We're all familiar with book clubs. We Stories is a different kind of book club, a non-profit started by two St. Louis County women. It began as a book club about race, diversity, and inclusion. Through We Stories, the universal act of parents reading to their young children can become a series of teachable moments, helping parents raise socially conscious children by reading to them, then having an on-going conversation about what it means to live in a diverse world.
"Learning about racism, especially if you're white, is not a warm fuzzy experience. It can be really hard, but it doesn't have to be," said Laura Horwitz, co-founder of We Stories.
When Horwitz, of Clayton, met Adelaide Lancaster of Webster Groves a few years ago, they realized they had much in common. Both were young professionals raising children. Their conversations ran deep, especially about race and their children. Each shared a desire to raise children prepared to live in a diverse world, and how they didn't know how to talk to their children about the complex issue of race in America.
"I felt like I was living in a community where things were fairly silent," said Lancaster. "Our schools weren't talking about race. I live in a predominantly white neighborhood. I didn't feel like a lot of friends, a lot of my neighbors were not talking about race and especially not with their kids. There was a lot of hesitation."
"I want my kids to explore and be ready for a world that's full of diversity, to be proactive citizens in a country with a very rich and complex history around race, and how was I going to equip them to do that?" said Horwitz.
"Seventy-five percent of white families never or almost never talk about race," said Lancaster," and so if you're not very practiced, and you don't do that, and it's not a regular every day occurrence, and it's only something that you talk about when something bad happens, or you've been shushed continuously as a child when you've noticed differences, we get the message that it's bad to talk about."
It was a thought process that eventually led Lancaster and Horwitz to create the non-profit We Stories. The wanted to use children's books to help parents talk to their children about race.
"Reading a picture book is unlike most reading experiences we have as an adult because it's interactive, it's repetitive, it's part of a routine and habit for many people," said Horwitz. "That's just central to your family life so that is like the heart of We Stories."
In other words, Horwitz and Lancaster say it's okay to talk about race with your children, perhaps imperative. We Stories and children's books provide the opportunity.
"If our organization does one thing, kind of breaking that cycle of socialization that talking about race is not something to be talked about in white families," said Lancaster. "White communities, that is a place we want to make a difference."
In a little over a year, We Stories has grown to 470 families, success that initially surprised Horwitz and Lancaster, but not any more.
"Our organization is built around the philosophy that probably most St. Louisans want to be part of the solution, and that many many of us were touched by the events of Ferguson, and thought about our city differently, or learned new things or relearned, or reacquainted ourselves with truths about what's not working in our city in new ways," said Horwitz. "That's an incredible opportunity."
What started as a book club has evolved into a community of parents, self-aware enough to know what they don't know, or struggle to talk about.
"I thought we were always comfortable with race and talking about differences, and just joining the We Stories program it made me realize how unprepared I was to have conversations with a three year old and a one year old," said Chris Phelps, mother of two.
Phelps and her husband brought their 3-year-old daughter to a We Stories family event at Adams Elementary, where they could shop for books with culturally diverse characters and themes, books that white families might not normally choose for the their children.
"If you talk to our participants, probably one of the first things they say is how high quality the books are and they simply would not have encountered them," said Horwitz. "I had wonderful early childhood teachers for my kids in their first years who had introduced us to a lot of diverse children's books and if someone hadn't pointed I don't know that I would have found them."
Jeffrey Blair and his wife are co-owners of EyeSeeMe Educational Store in University City. It's a store that started off selling books primarily to African-American children, until he met the founders of We Stories. EyeSeeMee now provides hundreds of children's book titles at We Stories family events.
"Our focus was, frankly, on our children, African American children," said Blair, "but as we started to grow we realized, all children need to have a positive perspective of African-Americans. So our three missions are early childhood literacy, positive black images for all children, as well as African-American history for all children as well."
"Our kids are young," said Lisa Moons, a We Stories mother of 3, 5, and 6-year-old children. "We want them to understand to value everyone and bring people in. Children's literature is such an easy way to talk about it with our kids."
The We Stories founders recently added 90 families committed to learning about inclusion, and other racial issues that affect the St. Louis region. They hope that hesitant families will take a closer look.
"You say, 'well I have a lot to learn. I've learned other things before and I can make this more of a day to day habit and I can get better at this, this is important so I'm going to fit it into my life in a way that works for me,'" said Horwitz.
"Many of us are missing a lot of really important pieces of our history," said Lancaster, "and these books really fill that in and while the books are very much for the children, they're very much for parents, and there are a lot of amazing adult books that cover a lot of the same stories and history."
For more information, www.westories.org.