“Everyone deserves the opportunity to be part of a story”
By Molly Loughman
Despite all the chaos that humankind has endured this spring, human connection continues to prevail. For one class of Emerson students, the act of kindness — and course credit — was getting diverse books into the hands of Boston high school students.
The ‘On The Same Page’ virtual book campaign is refreshing the bookshelves and mindsets of Boston teenagers this year as a part of a unique collaboration between Emerson Professor Cathryn Edelstien’s Nonprofit Fundraising Campaign class and students from Hyde Park’s New Mission High School (NMHS). The impact is both immediate and ongoing — enabling generations of teens at NMHS and beyond to see themselves in stories.
Diverse perspectives and human experiences from minority communities have been missing from children’s literature. In 2018, more books centered on animals (27 percent) or white characters (50 percent) than they did on people of color (23 percent), according to a School Library Journal article.
“Being included, there’s no greater feeling as a human being. Nobody wants to be left out. That whole mindset leads to depression, anxiety, and so many complications for people already struggling,” said Cory McCarthy, NMHS director of operations, climate and culture, who specializes in educational leadership. “And yes, you can find heroes and legends elsewhere, but finding them in a book just brings a unique and organic relationship with yourself and someone else. And it’s intimate because you’re not sharing when you read a book; it’s your book, it’s your reading, it’s your connection.”
Launched in March during National Reading Month and ending after summer, the virtual campaign allows donors to purchase books from an Amazon Wish List that feature stories about diverse characters. So far, 150 books have already been donated — not too far from the original semester-long campaign target goal of 200.
“Diverse literature is important because we should be preparing kids for a diverse life. We should be learning about different things,” said NMHS freshman and student advocate Kahlihah Pritchard, one of four NMHS students interviewed by Emerson students about the need for diverse literature. “Everybody needs their own voice because if you don’t, then you never get that opportunity to stand out.”
At NMHS, students need more books and spaces to read them. To address this, McCarthy plans to open a quiet lounge room where students can read books, study, relax, and find support. “Our student demographic is amazing. We have young men and women of all races. We have uncomfortable conversations. We have spaces for kids to grow and discover who they are,” he said. “And we’re using things like this book campaign to expand on shaping and developing identity.”
On The Same Page
“The big difference in the [children’s literacy] statistics is what drives our marketing approach. We saw it should not be our voice in any of these marketing materials. We stepped back from the narrative and let the New Mission students push it,” said Thea Nagle ‘22, an Emerson Public Relations major minoring in Marketing Communication and Leadership and Management. “I love, love reading and know that I’m more drawn to characters similar to me, so the fact that people don’t have access to that too, especially at such a crucial learning period, is why this campaign is important.”
While planning the campaign, students in the Nonprofit Fundraising Campaign course studied the foundations, history, and functions of nonprofits. They learned about grant writing, budgeting, networking funding sources, market research and how to orchestrate communications for nonprofits—creating everything from fundraising pitches to websites, infographics, and videos..
“Learning the logistics and details of a nonprofit has given me the full scope of how it actually works and how to fundraise a campaign successfully,” said Lauren Bjella ‘22, who creates/films/edits, schedules, posts and monitors promotional campaign material for the campaign’s Facebook group.
“It’s really hard to find someone, especially a young person, who knows how to write grants, and understands fundraiser-donor relationships. They’re learning all of it,” said Edelstein, now in her 15th year at Emerson. Edelstein started the College’s Nonprofit Communication minor five years ago. “But, the biggest connection is with New Mission students. They’ve been so open and mature. Civic engagement in the city is important to our students. We owe it to the city of Boston.”
This year, the campaign was supposed to launch with dozens of NMHS students and faculty in attendance during the School of Communication’s two-day spring symposium, Communication Days. Instead, the “On the Same Page” campaign made a near seamless virtual transition since launching March 26.
An Open Book
“To see that knowledge being passed while seeing the eagerness to learn from and embrace each other — You don’t find that everywhere,” said McCarthy. “The more we learn about each other, the more authentic relationships can be, and the better position we’re in to make better decisions for everyone.”
While interviewing NMHS students for promotional material, Bjella showed them how to use one of Emerson’s DSLR-610 cameras. “It means a lot to me, not only to share things I’m interested in with people, but also to help others — And not just hand them off books, but to have direct communication with them,” she said.
NMHS sophomore Keili Ramon was one of four NMHS students to be interviewed on-camera about their high school’s needs for new books. “At first I was nervous because I’m a shy person, but Emerson students were actually really open, fun, cool and chill.” Ramon said. “They guided me and individually did their part to make me understand and be part of the campaign. When you’re involved, you’re more interested in it. There wasn’t a dull moment.”
Nagle reflected on not only what she learned about campaign management, but about the cause for On the Same Page. “When I was reading books growing up, I didn’t think twice about it because I saw myself represented in books. And if you are represented, it’s hard to take yourself out of that narrative and put yourself in the narrative of someone else,” Nagle said. “I think the true testament of this campaign is that visibility and representation really matters. When you’re represented in books, you’re engaged in it. When you’re not, you’re turned away.”
Moving forward, Edelstein plans to continue the ‘On the Same Page’ campaign with more Boston Public Schools for many more years to come. “I like reading books and so do my peers. And even if some don’t, this is a good way for them to learn to like them. There will be books for everyone and everyone’s age group and race,” said Ramon. “This campaign could mean a fresh start and improvement for New Mission. It’s something to look forward to.”