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Washtenaw United: Childhood literacy and diversity of literature

Margy Long, director of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District's Success by 6 Great Start Collaborative.
Margy Long
Margy Long, director of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District's Success by 6 Great Start Collaborative.


"I’ve lived and worked in Washtenaw County for over 40 years. I met my husband at U of M. We raised 2 daughters in Ann Arbor."


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair as we continue to mark Black History Month. On today's edition of Washtenaw United, we're going to explore the importance of access to diverse literature that is more inclusive when it comes to the African American experience and the importance of early childhood literacy. Our guest today is Margy Long, and Margy is director of the Success by 6 Great Start Collaborative program from the Washtenaw Intermediate School District. Margy, thank you so much for making time for us today. I appreciate it.

Margy Long: Well, thank you, Dave, for asking me to participate. I appreciate it.

David Fair: Now, your program was developed and implemented based on the fact that we continue to see lesser educational opportunities in low-income and Black communities in school districts. What are some of the primary issues that need to be addressed to create that greater educational equity?

Margy Long: Well, our focus is really at the early childhood level, so really trying to make sure that all of our children have what they need to be successful when they get to school. And we're guided by the Governor's early childhood outcomes. And one of those outcomes includes children reading successfully by the end of third grade. And so, we recently received a grant from the Michigan Department of Education to do exactly what you said, which is to collaborate with local organizations to boost early literacy, not when they're in first and second and third grade, but we really see that as too late. We really need to focus on when they're babies and in preschool. So, we collaborated to purchase books for child care providers to expand their libraries to ensure that they had a diverse collection of books. All of that was really based on Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, who had coined a phrase that children needed books that were mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. In other words, they needed the mirrors. They needed to see characters like themselves, and they needed windows to experience what other children were experiencing that might be different from them, and then sliding glass doors to really kind of step in virtually and experience a different kind of world than their own. And all of that was really to support that foundation of early literacy and the love of books.

David Fair: So, how do you assess whether or not it is having impact as you continue to engage, not only impact with the children, but perhaps, even more importantly, the families and the parents of the children?

Margy Long: Sure. Well, part of it is our childcare providers--many of them have children who go on to our Great Start readiness program. And, in that program, they are really measuring the success of children and where they are when they come into school and how they're progressing throughout the program. Our job, really, is not so much to produce those programs, but really to work with the organizations who are already doing programs and find ways to help them be more efficient and to work more closely with families and providing family needs. So, we also work very closely with parents and supporting them to have diverse books in their homes. We partnered this summer with the Ypsilanti District Library, who we did little pop-up libraries in a neighborhood in Ypsilanti that has a number of low-income families, and we gave them books that the kids supported, or the kids participated and also supported the parents in knowing how to read a book to a child and really get them involved, as well as other things that the families might need.

David Fair: You are listening to 89.1 WEMU's Washtenaw United, and we're talking about the accessibility to diversity in literature and early literacy with Margy Long. She is the director of the WISD's Success by 6 Great Start Collaborative. And I want to talk a little bit something more personal now. Progress or lack thereof can be measured over time. You've lived and worked in Washtenaw County for over 40 years. You went to the University of Michigan, met your husband there, and subsequently raised two children in Ann Arbor, and you are white. Observationally, what disparities have you seen over the past four decades when it comes to that access and opportunity?

Margy Long: Well, I think you're right, Dave. I think we still have systems that have been built on privilege of white families and an oppression of families of color, low-income families, and just families that are have been marginalized. And so, part of our work is really focused also on promoting equity and looking for possibilities to make changes, to point out to organizations how they could improve services, to make sure that they are really meeting the needs, particularly of low-income families and families of color. Because, as you said, when we look at data, we know that our systems have failed those families and have failed those kids in school. And they're not doing as well as their white counterparts.

David Fair: Now, we have what many refer to as the US-23 divide in Washtenaw County, where the highway separates the east and west side. And there is a rather dramatic income disparity on either side of that line. Is most of the work you are doing on the east side of the county, does it come down in many cases to access to money?

Margy Long: Well, we do try to focus on places where low-income families live and families of color, but, certainly, there are families throughout Washtenaw County that are low-income. But, as you said, that 23 divide, there is a greater proportion of families of color that live on the east side as well as low-income families. So, we do find a focus on that area.

David Fair: When there is the opportunity to get these books in the hands of parents and they get to read with their children, have you been witness to seeing the excitement or the reaction of children when they hear the stories of those who look like them, who have had the same experience as them, as opposed to something that they may have gotten elsewhere?

Margy Long: [00:06:56] Well, we did. As I said, that summer, we were really outside, and our Ypsilanti District library had a librarian come and read books to children, and you could just see their faces light up. I mean, I've heard kids say that little boy looks like me or that little girl looks like me, and we want to make sure that we're helping to promote that. And parents are just eager to be able to have additional books in their household for their children to look at. And, as you know, with the economy what it is and with inflation, sometimes those are the kinds of extras that low-income families can't afford.

David Fair: Once again, we're talking with the director of the WISD's Success by 6 Great Start collaborative, Margy Long on WEMU's Washtenaw United. And it's equally as important, I would imagine, to get those books into the hands of people of other races, so that we have that shared knowledge to move forward together with.

Margy Long: That's absolutely right. You know, that's the part of the windows. We don't want to see that books that have children who are African-American or Latinx or who may be LGBTQ. We want to make sure that all of our children are experiencing that, so that we can reduce how we see difference, that difference is a negative. We want to be able to see that difference is a positive because it adds a complexity and a richness to our culture and to the world around us. And so, absolutely, you know, I would encourage all families to try to use, of course, your local bookstore, so we can be supporting our local businesses. And we worked very closely with the Intermediate School District and the Ypsilanti District Library and bookstores like Blackstone in Ypsilanti and Literati to curate a list of those picture books, too, that really represent diversity and race and ethnicity and sexual orientation and ability. And all of those locations can help you if you're a parent, and you want to diversify your books, to find books that are high quality and are not just books about the civil rights movement or Martin Luther King, but just show kids being kids and that are also a diverse group of kids.

David Fair: So, Success by 6 has its programs, its mission. It has its Trusted Parent Advisors and has been making inroads toward a better future within the community and by the community. How do you envision expanding to reach even more people and in more effective ways?

Margy Long: Oh, well, thanks for asking that, David. We are hoping with some of the grants that are available both through the state and locally to add additional Trusted Parent Advisors, as you've said. And I know you've had some of our Trusted Parent Advisors on your show that reach out to low-income families and families of color and help them reduce barriers to service. And we're hoping that, with some grant funds, we'll be able to expand that program and really empower--help give skills to parents to empower them--to make changes that they want to see for their families to be more successful.

David Fair: Margy, thank you so much for the time today and sharing your information and perspective.

Margy Long: Thank you so much, Dave. I really appreciate it, and I really appreciate WEMU focusing on Washtenaw United.

David Fair: That is Margy Long. She is director of the Success by 6 Great Start Collaborative program from the Washtenaw Intermediate School District. She's been our guest on Washtenaw United. And Washtenaw United is presented in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County. You hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


Success by 6 Great Start Collaborative


In 2022, Trusted Parent Advisors, a part of Success by 6 Great Start Collaborative is a recipient of the Power of the Purse Fund, which aims to support existing and emerging programs and initiatives that increase the financial capability of people who identify as women. They have received a $15,000 reward to support parents from low opportunity areas in Washtenaw County with the resources they need to help their children be successful.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

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Contact WEMU News at734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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