Campus & Community

Teaching caregivers the language of anti-racism

The pilot run of the ‘GCP Family Book Club: Exploring Race and Identity’ won kudos from participants.

5 min read
Child holding art piece.

A program participant shows off her artwork inspired by GCP’s family book club program.

Photos courtesy of GCP

According to a pervasive myth, kids are not capable of engaging with complicated ideas like identity, oppression, or justice. Often, however, the real barrier is that grown-ups are not sure how to start those conversations with kids.

“Race and racism are crucial topics to talk to children about. However, doing so is really difficult, especially given the context of racial violence in the U.S. and the fact that many GCP families are impacted by racism themselves,” said Graduate School of Design (GSE) doctoral candidate Juan Pablo Ugarte, a family programming community adviser with the Graduate Commons Program (GCP) at Harvard University Housing and the father of two girls.

With this challenge in mind, Ugarte proposed the idea for the “GCP Family Book Club: Exploring Race and Identity” to the program’s associate director, Amanda Sharick, who oversees Family Programming Initiatives. Ultimately, the book club developed into a six-week, virtual programming series organized by the GCP Family Programming team and family curriculum design lead Anna Kirby, a doctoral student in HGSE, who joined the Graduate Commons team as an intern in 2019.

The book club consists of six Zoom workshops for kids and caregivers, plus activities for them to complete away from their computers. Using diverse, own-voices children’s books, discussion guides, worksheets, and art activities, the book club explored and affirmed different facets of identity: skin color, race, culture, language, gender, and class.

GCP collaborated with mission-aligned partners who brought new perspectives and expertise to their team. Two of those partners were Tanya Nixon-Silberg of Little Uprisings and Zahirah Nur Truth of ZNT Arts, both Boston-based educators with years of experience designing and facilitating programming to help families understand and resist injustice.

“Let’s get rid of perfectionism. Let’s know that we can have these conversations and can fall and fail through them. As Fannie Lou Hamer said: ‘If I fall, I’ll fall 5 feet, 4 inches forward in the fight for freedom.’”

Tanya Nixon-Silberg

GCP also partnered with HGSE Ph.D. students and Radcliffe Engaged Fellows Kirby and Hania Mariën, whose Radcliffe project, “Imagining More Just Futures,” focuses on social justice education for young children. It was important to the GCP team that the model of partnership be mutually beneficial and reciprocal.

“When I first started doing this work in Cambridge … [it] was extractive,” Nixon-Silberg said. In this collaboration, “we worked with not for GCP,” to support the shared goal of providing anti-racist programming to kids and families, Truth said.

Because caregivers and kids participated in the book club programming together, they both found elements to appreciate. Kid participants shared that they loved doing the art activities, like creating watercolor self-portraits or painting T-shirts to explore gender expression. Meanwhile, according to post-book club evaluations, the book club’s lessons increased caregivers’ comfort and confidence in talking about identity with their children, by providing them with kid-friendly language to explain things like the difference between skin color and race, or why you can’t tell a person’s gender just by looking at them.

As one family member said the curriculum “provided us with the vocabulary to talk about race, culture, and gender with our children.” Another said, “The book club was by far the most meaningful, in-depth, fun, and helpful program I have participated in on questions of identity and inclusion. It has been a great learning opportunity for our family but also for myself.”

Artwork by program participants.

This pilot of the book club pilot was only a first step, and GCP has more work ahead to help families resist injustice, including talking about instances at Harvard and its community. Nixon-Silberg and Truth provided feedback on the entire curriculum and tailored one of the workshop sessions — a “Shields of Identity” workshop — to focus on the story of how the Harvard Law School shield was changed to resist the legacy of slavery at the University.

“We need to move people one step backwards to ‘Why is this [injustice] in existence?’ We know that racism exists, but it just exists in the ether and never in the spaces that we occupy. And if it just exists in the ether, you can’t do anything with that!” said Nixon-Silberg. “But if you know that it’s right here in this space … you can actually do something.”

GCP plans to offer a second iteration of the book club next year, as well as continuing to offer other family programming focused on social justice. The ultimate goal is progress, not perfection.

“Let’s get rid of perfectionism,” said Nixon-Silberg. “Let’s know that we can have these conversations and can fall and fail through them. As Fannie Lou Hamer said: ‘If I fall, I’ll fall 5 feet, 4 inches forward in the fight for freedom.’”