Grace M. Jackson-Brown

Steve Thomas: Grace Jackson-Brown, welcome to Circulating Ideas.

Grace M. Jackson-Brown: Hello. Thank you for inviting me. I’m very excited to, be a part of the podcast and sharing about my book with you and your podcast listeners.

Steve Thomas: And the book is Promoting African American Writers: Library Partnerships for Outreach Programming and Literacy. Before we get into that though, what are some of your earliest memories of libraries and how did you decide to get into the field? You did talk a little bit in your introduction about your path, but I don’t know if there’s anything in there of why libraries were what you wanted to go to.

Grace M. Jackson-Brown: Well, I am at the latter part of my journey in librarianship, and I’ve been in the profession now for over 30 years, which when I think about it is even surprising to me. I have mainly been in academic librarianship. So I started out, well, I was a student assistant in college, in a library. So that’s kind of how I got introduced to libraries as a student library assistant. I hadn’t initially imagined myself becoming a librarian because my major in college was journalism. My dream was to become an investigative reporter. That was my first career choice. I love journalism, I love writing, and I love reading as also as a part of that, so it was an easy segue from journalism because I changed majors after my senior year when I met my fiance, and we married before I even graduated and I thought, well, maybe I’ll find a little more calm career than investigative journalism and I thought, well, librarianship, you know, I had kind of stereotypes about, “It’s just about sitting at a desk and reading all day.”

Steve Thomas: Mm-hmm. Put your hair up in a bun.

Grace M. Jackson-Brown: Exactly. And I loved reading and I loved writing, and I thought, well, I could still have a writing career and be a librarian. So initially I was a public librarian, but most of my career has been in academic librarianship.

Steve Thomas: Yeah, there’s lots of people, I think, that have that crossover between journalism and librarianship. The professions have a lot in common, there’s some curiosity there to it where you’re trying to find stuff out.

Grace M. Jackson-Brown: Exactly. And my doctorate actually is in media studies. So after I got married, had a couple of children, a son and a daughter, after they entered school full-time, I went back and worked on a PhD in media studies.

Steve Thomas: That’s very cool, and then what is your position now?

Grace M. Jackson-Brown: I am a research and instruction librarian, and when I first started, 2007, 2008, Missouri State University had a collaborative agreement with University of Missouri in Columbia, which is the flagship of the state, and they actually had the library science program and, most of their program was online, but in southwest Missouri, many students wanted to have a seated experience. So MSU taught classes in basic librarianship, we taught some reference classes, just some basic courses through that collaborative relationship. And now, when that partnership ended, I now teach mainly the, what we call one-shot library instruction, library literacy type courses.

Steve Thomas: Right. Do you do a lot of virtual stuff, I’m sure during Covid you did, when you’re working with students or teachers?

Grace M. Jackson-Brown: We do some online reference work with chat and then we can do our consultations virtually, you know, which is basically Zoom is what we use as a platform, and so we can do one-on-one consultations through Zoom.

Steve Thomas: Okay. So your new book is Promoting African American Writers: Library Partnerships for Outreach, Programming, and Literacy. How did you get started with this book?

Grace M. Jackson-Brown: During the pandemic where I was working from home and was very introspective about and reflective about things and, but was thinking about my career. And one of the things that I’ve been passionate about in my career has been the programming aspect of it. I really started that interest at Indiana University where I worked for about 17 years and that is where I was introduced to a literacy program that I’ve been involved in called the African American Read-In, which is part of a national initiative of the National Council of Teachers of English. I was introduced to that, but I also was the branch head of a black culture center library at the time at Indiana University so I had lots of opportunity to do outreach for undergraduate students to help them get acclimated into our campus. So that’s where I did a lot of programming, and then when I came to Missouri State University in 2008, I continued with the African American Read-In, and I developed partnerships with public libraries, school libraries, the NAACP, another university, and the school system.

During the pandemic I thought, “Hey, I should write memoir about all of this!” I began that and then found an editor and she said, “Hey, you should make this kind of a guidebook as well, because programming is coming a big part of libraries now. It’s not just about circulating books and materials, it’s about community engagement and that would be a good topic. I combined the memoir part of this book and the guidebook, so it’s both a combination of them. I think people will find it an interesting read because it’s about a life journey, but it’s also practical advice about how to do programming.

Steve Thomas: It is interesting that you weave your story into that. It’s not just a “flip to this page to learn about outreach”, “now flip to this page to learn about programming.” You can read it that way as well. There’s practical advice in there, but it’s also a narrative. Can you tell me and the listeners a little bit more about the African American Read-In?

Grace M. Jackson-Brown: That program has been around over 35 years. It was started by Jerrie Cobb Scott, who has now passed away, but she was part of the National Council of Teachers of English, provided leadership there, was a part of the Black Caucus, and they were involved in Black History Month programming and combining that with literacy, and Dr. Scott believed in making reading an integral part of Black History Month program. And so she started a literacy initiative to promote African American authors in reading during Black History Month.

Steve Thomas: And sort of a softball for you, but why should libraries develop this kind of programming? What’s the importance of it?

Grace M. Jackson-Brown: Well, it’s important because we want to engage all of our users in the library, and users are becoming more and more students of color. A recent census showed that, for example, the African American majority is under the age of 32. The population of people between six and 21 years of age, whites are still the majority, about 52%, but most youth are people of color. So youth interact with each other and most of the youth have a different experiences than the white, Eurocentric experience. It’s important that in the literature that we show all sides of culture and especially affirm cultures of those youths that are African American or Latino, Latina populations, people of color.

As I said, I initially started with programming at the Indiana University Black Culture Center, so most of my clients were African-American. There is a librarian educator author, Rudine Sims Bishop, who I mentioned in the book, and she wrote a very important essay that talks about books as mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors. I love that. If you read a book with characters that look like you, it affirms your identity. Windows, when anyone reads a book, it’s a realistic portrayal of the characters. So having diverse literature allows us to have experience with other cultures, and books are sliding glass doors. Books explore worlds that unlike our own, that are very exciting, increases our of few of the world, and different ways of living.

Steve Thomas: Yeah. Publishing still has a long way to go, but they’re getting better about publishing that stuff too. Cause that was a problem for a long time too, that, you know, I’m approaching 50 and as a kid, even if I wanted to read books about African American characters, there wasn’t a lot to choose from, so now I’m glad it’s out there and it’s easy and my kids now, they don’t think about it at all. It’s just the character in Captain Underpants or whatever. There’s a little white kid and a little black kid and they’re friends.

Grace M. Jackson-Brown: And it’s more like their real life experience. I’m from the Baby Boomer generation actually, so there wasn’t as much diversity as there is today. Kids aren’t as much afraid of each other because they see more diversity in their classroom. As a media person too, movies, televisions, in the past was a safe zone, and reading books is a safe zone, so you can tap into these other cultures without having that personal interaction. They cover more of the role of being mirrors and sliding glass doors because people aren’t as afraid of the engagement with each other. Thank God!

Steve Thomas: Yes. So who do you see as the audience for the book?

Grace M. Jackson-Brown: Well, I wrote it for people that love programming as much as I do, library programming is becoming much more important, and so I think the audience are gonna be librarians, but other maybe community organizers who do programming and want to partner with libraries. I think that’s a very important thing to do now. Librarians need to get outside the walls of our buildings and work with our community. And there’s so many opportunities to work with different organizations, civic organizations. Black fraternities and sororities, community centers, all kinds of ways that you can partner and do this wonderful work promoting African American authors.

Steve Thomas: Before anybody can really get started with this stuff they need to make sure that they have a good collection. You do list some good authors in here and some filmmakers to help build your collection, but if a library doesn’t feel like they have a good selection of material, how can they go about finding that?

Grace M. Jackson-Brown: Well, there, there are lots of ways. As you said, I have some suggestions in my book, but I’m also a member of the American Library Association Black Caucus, and every year we do literary awards, for example. So I think that looking at the literary awards that are offered, through ALA and other organizations, these are books that have been reviewed by librarians. Coretta Scott King Book Award, another great example. There’s so many places now that recognize African American authors and diverse authors.

 But as I said, I started out with my programming interest by working at a black culture center library at Indiana University. And it is a separate standalone, now official branch, of the campus. It was a place that helped African American students find belonging because they come from communities, from Gary or Indianapolis, where they found more people that look like themselves and come to a majority white campus. It’s like going to a foreign country when you’re American. They’re like, “Whoa!” Speaking a different language, they act different, they dress different, but at the Black Culture Center, we had lots of programs where people could find belonging. They could have great conversations, dialogue, but we also had programs that invited all students in the campus and professors and so forth to come together and have exchanges, which I think is so important. And so a lot of my programs promoted that. For example, we had a library evening extravaganza. We had this great soul food dinner, and that was a way to attract everybody. They loved good food. So they signed up annually for that. We also had a panel of black faculty who had written books that year. African American faculty were definitely a minority at IU at that time. There weren’t many in a campus of over 30,000. So, it was a way for people to find each other, and I love that type of programming.

Steve Thomas: You have a whole chapter on getting African American writers to come. Can you talk a little bit of how to promote these kinds of programs?

Grace M. Jackson-Brown: One thing is to do poetry contests. I talked about slam competitions. They were very popular early on in black communities and in youth culture. If you have competitions and you just bring people in, you might just by coincidence find authors when you’re not really looking for them. But if you have your radar up, you’re gonna find people even in your local community who are so talented and they happen to be African American.

Steve Thomas: And like we’ve said earlier, the publishing industry is getting better about this so that when even big name authors or big publishers are putting people out on tour, look at these authors and bring these authors in. Don’t just bring in the white authors, bring in some African American authors. Especially in this Zoom era, it’s much easier to send an author on tour than it was before, of not having to pay for airplanes and hotels and such.

Grace M. Jackson-Brown: Or having virtual presentations by authors. That opened up a whole new opportunity, and I talk about that in my book. Some people that did programming to promote African American authors and it was virtual, and they got people fom all across communities within their cities, but also nationwide. People would come into these Zoom forums to hear diverse authors, African American authors. They loved it. You could tell that by the number of people that logged in comments afterwards, “Hey, this was a wonderful author!”

Steve Thomas: Well, and you mentioned in the book that it’s not just about having authors come and talk about their books and things like that, but it’s also encouraging creativity and teaching critical thinking skills, especially to young people through this literature. What’s the importance of that, of getting these critical thinking skills developed with these programs as well?

Grace M. Jackson-Brown: Well, again, the African American Read-In is sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English, and one of their logos has been, “Read, Write, Think.” When you read, you’re avid reader, you become a better writer, you become a better critical thinker, so all of those skills and development are really tied together. Learning how to to read widely helps you be a better critical thinker, I believe, because you’re getting all these ideas, diverse ideas. In the past, as you said, there was less published about African American culture. There were fewer African American authors that were published because of racial barriers often. And so now, in the 21st century, hopefully we now embrace the idea of having diverse cultures represented realistically and having history told to us from all sides, total American history, and we can become critical thinkers about it and be honest about it and learn from it.

Steve Thomas: Yeah, and it’s important to teach those skills because there are people who don’t like that the history is being told from all sides now that they liked these stories that were told to them as they were growing up, which is. How things actually were. So it’s important that we sneak those little critical thinking skills into the young people. And as you said, reading is a good way to do that. You also talk about that it’s supporting creativity. This helps them develop their own voices so through their writing. A lot of times reading is how you can help develop your own voice.

Grace M. Jackson-Brown: Exactly, yeah. Reading helps you to become a better writer, become a better thinker, and to be able to express yourself. Even freestyle writing I think allows young people to express their feelings, which is still important now because one of the bad sides of social media is you don’t have to communicate with each other. You don’t have to think, you could just type something in abbreviated form and it’s not real, total communication. So, yeah, reading is very important.

Steve Thomas: The last thing I wanted to ask about is assessment. And one of the ways that you talk about in the book is librarians using reflectivity and intentionality in developing the programming and then also developing the assessment. Can you talk about those skills in particular and how we develop and assess programming?

Grace M. Jackson-Brown: I looked at the philosophers’ explanation of intentionality, but doing things on purpose, not by accident in programming, and a lot of that has to do in programming is like connecting with your whole community, and going out and finding maybe communities that haven’t been users as much, and drawing the outreach to them. Intentional programming might be, “Okay, the African American community, why haven’t they been users? What can we do that’s gonna attract them and be meaningful and bring in their culture?”

 Having programs that are designed around authors and community history that will bring in these new users is an excellent way to do that outreach. And then you also want to assess it by first finding out the needs. So you might have to do some initial marketing research, or at least do focus groups or something about what are the needs of the community, and then designing programs around that. And, and afterwards doing surveys or some kind of research based on the outcome of this type of programming. You’ll be surprised, you’ll have sometimes huge audiences and sometimes it’ll be a diverse audience. It’s like, “Oh, I was actually creating this program for this community. But other people were just totally interested,” and you can do research of your audience and demographics.

Steve Thomas: And figuring out what part of the program was it that pulled them in? Like, was it just the topic, or was it the speakers, because you wanna be able to replicate the successful parts of it again.

 One of the last things you write is the benefit of writing the book for you. Can you talk a little bit about how this is beneficial for you to write this book?

Grace M. Jackson-Brown: It’s been great looking at, “Oh wow, I did all this programming over all this time!” When it was happening, it was just very intense cuz you’re just absorbed with all the work and development of the programming, but looking back at it, I feel very fulfilled in that. I hope I’ve made a difference looking at the record. I think I made a positive difference in a lot of areas and that’s covered in the book. Yeah, it’s great looking back at the journey so far.

Steve Thomas: It’s fun to look back and see and celebrate your successes. You can see all that stuff that you did that was good, and then share it with other people so they can learn right how to do it as well. Grace, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I very much appreciate it. Your book again is Promoting African-American Writers: Library Partnerships for Outreach, Programming, and Literacy. Thank you again for coming on.

Grace M. Jackson-Brown: Thank you, Steve.