Ypsilanti mother Yodit Mesfin Johnson uses the word “synergy” to describe the partnership that developed with fellow parent Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha when they launched their Black Men Read (BMR) organization.
The idea started simple enough in 2016 when a teacher at Johnson’s son’s school asked her to help find readers for his class, specifically black male readers. There is a definite deficit in teachers of color, she said, and those children who get to see more diversity in leadership statistically have more successful outcomes, and project greater diversity, in their future.
Seeing the potential in the idea of inviting black men to tell stories featuring predominantly black characters, Johnson later paired with Tucker-Ibarisha and approached the administration of Mitchell Elementary to set up regular Black Men Read storytimes. Johnson said there was initially some fear that the events would be seen as exclusionary, but the school embraced the story times and the first Black Men Read event was a success.
Reading the response
The response to the program has been overwhelming both in the men who have stepped forward to be readers and the children and families who have showed up to listen and be a part of the events. Their first event drew 50 children and families from all walks of life, highlighting the fact that their program is not just for black children.
“It’s a community program and we invite, welcome and celebrate inclusivity,” Johnson said. “If you believe in the power of the human spirit, BMR epitomizes that. It is love. It is community. It is family. It is celebrating difference in a way that invites other people to be a part of it. We believe that all children benefit from stories that celebrate what’s great about the mosaic of our community, while ensuring that my black son isn’t made invisible by a curriculum that is not inclusive.”
Tucker-Ibarisha said reading that reflects your own experience can make the reading richer and provide a personal connection that expands a child’s view of the world and their place in it. She said a program like Black Men Read is “magical” in the sense that it can transcend the barriers in society.
“I think our mission is centered on disrupting this dominant narrative that black men aren’t involved with their families or their communities,” Johnson said, noting that the reality is actually quite the opposite.
The pair call their program “story time with intentionality” as it provides children the opportunity to see diversity in the stories that are told and the people who tell them.
“If nothing else, we hope to be a cog in the wheel that changes those long-term outcomes for children,” Johnson explains.
The storytellers and their stories
The readers, Tucker-Ibarisha says, serve as role models and ambassadors of sorts, storytelling through a “black lens” and normalizing the experience, history and culture of black people. The stories themselves are chosen sometimes by the readers, sometimes by Johnson or Tucker-Ibarisha, but always with an eye toward providing a rich experience for the children listening.
Stories that have been featured during BMR events include “The Princess and the Pea” by Rachel Isadora; “The Girl Who Spun Gold” by Virginia Hamilton and Leo Dillon; and “Peekaboo Morning” also by Rachel Isadora. Storytellers have included a local farmer, an aspiring engineer, a retiree, a barber and a leader in the affordable housing movement who had previously been homeless.
A BMR kids club
The program is now countywide and has its hub at Blackstone Bookstore, 214 W. Michigan Ave. in Ypsilanti, which hosts story times on the fourth Saturday of every other month. Teachers and community groups can schedule an event and a partnership with Ypsilanti District Library was recently developed to bring BMR story time to YDL branches. Johnson and Tucker-Ibarisha said they seek to go into areas that are underserved, helping all children know that they matter.
For more information find Black Men Read on Facebook (@BMRBlackMenRead) or contact Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or Tucker-Ibarisha at email@example.com.
The Mothers Behind Black Men Read (BMR)
Yodit Mesfin Johnson
Johnson is a long-time entrepreneur and non-profit executive at the NEW Center in Ann Arbor. She has one son, Tyson, 9, as well as “bonus” daughters who are 20 and 26.
As a mother, Johnson said her involvement with BMR speaks to her heart. Her father was from Ethiopia and her mother was a teacher and later a professor at Eastern Michigan University (EMU). She lost her mother when she was very young, but, she said, she was raised feeling genuinely loved and affirmed and is fortunate to have a sense of identity that goes beyond the dominant narrative.
“The majority of experiences I’ve had with black men have been positive and affirming and loving and wonderful and I know many men of color who are amazing — certainly far more than (the way they) are characterized in this country, so I choose that narrative.”
For her own son, she said, she wants to give him the tools that allow him to expand that box of his identity beyond what the world tries to put on him and do it in age appropriate ways. “Tyson deserves the kind of liberty, freedom and joy of being a carefree child that every other child deserves. I’m not trying to put too much of the world’s messages about who he should be on him.
Tucker-Ibarisha is a biology professor at EMU and a lecturer at Washtenaw Community College. She has two daughters, ages 8 and 6.
“For me as a black mother, I think very carefully about the stories that I am giving my daughters because I understand that I shape their experience by the stories that I tell them, by the narratives that I give them. My intention is to make my daughters the kind of people that will show up as citizens of the world-really confident in themselves and clear in who they are, but at the same time open to being able to be anywhere, embrace anyone and interact from a space of confidence, not insecurity.”
She said she remembers the feeling of studying abroad in Kenya as one of only two black students on the trip and seeing a role reversal of sorts, in which a person’s whiteness was not front and center in the way individuals are identified, as in the United States. “We show up with unlimited potential, but society has all of this historical context and social constructs that limit that.” The remedy, she said, is real experience.
Excited by the potential of the BMR program, Tucker-Ibarisha, said she believes in the idea that things can be better and puts her energy into making that happen.
Upcoming BMR Events
Black Men Read Kids Club
11am | Fourth Saturdays (March 23, May 25, Sept. 21, Nov. 23)
Blackstone Bookstore & Cultural Center, 214 W. Michigan Ave., Ypsilanti
11am | Third Saturdays (Feb. 16, March 16)
YDL-Superior, 8795 MacArthur Blvd., Ypsilanti
Raising Powerful Kids for a Powerful Community (Kids and Parents)
3:30-5:30pm | February 2
YDL-Whittaker, 5577 Whittaker Rd., Ypsilanti
Featuring stories about resilient kids like Ruby Bridges.