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Washtenaw United: 'Black Men Read' - Keeping Kids Academically Engaged For The Summer

Black Men Read

Learning remotely and through a difficult pandemic academic year has left some children in the area a bit behind. Black Men Read (BMR) was formed to promote literacy and cultural engagement. WEMU's David Fair spoke with one of BMR's founders, Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha, about the innovative program and its plans to help kids be ready for academics in the fall. 

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw County to 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.'




David Fair: What a year it's been. The pandemic certainly altered the learning process and for those who were learning virtually, keeping pace and maintaining grade level standards has been difficult. I'm David Fair and welcome to Washtenaw United. This weekly feature is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County and is focused on equity and opportunity in our community. Today, we're going to focus on a creative and innovative program. It's called Black Men Read, and Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha serves as its co-founder and program director. And thank you for making time today, Tamara.

Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha: Hi. It's great to talk to you.

David Fair: You work in the education realm, albeit at the college level. Tamara owns a doctorate in cell and molecular biology and is a full-time lecturer at Eastern Michigan University. How has the pandemic impacted your ability to impart knowledge to your students?

Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha: I think this year has been one of the most challenging. At Eastern, we have shifted to almost all completely online courses, and that ranges between asynchronous courses that are delivered sort of in a batch at the beginning of a week. And then students work largely independently to what we've been calling hybrid and synchronous where we are meeting for classes that are similar to lectures that we would normally have on campus that take place on Zoom. And while, you know, we have worked diligently from the administration down to the faculty to develop courses that can really work well for students, it's just been a challenging year. I know, from my perspective, as someone who loves to be in the classroom and really enjoys the interaction, Zoom is about as close as we can get to that kind of thing in the virtual world. But it definitely has a different feel. And it's really different when you have all students that are sort of forced to function in this virtual environment, because, realistically, that's just not an environment that is conducive for learning for the vast majority of students.

David Fair: So when you talk with teachers in the K through 12 levels, what are they telling you about remote and hybrid learning and the academic effect it has had on their students, particularly the younger kids?

Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha: I think, in some ways, it is very similar. You know, learning is a really interactive process. And, for most students, be it K-12 and adults, doing it in the virtual environment is just challenging and difficult. There's something that happens that's really visceral when you're connecting face to face in a classroom with students, be it K-12 or college level. And so, I think what teachers in K-12 and what we're finding is that, while virtual learning is working well and, in some cases better for a subset of students, for the majority of students, it's actually been a more difficult way to learn and a more difficult way to teach.

David Fair: And no one gets a doctorate without placing a premium on education. What about your personal academic experience helped form the concept for Black Men Read?

Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha: I think that what brought me to Black Men Read is a combination of my passion and commitment to education and academic achievement, but also my commitment to the community. In addition to being an academic that's in the community, I'm a mom, and Black Men Read is really a merge of those two things in terms of creating educationally enriching opportunities for our children and for my children and really trying to create a world in which the experiences and the stories of black people are normalized, celebrated, and something that everyone can participate in. And that's really at the crux of what we do with Black Men Read.

David Fair: Washtenaw United continues on Eighty-Nine One WEMU. And we're talking with the founder and program director of Black Men Read, Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha. It did not escape me, Tamara, that Black Men Read was founded by two women. Is there a significance to that in any social or societal sense?

Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha: I think that it just so happened that we were two moms who connected and thought about establishing the project. But I do believe that our intention to really center Black men and uplift the role that Black men play in our work comes from the fact that both my co-founder Yodit and I have had so many wonderful and meaningful experiences with Black men in our lives in many capacities, and see not only the need for that in our children's lives, but also the important role that that's played in our children's lives and that comes from our children's fathers--my husband--but also the ways that, you know, Black men in the community who are teachers or community leaders or religious leaders have played in shaping the lives of our children and all of the children in our community. And so, in uplifting Black men, I think it's almost our homage to the important role that they play in our society and really trying to uplift that.

David Fair: Prior to the pandemic, Black Men Read was a very hands-on, in-person engagement opportunity. How is it worked over the last year?

Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha: Well, the last year has really pushed us and stretched us and a lot of interesting ways. And it's actually really been quite dynamic. You know, I think we look at something like the pandemic as an unfortunate thing that has taken place, but there's always opportunities to to do something different. And so, all of our programing has moved to online. And while that obviously has shifted our work, what it has done is actually given us a platform to be able to reach a much broader audience outside of Washtenaw County and also to bring in readers from all over the country and really all over the world. One of our members of the reader core right now is in Kenya and is participating and able to contribute in that way. So, the great thing about existing in the virtual space is that there aren't borders, there aren't limits, and we have a capacity to reach people in a new way and, in a way, that's been really exciting and actually helped to spur the growth of our organization.

David Fair: When the volunteers in the Black Men Read program share with the children, they're sharing with all of the children, regardless of race. Do you see this as an opportunity to further break down divides and build that better foundation for equity and equality in the generations to come?

Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha: Absolutely. Early on, we really were very intentional and clear that Black Men Read, although ensuring and uplifting Black men, is really a program for all children and all families. And that's extremely important because we all exist in the county together. We exist in a society together. And I think that, at the core, equity really is about viewing everyone as equals and valuing the contributions that all of us have to bring to society, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender and so on. And so Black Men Read is really focused on creating that reality by educating our children and by exposing them to not only literature that lifts up and celebrates the experiences and stories of Black people, but giving them opportunities to connect with Black men in a positive way that we believe will impact them throughout their lives.

David Fair: Once again, this is 89 One WEMU's Washtenaw United. And we're talking with Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha, who is founder and program director of Black Men Read. So, Tamara, when the children go home after having this experience, or if they're at home watching on Zoom, and they talk about their experiences with their families, have you noticed whether it is also inspiring parents to become more actively involved?

Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha:I think that because of the way things work online, the commitment from the parents is always sort of the thing that drives the participation of the children. We definitely have seen some really great participation and interaction with our Black Men Read book parties that we've been hosting monthly online. And there are parents who make the commitment to log their kids on every month to make sure that they participate. Sometimes, the parents are there reading along and interacting with the kids. And what we've seen recently, which is really exciting, is that some of the shyer kids or kids who are interacting at the encouragement of Mom or Dad are starting to really take ownership of their participation in the book parties and are speaking up and sharing and interacting with our readers in a way that they may be didn't in the beginning. So what it suggests is that that initial commitment by the parents is helping to get the kids really to engage with reading and with the activities.

David Fair: So, as we head to summer break, how will Black Men Read continue to engage students who may have lost a little bit in a pandemic-affected academic year? Are there going to be some in-person opportunities?

Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha: We do have one in-person opportunity that is taking place with one of our key partner organizations, and that is Kaikoura Freedom School. And we're actually hosting a Summer in MI County Camp. It is focused on Black excellence in Washtenaw County, and this is a really exciting initiative where we are also partnering with the African-American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County to get connected to some of the historical individuals, sites, and locations that exist within Washtenaw County.

David Fair: And there's plenty of them.

Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha: Yeah. That are connected to the history of Black people in this county. And there really are quite a lot. These are kind of hidden gems in our community. And so we're very excited about this opportunity. And the opportunity has an in-person component and then also has an online component. So we're calling it hybrid, which now is a word we're kind of all really familiar with. So, for individuals that would want to attend in person, there's the possibility to enroll. And then for individuals who are not going to be participating in person, they'll be weekly modules that are made available online that include the videos and interviews and site visits that are connected to this camp initiative. But it's really about encouraging families to get out in Washtenaw County, go out, visit some of these historical sites, and learn a little bit more about the contributions of Black people in Washtenaw County.

David Fair: I think we would all do well to participate in something like that.

Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha: Yeah, I think it's going to be a lot of fun and really exciting. Even for me, it'll be an opportunity to learn a little bit more about some of these historical sites and individuals. Washtenaw County is surprisingly rich in Black history, and that's maybe something that we don't have an awareness of. But we will after this program.

David Fair: Sounds like it. And I will look forward to our next conversation and learning about all the advancements of Black Men Read. Thank you so much for the time today, Tamara.

Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha: Great, well, thanks for talking to me today.

David Fair: That is Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha, the founder and program director of Black Men Read. For more information, visit our website at WEMU dot org. We'll get you linked up everywhere you need to go. I'm David Fair, and this is Eighty-Nine One WEMU FM and HD One Ypsilanti.


Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha holds a doctorate in Cell and Molecular Biology and has been teaching at the college level for over a decade. She has a passion for education and has developed and been involved in STEM education outreach initiatives for children, college students, and the general public. She is a co-founder of Black Men Read and focuses on the educational and creative aspects of the program.


Black Men Read


United Way of Washtenaw County (UWWC) in 2020 awarded Black Men Read (BMR) a total of $30,000 grant to promote literacy, racial equity, and community engagement. This grant was awarded through our Opportunity Fund, which provides support for organizations whose work benefits priority populations in Washtenaw County: lower-income populations, communities of color and groups deemed to be marginalized. This grant is enabling Black Men Read to grow from a volunteer-run start-up to hiring a staff person to coordinate activities and expand the organization's reach.

Black Men Read's focus on literacy and school-aged youth aligns with United Way of Washtenaw County's school-aged youth priority area. Only 54 percent of Washtenaw County third grade students demonstrated grade-level reading proficiency according to the 2017-2018 Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress. Third-grade reading is a key indicator in determining the future success of students. Up until third-grade, students are learning to read. After third grade, students are reading to learn. This aim is in line with United Way's goal to prioritize racial equity.

During the pandemic, BMR has continued to radically reimagine their work by adapting their programming and shifting into a virtual model. The last year or so has been one of adaptation and flexibility. UWWC is proud to support BMR’s vision.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him atdfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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