It started as a trickle. Small piles of books pooled around the radio station in response to a local teacher’s call for help. A weekly open house served as collection night. A nearby business rewarded customers who brought book donations. Individuals and groups brought different ideas and energies.
By August, We Act Radio in Historic Anacostia had collected more than 1,100 books and an informal network committed to creating the Charnice Milton Community Bookstore. Anacostia is the starkest of urban “book deserts,” according to a 2016 New York University (NYU) study. But human and print resources were coalescing around one teacher’s vision for a “literacy oasis.”
A break-in, on Aug. 23, sabotaged We Act Radio’s core business and threatened the bookstore’s future. At press time, however, the station expected to be back on the air after Labor Day, and bookstore plans for National Literacy Month were moving forward.
What Do We Read?
The whole thing started, explains LJM (Leslie Jennings-Maldonado), when she was teaching primary school in Congress Heights. She announced standard first-grade homework: Read for 30 minutes every night, half on your own and half with a grownup. Bewildered, the children demanded, “Miss, what do we read?”
Childhood poverty east of the river, according to census figures, ranges from 6 percent (Andrews AFB) and 28 percent (Hillcrest area) to 67 percent (Historic Anacostia). Studies suggest that two-thirds of children living in poverty have no books in their homes, and research shows that children who don’t own any books suffer in many reading measures. (For research links visit www.weluvbooks.org.)
Readers accustomed to e-content, as well as those who grew up considering book ownership a luxury, might be skeptical, but research shows that academic success is linked to books in the home. Although libraries and electronic materials serve important roles in promoting reading, owning books can actually counteract the effects of poverty and increase reading ability for children most at risk.
Cost aside, books are hard to buy east of the river. America’s Islamic Heritage Museum (www.aihmuseum.org/) and Frederick Douglass House (https://www.nps.gov/frdo/) in Ward 8 offer small, highly focused bookshops, and DC Public Libraries sells a smattering of books. But Battles Religious Books (Ward 7) and Pyramid (Ward 8) are long gone, and Busboys and Poets has not yet opened its Historic Anacostia location. NYU’s block-by-block survey of books for sale in Anacostia found only one age-appropriate book per 830 children.
LJM was not surprised by her students’ plight. “The ideology that everyone in this country, this District in particular, is being given access to resources and tools which prepare future generations for 21st-century skills, does not align with the current reality.” She was propelled to act.
LJM began her own private campaign “to get books into the hands of children,” and started promoting reading and literacy with the hashtag #WeLuvBooks. Local churches, the US Coast Guard, and many others contributed. She brought “DC Bookapalooza” to We Act Radio, asking the media outlet and community space to serve as a drop-off/pick-up spot for book collections.
As the stash grew, so did the concept of a bookstore, with community members noting the benefits of a literary gathering place. The original idea, LJM says, “took root and moved from an individual’s campaign to a community project.” Future Foundation DC celebrated Harry Potter’s 20th anniversary. EU (Experience Unlimited), featuring Sugar Bear, hosted musical fund- and awareness-raising events.
We Act’s “Education Town Hall” produced special literacy segments. “We Luv Books” joined the broadcast schedule. Independent booksellers gathered for a literacy town hall. Summer youth employees produced related documentary footage.
The Carolina Youth Initiative (CYI) brought “Books and Breakfast DC” (https://www.booksandbreakfastdc.org/). Organized by Lawrence Henderson and Kevin and Dayna Bell as part of HandsUpUnited, “Books and Breakfast DC” centers around a different theme each month. Constants are hot meals and books. “That warm meal is important,” Dayna Bells says, for community building and for students who rely on school meals. “We see some of the same people coming, and you can tell they are hungry.”
With each theme, Bell adds, the idea is to help kids, who are “so quick to pick up an electronic device,” relate to books and expand their horizons. The August event drew some 70 people, and CYI seeks additional volunteers as they partner with the bookstore for future events, literacy, and mentoring.
Where Literacy Grows
As the book(store) project evolved, it was dedicated to the memory of Charnice Milton, the Capital Community News journalist shot to death in 2015. Her parents say she loved books, as well as writing, and they encourage people to share books they love in Charnice’s memory.
Milton’s unsolved murder is also a reminder that communities with low literacy rates are often plagued by high crime and violence. For Kymone Freeman, co-owner of We Act Radio, her story highlights that “literacy is a public safety issue, and we have a literacy crisis east of the river.”
Third-grade reading scores predict high school graduation and college attendance. High school dropout rates are highly correlated with incarceration. Moreover, 85 percent of juveniles in the court system are functionally illiterate, and 70 percent of prison inmates cannot read above the fourth-grade level. “Want to get tough on crime?” asks Freeman. “Get tough on literacy.”
LJM stresses related economics. In the DC area, 47 percent of jobs require college or advanced degrees (nationally 26 percent.). Only 13-16 percent of adults in Wards 7 and 8 have such credentials, however, and roughly 48 percent of adults east of the river are estimated to have below-basic reading and writing skills. For individuals, this means barriers to healthcare, personal finances, and interacting with children’s schools, as well as employment. For communities experiencing generational poverty, the cost is incalculable.
“A bookstore doesn’t have to make a profit to make sense,” LJM argues. Rather the key is to create a space where literacy thrives and is celebrated. “As James Baldwin said, ‘Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.’”
Crisis and Community
The theft at We Act Radio disabled the business, Freeman reports, and the targeted attack – taking items needed for broadcasting and content storage of little street value, ignoring expensive equipment – was devastating. (The Metropolitan Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.) However, WPFW – “truly a sister station!” – donated computers to get We Act back on the air and announced an emergency fundraiser. The campaign reached its goal in just two days, and messages of support were heartening.
No books were damaged or stolen, Freeman adds, “but the break-in definitely slowed us down. We’re dealing with a crisis. It crippled our efforts to bring the bookstore to fruition.”
Still, the commitment remains, says Freeman, and setbacks will not interfere with plans for National Literacy Month. “Thanks to an overwhelming outpouring of love from the community, we will be back, stronger than ever.”
National Literacy Month at the Charnice Milton Community Bookstore:
• Sept. 7 and 14, WeLuvBooks Radio Program Launch, 7-8 p.m.
• Sept. 11, &Pizza (U Street) donating $2/pizza, 6-9 p.m.
• Sept. 16, ARTivism Afternoon: A Community Celebration for Oppressive Times, 3-6 p.m.
• Sept. 30, Politics & Prose donating 20 percent of profits all day.
The Charnice Milton Community Bookstore at We Act Radio, 1918 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE. Visit www.weluvbooks.org to contribute to book-space renovations and lost-income recovery. Book donation/open house hours: Wednesday, 5-8 p.m. For more on Books and Breakfast DC or to volunteer, call Dayna Bell at 301-908-0744.
Virginia Avniel Spatz is a long-time contributor to Capital Community News, feature reporter for We Act Radio’s Education Town Hall, and co-host of the new WeLuvBooks radio program.