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Washtenaw United: The Topaze Project - Connecting Black children to their history through family and literacy

Kallista Marie
Kallista Marie
Kallista Marie


Kallista Marie, is a graduate of Washtenaw Community College, founder of The Topaze Project which is the umbrella organization for Our Community Reads, Queens Club, and Pharaoh’s Club. In addition, she is the Youth Paraprofessional at the Ypsilanti District Library and a recipient of multiple awards, including the Washtenaw Community College 2023 Equity In Action Award for her commitment to local families and normalizing family story time. She is the mother to 2 adult sons, a literacy advocate and is committed to creating safe spaces for our children to feel seen, valued, empowered and celebrated.

Her team is currently doing a fundraiser to take 13 of her Queens who are in 5th-8th grade to Washington D.C, to visit the National African American Museum and learn more about their history. Please visit her website ourcommunityreads.com to sign up for their monthly newsletter, donate and support.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair. Now, you can find all sorts of scientific studies that show giving children a voice, a sense of self, some esteem, and access to opportunity--well, that pays off. But it's not a given. And for many in marginalized communities, there are additional barriers to overcome. I'd like to welcome you to this week's edition of Washtenaw United. This is our weekly exploration of equity and opportunity in our community. And this week, we'll look at a program designed to create exactly those kinds of opportunities for African-American children. Our guest today is Kallista Marie. And Kallista is founder of the Topaze Project. Its mission is to create safe spaces where Black children can feel seen, valued, empowered and celebrated. Thank you so much for creating time for us today, Kallista.

Kallista Marie: You're so welcome. Thank you for having me.

David Fair: Topaze Project: that's an umbrella organization that includes Our Community Reads, as well as the Queens and Pharoahs Clubs. Now, I just, in the introduction, described the mission of the Topaze Project. How do these components work together to serve those goals and aspirations?

Kallista Marie: Our Community Reads Earth has a YouTube channel that was created in 2020 during the pandemic, and a primary goal of the YouTube channel was for all children, but especially Black children, to meet and see and hear Black people that walk and exist in all different areas of life. At the beginning of all my YouTube channels, people normally give an introduction. You may find some on there where that's not the case. But that is always my goal: that people will introduce themselves, say what school they went to, if they went to college, see what elementary school they went to, that allows the child to see that all these adults making decisions, they all were once where you are. They were not born adults in these amazing, you know, principal or police officer. So, that is one thing that we do. Another thing is the Queen's Club. We meet monthly, and I try to have Black women again that are--we've had Victoria Burton Harris there, Debbie Dingell has come, Jugie Rain-Washington has come. There's been a lot of women. Sharifa Allen, who is a social worker and is the founder of Women in Mill Worker for Change. So, there have been many, many women that come, and they interact with these young ladies. And they do yoga. And they do financial literacy. You know, they learn etiquette. It's representation. It's really hard to dream about being something that you cannot see, that you can't touch.

David Fair: And I assume that the Pharoahs Club is right with bringing men in to talk with young boys.

Kallista Marie: Exactly. Pharoah's Club is a little different because it's Pharoah's Club--young men of purpose. And I actually collaborate with Washtenaw Community College, Mentor2Youth and Washtenaw County My Brother's Keeper. And so, we all are actually doing that program together.

David Fair: I'm curious. Most kids do learn to read, but far fewer love to read. How do you help instill the sense of fun and wonder and imagination, not just in the kids, but in the families that need to share the experience with their children?

Kallista Marie: I have an obsession with picture books. I love picture books. And I think picture books are a really simple way to start good conversations and to build connection. To me, reading is a way to build connection, and I feel like when I do story times. I do a lot of story time events. I just did one at Big Lots. I have a book club at Ericsson Elementary. And when I read stories to families with children, I had an adult Storytime fundraiser--to me, it's about the connection. I believe it was Maya Angelou who said, "You may not remember a person's name, but you remember how they made you feel." And so, when I think about reading with people, if we feel safe and we don't feel stupid or we feel involved and we feel loved and we feel fun when we're reading together, it's an activity, We're going to want to do it more. And so, that is what I have found. People will stop. When I'm reading a children's book, I've had many adults stop. They're on their way to drop their kids off, and when they hear what I'm reading, they want to stop and get involved. They want to stop and be present with their kids. When I'm reading with the young people at Ericsson, we have conversations. So, it's not just me up here. It's not just you're in a class. It's not just academics. I want to talk to you. I want to hear you read. I'm a big advocate of people reading out loud. And so, we actually are having and engaging in connection with one another and building community with one another and laughing and joking and, you know, sometimes redirecting. And that, to me, is how you build a love of reading.

David Fair: This is Washtenaw United on 89 one WEMU, and we're talking with Kallista Marie. She is the founder of the Topaze Project. And, you know, it also has to do not just reading but what is being read. How important is it for African-American children to read stories that feature African-American people?

Kallista Marie: It's interesting because I've been thinking about this a lot. Sometimes, we don't realize how much of an impact it has when we live in a world where a lot of important things have people in it that don't look like you because we were born into this. So, I recently got back from a vacation in Florida, and we went to a town called Overtown. It's in Miami, Florida. It was originally a Black part of town, a neighborhood that was established, I think, in 1896. And there's a restaurant there called Red Rooster. We ate at the Red Rooster, which was a beautiful restaurant that has been around for years. They still have some of the original parts. They played Anthony Hamilton over the loudspeaker. They played music that I listen to all the time, but it was like a five-star restaurant. I sat there, and the little girl in me realize this is not normal to me. And it felt like someone had taken a blanket out of the dryer and wrapped it around my body. I didn't even realize how much I missed it and how much I needed it until I experienced it. And that, to me, is a good analogy for how important it is for little Brown children, especially Black children, to have representation in every aspect of their lives that is positive. It gives them a line of vision to see what is possible. And I am big on planting seeds of possibility.

David Fair: Well, it speaks to the larger question of educational equity. How do these literacy and awareness projects and experiences lend themselves to eventually creating actual equality in our learning systems?

Kallista Marie: That is a layered question. I personally feel like it would be really helpful to have, I think, different training because it's really hard for me to understand the journey of a child that comes from a neighborhood that I did not grow up in. And when you're trying to reach and connect with a child and teach a child, to teach someone, there has to be connections. I'm not saying we can't sit in a room and learn if there is no connection. But when you really absorb it into your pores, when you hear people talk about their favorite teachers and their adults, no matter what kind of person they were, it's usually, "I knew they loved me." I could tell by the way they treated me. I could tell by the way they talked to me, how they humanized me. And I think because there's so many things going on in our educational system that there's a lot of layers. The teachers need more, so they're stressed out. But I think the question to me is how do we help teachers, which are largely white, working in a lot of schools that have children that did not come from neighborhoods like they came from. So, they don't understand the children's joking. They don't understand how they dress. They don't understand what I may have experienced last night or what it's like just showing up in the world every single day as a Black child--as a Black person. And that, to me, is the question. How do you help teachers build that connection? I don't know if I have the answer for that.

David Fair: It is going to be a work in progress for quite some time. I'm glad we're at least taking steps in the journey. Our conversation with the founder of Topaze Project continues. Kallista Marie is our guest on this week's edition of WEMU's Washtenaw United. And while Kallista's work is certainly mission driven, it obviously comes from a very personal place. The Topaze Project, if I'm not mistaken, Kallista, is named after your mother.

Kallista Marie: Yes.

David Fair: What did she impart to you that drives you to give back today?

Kallista Marie: My mother was a fierce spirit. She was fiercely independent. She read everything she could get her hands on. She was committed to evolving and becoming her best self the whole time I was growing up. So, I saw that up close and personal. She read all the magazines, whether it was about, you know, cooking, creating a home, whether it was about self-improvement. She introduced me to Duane Dyer. But she also was a child advocate. I used to always tell her, I was like, "Mom, you have a red, blue and yellow cape that just lies behind you. And you can't even help yourself." My mother grew up in the time--she was born in 1950--and she always said that, during her time, she never really felt heard. And so, she was determined that, my friends--she was the oldest of eight, you know, her siblings--you know, the friends that we brought around, her house was always the house where all the kids came. She was always taking us places to Detroit. She took us to Jamaica when I was like in junior high because we got good grades. She believed that children were little people. That was the first time I had ever heard that: children are little people. And they have feelings and fears like adults do. And it was very important to her that children felt seen, even though she would sometimes call them "crumb snatchers". She always felt like children should be seen, and they should be heard. And I saw her live that out all the time.

David Fair: Was it from her that you got the phrase that children are magical?

Kallista Marie: Yes. And then, I've seen it. I think the universe has conspired with my mother. So, I see it. I have seen it in a lot of places. But yes, yes, because she lived it. I don't think that was something she said. But that's how she treated us. That's how she treated me. That's how she treated my aunt Colla Priscilla because we were the ones that were really with her all the time. And one of the people on my team, her name is Pam, she's our creative director. And we were friends when I was little. And she said, that's how my mother made her feel. She said, "I used to sneak in your backyard. She lived across the street from me." And she said, "I would sneak in your backyard when you guys weren't there. And I would climb up in your tree, in your backyard, and I would just read for hours." It was kind of creepy, but it was good that she found that safe place. You know what I mean?

David Fair: Right. I do.

Kallista Marie: There was a lot going on in her life. And so, that became her safe place. And she said, "That's because that's how your mother always made me feel."

David Fair: So, you want to create a magical experience for a group of fifth through eighth graders--more than a dozen of them--and take them to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.. What are you hoping that the kids take away from such a trip?

Kallista Marie: I hope they will, like, get bitten by the travel bug before any of them ever have children. I hope that the museum itself will just wow them. I hope they will see the richness of being Black: the complexities, the richness, the fun, the creativity that we are so multidimensional. And it's who you are. You are history in the making. I actually wrote a poem. It's called "You Are History in the Making," and I want them to feel that. On some level, I want them to feel you are history in the making, and you are in this lineage of amazing humans.

David Fair: I would like to thank you for taking the time and sharing the conversation with me today, Kallista. I'm truly grateful.

Kallista Marie: Thank you so much for your time.

David Fair: And we will look forward to hearing the stories of the project's trip to Washington, D.C. That is Kallista Marie. She is founder of the Topaze Project. It's the umbrella organization that includes Our Community Reads, The Queen's Club, and The Pharoah's Club. Now, if you'd like more information on the work police do in those organizations are doing, we have all the links and information you need on our website at WEMU dot org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and you get to hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.


Our Community Reads

Ypsilanti District Library | Serving the Ypsilanti Area (ypsilibrary.org)

Contact 1 — Our Community Reads

"A Little Birdie Told Me"

BOOKS | kallistamarie

Our Community Reads T-Shirt and Hoodie Order (google.com)


United Way (UWWC) recognizes structural racism and other forms of oppression have contributed to persistent disparities which UWWC seeks to dismantle. Given this reality, addressing inequity is a central tenet in UWWC’s grant making process.

From November 2021 - June 2022, Our Community Reads has become a recipient of the Opportunity Fund, which acts as support for organizations and groups whose work prioritizes:

  • People with low incomes, communities of color, and historically and/or systematically excluded people
  • Participants or services in 48197/98 and rural Washtenaw County

UWWC invested in the work of Our Community Reads through a $10,000 grant to help the organization facilitate literacy and character-building activities for youth attending Ypsilanti Community Schools and their families.

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.'

Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support.  Make your donation to WEMU todayto keep your community NPR station thriving.

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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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