you asked,” they say on their website. “Our area of focus is closing the family conversation gap. White families tend not to talk about race and racism with their young children, whereas black and brown families often consider talking about race and racism a necessary part of parenting and raising children in a world that will not treat them fairly.”
Parents pay $100 for the 12-week experience, and are given four books per child. They start out by talking about how it’s OK to talk about difference. Then in the second and third months, parents can choose their own curriculum. The book lists are “bundled,” so that children read not only about oppression but also resistance and everyday life. Historical books are also complemented with more contemporary stories. Parents are given separate readings for their own background.
Two years in, there are still hundreds of people on a waiting list for their program.
“The story of We Stories is that there’s so much more interest than we have ever been equipped to handle,” says Ms. Lancaster. “I think that the thirst and the hunger has been really apparent.”
Opportunities for further discussion
The nonprofit is not so much quenching that thirst as whetting it. Some 85 percent of families continue to talk about race with their children after the program ends, and about half start new conversations with others or get involved in new initiatives – such as parent equity groups, which push for greater racial equity in schools.
“When you’re silent about it … your kids will fill in the blanks, because they are definitely observing.... and they are coming up with their own explanations for why the other neighborhood with the house with the broken window is where it’s all brown people,” says Farrell Carfield, a mom from Webster Groves, Mo.
But while white parents and schools are increasingly aware that their children can’t be insulated from the tremors that have shaken the St. Louis region in the past few years, there’s still some ambiguity about who should address it and how.
Parents are saying, “Thank goodness, the school is going to handle and teach my kid about how to feel about racism or how think about racism,” says Brennan, who lives in the city of St. Louis. “And the schools are going, ‘Well, all right, so we’ll talk about Martin Luther King and we’re hopeful that parents are having a more in-depth and nuanced conversation because we don’t want to take that away from them and step on any toes and offend their sensibilities, so we just won’t touch it either.’ And you reach an impasse, nobody talks about it. And the kids get that one-dimensional, one day a year message – Martin Luther King was a hero.”
We Stories, whose alumni hail from 67 different ZIP Codes, helps like-minded parents share tips on how best to approach school officials and provide constructive criticism.
The community also provides an avenue for deeper learning. For example, after Brennan’s daughter asked about why the astronaut-to-be couldn’t have his own library card, they visited the Missouri History Museum with some other We Stories families, where they saw a short play. A key line from the play was, “there were two laws back then: one for white people, and one for black people, and that’s not fair.” They also heard that even after Dr. King’s civil rights movement helped do away with the dual legal realities, it was another 10 years before NASA accepted a black astronaut.
The We Stories experience is not only helping kids understand history and justice issues, but also each other. Stacie Dixon, a white mom who is raising two African-American children, says her son is increasingly aware of the deficit that comes from not having frank conversations at home.
“That’s one thing my kids know, especially my older one, is that some of the kids that have caused him pain through racism and things like that – he’ll say, ‘I bet their family doesn’t talk about it at home.’ ”