I want to tell you a story. A story about St. Louis. A diverse and vibrant city with a wealth of cultural resources and a proud tradition of prioritizing family life. A city with dozens of distinct areas but hearts large enough to care and advocate across divides. A city that embraces the old and new and that has the courage to dream big and work hard for the benefit of all citizens. This is a story of a St. Louis that I know is possible: big-hearted, courageous, and fiercely generous.
Last year I wouldn’t have believed this story. In fact until I began this work I believed our community’s conventional wisdom, which held that “white families in St. Louis don’t care about race and don’t want things to change.” I believed this because it reflected the reality I thought I knew.
And yet our ability as an organization to quickly amass nearly 300 white families interested in participating in We Stories without any marketing efforts tells us that this is a story that is not entirely true. Prepared to find resistance or apathy, we have instead heard from hundreds of families who are saying, “don’t count me out. I care and I can dream too.”
And I’ve found that this story – of burgeoning interest and emboldened vision – is powerful. It surprises people – all kinds of people. In fact this story has been my most powerful tool to date. I’ve used it to diffuse doubt, cynicism, and stereotypes. It’s the counter-narrative to an overly-generalized and somewhat false understanding about why our (white families in particular) voices are missing.
And after all that is the power of stories. They illuminate what we don’t know, challenge our guesses, highlight our blinders, and replace abstraction with real meaning. The challenge is that in a very segregated city (such as St. Louis) it’s hard to have access to stories that greatly differ from our own.
My partner Laura has taken to saying “when we aren’t characters in each others lives we can’t understand each other’s realities, let alone tell a shared story of our region’s future.” And I would add to that by asking, “if we don’t know each other, how can we possibly believe each other?”
Being unable to singlehandedly integrate our city we (as a family and as an organization) have turned to stories as a way to bridge the gaps we see in our family and community life. These stories have taken the form of children’s books, performances, media profiles, academic articles, historical documentaries, exhibits, research initiatives, podcasts and videos. They have helped us see and hear from people who aren’t our direct neighbors and learn about routines outside of our family tradition. They have helped bring into focus the true bigness and vibrancy of St. Louis and to explore the history of how our city came to be the way it is today. And these stories have added a tremendous amount of depth and dimension to our family conversations and patterns as well as our regional awareness and activities. They have buoyed my own hopes and deepened my love for our adopted home.
And the best part of all of this is that I’m not doing this alone. I’m part of a growing community whose very engagement is starting to help shift the larger narrative and what is and what can be. I know from my experience that stories have the power to make change, and I’m beginning to understand that small as we are, new as we are, our story is helping to make change too.
About our Family Learning Program:
What we do is pretty simple. We provide families with beautiful, compelling picture books that feature diverse characters and address race and racism. We pair the books with monthly, thematic resources that help parents bring the books to life and advance their own learning. And, we foster a supportive community among the participating families through a closed Facebook group and regular in-person events.
Reading diverse children’s books is a small, everyday act with big ripple effects. We are opening up new conversations with our kids and demonstrating that we value diversity, tolerance, and fairness. We are reflecting on the stories that have shaped our identities, exploring missing chapters of history, forging new friendships and rewriting our notions of community. With 80 local families in our pilot program, 100 starting in April and nearly 200 still waiting to join, we are finding strength in numbers.