YPSILANTI - “When you’re passionate and you see a change that you’d like to see in the world, it’s hard not to be the person who’s like ‘Okay, this needs to exist, so let’s just create it.’”
This passion is what inspired Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha, a full-time lecturer in EMU’s Department of Biology, to start the program Black Men Read with her co-founder Yodit Mesfin Johnson.
In this program, readers who are all black men visit local schools, libraries and organizations to read diverse children’s books to elementary-age kids. Students are encouraged to ask questions and engage with the story. After reading, everyone makes a craft before heading home.
The vision for Black Men Read began when Tucker-Ibarisha and Johnson brought their kids together for a playdate, and they started talking about changes they would like to see for their children.
Tucker-Ibarisha explained, “As parents of black children, we want our kids to be able to see themselves in the stories that they read and the stories that they see.”
This is exactly the literacy experience that Black Men Read offers to children and families across Washtenaw County.
While many of the books focus on black characters, the books are often not about history or civil rights; instead, they highlight the everyday experiences of characters who happen to be black children. In this way, Tucker-Ibarisha says, the program mindfully chooses books that normalize the experiences and identities of diverse characters.
Children of all cultural backgrounds are encouraged to attend readings in order to foster widespread understanding and empathy for different races and cultures.
In addition to creating more diverse literacy experiences, Black Men Read aims to change the narratives and representations of black men in society.
“There’s sort of this overarching narrative that black men are absent in the black community, that they’re not there as fathers,” Tucker-Ibarisha says, “and in some ways that’s really counter to what many of us have experienced in black communities. So we’re using Black Men Read as a vehicle to normalize the experiences of black people and really to highlight the important role that black men play in our communities and our families and our societies.”
When the program was created, the first readers came from Tucker-Ibarisha and Johnson’s personal network, but since then the program has grown to involve readers from black fraternities at the University of Michigan, a partnership with the Washtenaw County My Brother’s Keeper program, and people who came across the Black Men Read Facebook page and wanted to participate.
Black Men Read has held events with organizations across Washtenaw County, including the Ypsilanti District Library, the Riverside Arts Center, Blackstone Bookstore, and local elementary schools.
Some schools even hold a reader in residence program, where one reader regularly visits so students can see the reader as a familiar face and develop a connection with them.
Tucker-Ibarisha says the program is working to gravitate toward more elementary schools in underprivileged areas in order to serve children whose parents may not have the time or resources to take them to after-school activities.
In the future, she also hopes to write children’s books of her own to fill in some of the cultural gaps in children’s literature.
While Tucker-Ibarisha’s venture into children’s literacy may seem unexpected for a biology lecturer with a doctorate in Cell and Molecular biology, she says, “I think the intersection is just being excited about learning. I think it’s that thread of education that really ties them together.”
For Tucker-Ibarisha, the most rewarding part of her work with the program is seeing the connections readers make with the students. These connections often come from moments that she says can’t be scripted, like sharing personal experiences, asking questions, and bonding over the stories.
“I think you find that people want to connect,” says Tucker-Ibarisha, “and with kids that are little, they have a lot less baggage about who they feel they can connect with. As soon as they see a smiling person who wants to share something with them, I think it’s an open door for them, and I think that’s why it’s really special. It’s that opening that lays the foundation for them becoming adults that are also open.”
About Dr. Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha
Tamara Tucker-Ibarisha holds a doctorate in Cell and Molecular Biology from the University of Michigan and has been teaching at the college level for over a decade. Currently, she teaches Introductory Biology for Non-majors at EMU and she also teaches Introductory Biology and Microbiology at Washtenaw Community College. 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. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling and dancing as a member of the Bichini Bia Congo Dance Theater Company.
About Eastern Michigan University
Founded in 1849, Eastern is the second oldest public university in Michigan. It currently serves nearly 18,000 students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, specialist, doctoral and certificate degrees in the arts, sciences and professions. In all, more than 300 majors, minors and concentrations are delivered through the University's Colleges of Arts and Sciences; Business; Education; Engineering and Technology; Health and Human Services; and, its graduate school. EMU is regularly recognized by national publications for its excellence, diversity, and commitment to applied education. For more information about Eastern Michigan University, visit the University's website.