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#OTGYpsi: 'Black Men Read' continues its mission of spreading literacy to children in Washtenaw County and beyond


Concentrate Ann Arbor

Sarah Rigg's Feature Article: Nonprofit Black Men Read expands partnerships in Ypsilanti, adds subscription book box service

Black Men Read


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'd like to welcome you to another edition of On the Ground Ypsilanti. Each week, we take a look at the people, the organizations and businesses that are working in solution-oriented ways to enhance quality of life in Ypsilanti. Our content partner in this weekly offering is Concentrate Media, and its On the Ground Ypsi project manager is Sarah Rigg. The focus today is on the innovative, productive and interactive Ypsilanti-based program called Black Men Read. And, Sarah, today you've brought along one of the subjects of your article, and why don't you introduce us?

Sarah Rigg: Yes, I've got one of the co-founders of Black Men Read, Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha.

David Fair: Hey, thank you so much for being here.

Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha: Thanks so much for having me here.

David Fair: I want to visit the origin story of Black Men Read because I think it's fascinating. How did it all start?

Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha: Yodit Mesfin Johnson, the co-founder and I, got together about 2016, and it really kind of started out as a play date. You know, we met at the school where our children attended and kind of had a connection and said, "Well, let's let's get together and talk about, you know, some ideas for things that we think might be interesting to to have happen in our school and in our community." And the idea of Black Men Read was really kind of born out of that. So, there was a request that was made in her son's class to have a Black man come and read in the class, and the teacher reached out to Yodit, and she reached into her community network and brought someone in to read. But it really kind of planted the seed for the idea that we could do something meaningful by putting Black men in front of children in a position where they are not only demonstrating a love of storytelling and literacy, but also just really being able to connect with them in a meaningful way and in the context of forging relationships. And so, that really undergirds what we've done with Black Men Read, and we kind of started from there.

David Fair: And I think many are going to find it very interesting that two women put together a program called Black Men Read. But as you've just started to allude to, it made perfect sense to you to want to go that route.

Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha: It did. In many ways, this is our love letter to the Black men who have been in our lives and in our communities, you know, as people who are connected in that community. What we understood is something that isn't always portrayed in the media or in the broader society, and that's that Black men are valuable, Black men are active participants in our communities and have really a lot of great experiences and modeling that they can do when they're placed in those positions to be able to do that. And so, it's it's been really great for us to be able to do that and lift up the men in our community in that way.

David Fair: And you have pointed out that at the center of it all is relationships. And, Sarah, you dug into this program in a deep way. What kind of relationships between those working and volunteering in the program? And then again, the relationships with the kids?

Sarah Rigg: Yeah. So that is one of the things that's come up over and over again is that, you know, the pandemic pivot to virtual programing, which we'll talk more about in a minute, was difficult because a lot of the magic happens with those in-person interactions between the volunteers-- between the volunteer readers--and the children. They're just really thrilled to get back to in-person because they're, you know, the children, you know, felt more emboldened to talk to the readers and ask them questions and even had a reader that received a hug. He's like, "You know, I know we all had masks on, and I know we're not supposed to be hugging. But what am I going to do when a four year-old gives me a hug?"

Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha: You get a hug.

David Fair: On the Ground Ypsi continues on 89 one WEMU and we're with Concentrate Media project manager Sarah Rigg and our guest, Black Men Read co-founder Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha. And, Tamara, you hold a doctorate in cell and molecular biology. So, obviously, education is important to you, and you clearly have to do a lot of reading. Because of your position, you have to see how the pandemic impacted your collegiate students back when you were a teacher at Eastern Michigan University, and you got to see how it impacted the kids participating in Black Men Read. What were your observations and takeaways from that experience?

Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha: I think, early in the pandemic, you know, the possibility to connect in the virtual space was really exciting. You know, I mean, we came into March 2020 with a really kind of frightening prospect that, you know, are we going to be able to interact? Are we going to be able to connect with each other again? And I think Zoom and virtual platforms became really important and essential in terms of helping us to keep a connection with each other. And that was with families, with communities, and with a lot of the programs that we, you know, had participated in our pre-pandemic lives. And so, we saw a really big upswell in the traction that we had online and with our virtual programing. But what we found similarly to what happened on campus, you know, is that, at a certain point, all of us really got kind of fatigued of existing in this virtual space. And Iknow that last semester was my first semester back teaching on campus in person, and I was thrilled. I mean, I pretty much was running into the classroom to be able to be in person and in front of the board. And, even though we were masked, it was great to connect. And I think students felt that way too. Because at a certain point, it can still be really challenging to connect virtually. And we saw the same thing when we looked at our virtual programming with Black Men Read as well. In the beginning of the pandemic, we had a record number of volunteers who came on to read for us on our Facebook Live video.

David Fair: That had to be heartening.

Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha: It was exciting. I mean, we did two reads a week for three or four months. It was really remarkable. I mean, people stepped up, and they were excited to do that. But, at a certain point, you know, there was some just Zoom fatigue that set in. And I think we saw, you know, that the kids were ready to get back in person. The readers were ready to be back in person. And so, we're all sort of making that pivot together as safely as we can.

David Fair: And in this initial step back into the in-person get-togethers, how are you finding that perhaps people are more grateful for the relationships that you can develop that way?

Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha: Yeah, that's something I hadn't really thought about. I think that all of us sort of feel this sense of excitement and relief to just be able to be around people again, you know, and mostly in-person reads that we've done now since the pandemic have been in an outdoor space. And I know, personally, I have come to really appreciate being outside and being out in nature and kind of in a space where we can interact without necessarily being so concerned about the health implications of that. And I think we do see that when we get back in person, you know, kids are excited not only to be together, not only to be out to read, but also to be outside and the fresh air, you know, and enjoying the sunshine. So, I think it's it's just been a really positive experience overall.

David Fair: Sarah, what sense did you get from those with whom you spoke about the prospect of being back together for more in-person events?

Sarah Rigg: Oh yeah. The two readers I spoke to were really excited about going back into person. I spoke to Will Jones the Third, who had been staff with Black Men Read for a while. He has moved on, but he's sticking around as a volunteer reader. But, in those early years of the pandemic, he helped organize that core of readers to do those virtual reads. He felt like, "Well, this is great, but it's not as interactive as it could be." And so, he tried to introduce--or Black Men Read in general--try to introduce a more interactive component with their book parties. And then, the other reader I spoke to was Dwight Wilson, who is himself an author. He has written several books and collections, and he talked to me a lot about the joy of reading and how fun it was to share that with the children at Bottles and Backpacks in Ypsilanti--three, four and five year olds. And yeah, he's the one that got the hug and said, "You know what you're supposed to do when four year old hugs you?" So, he had a really fun time.

David Fair: Once again, you're listening to On the Ground Ypsi on 89 one WEMU. And, Tamara, whenever we go through hardships like a global pandemic, the hope is we come out perhaps wiser with some lessons learned that can help build a bridge to a better future. Has Black Men Read found some of those bridges?

Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha: Absolutely. I think the pandemic was a real pivot point for us. Like I said, we went online in early 2020 and really saw a huge expansion in our reach. So not only in social media followers, but in the number of people who watched reads. You know, on average in our impersonal reads, we might have 12, 15 children. If we did a classroom read, we might have 30. We had videos on Facebook that got twelve hundred views, you know, so we were able to really expand that reach. And one of the really exciting things that's come out of it, too, was our subscription book box program, and it really was an outgrowth. We started out in 2020 providing books in bags with school supplies to children in Ypsilanti Community Schools because we had heard from the superintendent that, you know, there were kids at home who didn't have basic school supplies. And so, we mobilized our resources and did that. And that really galvanized a lot of community support, too. We had community members that fundraised to the tune of over $10,000. And so, we did our first batch of book box giveaways and followed that up with more. We were able to coordinate those with the food distribution sites. And that really sort of planted the seed in our minds. "Well, what does it look like if we have the subscription box that families all over the country or potentially all over the world could access to be able to get books into their homes to be able to get curriculum?" And that really was sort of the dawning of the subscription box project. So, we've had a lot of really positive growth that came out of that pivot that we had to make in the pandemic.

David Fair: And what is your preferred methodology of getting in touch for those who wish to reach out to the program and perhaps become involved or perhaps just benefit?

Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha: I think our website is sort of the hub where you can connect with us. I mean, we definitely do a lot of posting and interacting on our Facebook page and are sort of picking things up on Instagram as well. But you can always go to BMR kids dot org, and there you'll find the links for not only volunteering as a reader in our upcoming events, but you could also find the links for subscribing to the book box. So now, you have a Black Men Read--we call it our black stories box--coming to you every quarter of the year. And then we have a holiday box that we provide and then also access to our swag shop. And so, it's kind of a fun way for people to support our work, but also to show their appreciation for the program with a Black Men Read T-shirt or hoodie or cap. So, all of that is on our website.

David Fair: Well, thank you so much for spending time with us today. I do appreciate it.

Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha: Thanks so much for having me here.

David Fair:That is Black Men read co-founder Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha, our guest on On the Ground Ypsi. And, Sarah Rigg, thank you for creating the conversation today, and we'll look forward to the next visit.

Sarah Rigg: Sounds great. Nice to be here, David.

David Fair: That is Sarah Rigg, Concentrate Media journalist and project manager for On the Ground Ypsi. You can find her article in full on their website, and you can get there by clicking the link on our website at WEMU dot org. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM and WEMU HD One Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
Sarah has been involved in journalism since she began producing a one-page photocopied neighborhood "newspaper" in grade school, later reporting for and then editing her high school paper. She has worked on staff at Heritage Newspapers and the (now defunct) Ann Arbor Business Review and has written as a freelancer for various publications ranging from The Crazy Wisdom Journal to the News-Herald to AnnArbor.com. She began writing for Concentrate in February 2017.
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