Last June The Denver North Star covered a march along Tennyson Street organized by a North High School student in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and in protest of the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. Black Lives Matter signs appeared in hundreds of yards across North Denver neighborhoods. Smiley Branch Librarian Hannah Evans reviewed Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist.
A year later, we reached out to a handful of people to learn about what their involvement during those times has led them to today. From envisioning broad systems change–and the mechanics of achieving it–to absorbing new ideas and ways of being in the world from books and one another, these Denverites give us a glimpse into how a passion for justice can be deepened and sustained.
Jessica Caouette, now Bar Manager at BookBar, was jobless at the beginning of the pandemic. She decided to volunteer more and landed some data entry projects with City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca’s office. It was energizing to be connected to CdeBaca’s work. “Activism in the streets is powerful. It shows momentum,” Caouette says, “and it makes other things possible.”
By September, Caouette tuned into Facebook Live streaming from Denver’s new Task Force to Reimagine Policing and Public Safety. She volunteered to become an administrative member of the task force, taking on support roles like notetaking, Zoom admin, and website set-up. The task force released its “Recommendations for Transforming Public Safety in Denver” last month and is now working on outreach to implement its 112 recommendations. Caouette will be facilitating a conversation on the report for Hearthstone Cohousing’s anti-racism group. She encourages others to take a look at the recommendations and share their thoughts with the mayor.
And at BookBar, Caouette wondered about further growing equity efforts inside the business. She invited Ashtin Berry, nationally known hospitality activist, for an anti-racism discussion with fellow BookBar managers. The session brought unexpected learning opportunities and new ways of thinking about their business and their industry. And it uncovered powerful process improvements that garnered immediate results.
Last summer’s dramatic increase in racial justice yard signs has, in many yards, given way to graduation kudos, sports team flags, zoning change notices, and the cautionary “20 is Plenty.”
Sarah Kreider’s family has kept its Black Lives Matter sign in the front yard. She views it as a reminder to her family and their neighbors that there is more work to be done. Last summer Kreider used Facebook to invite conversation about the impact racial inequity is having on our community. When 75 people responded, her family decided to organize groups. 2 of the 6 groups are still meeting; one is focused on affordable housing, the other on justice system reform.
This summer Kreider hopes to start a new project, a local offshoot of The Human Library®. The concept, according to its founders in Denmark, is “in the true sense of the word, a library of people. We host events where readers can borrow human beings serving as open books and have conversations they would not normally have access to.”
When it comes to physical books—of the paper variety—librarians Hannah Evans and Monica Washenberger report over 900 checkouts, across the city, for Denver Public Library’s most popular anti-racism books. Last summer those were “Between the World and Me,” “Dying of Whiteness,” “Me and White Supremacy, Just Mercy, and Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning.” Those titles are joined more recently by “Caste: The Origins of our Discontents” and “So you want to Talk About Race.”
Rick Griffith and Debra Johnson, Shop at MATTER co-owners, are here to take readers beyond the top five anti-racism books (though they absolutely do carry them). A book-buying transaction can be impersonal. But these two want to engage every single person who walks in the door. In June and July 2020, they saw “an unprecedented surge of passion,” as Debra describes it. By August, business had settled down and they were starting to see new, sustained relationships.
Speaking of the times we are in, Griffith reflects, “What is happening now is people are being seen. It’s really quite the beginning of the revolution that we seek.” And then, “We want to be a fractal of the movement that we want to see come into focus… And we’re constantly working the kinks out of this in a way that helps people feel better heard, and feel better seen, and feel better felt. And that to me, again, it’s encouraging. Because people are responding to it. Maybe it’s about a book. Maybe it’s about reading a book. And maybe it’s not about reading a book.”
Johnson puts it another way: as process, as relationship, “You walk in the door and you’re just loved. You’re acknowledged. How can we get you from the place you are right now into a place you want to be? How can we do that together?”
For this sampling of Denverites, much seems to revolve around relationships. And conversations, listening. And committing our energy to creating more equitable patterns and systems in how we see, hear and feel one another.
To learn more about Sarah Kreider’s project with The Human Library, readers are invited to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Upcoming Denver Public Library events (all virtual):
6/17: Book Explorers: Kids Virtual Book Club Ages 5-8 – Kids book club discussing and doing activities related to the book Child of the Civil Rights Movement
6/17: Live Stream with Author Tamara Winfrey Harris discussing her book Dear Black Girl
6/22: Refugee 101 Information Session – Learn about the refugee resettlement process and what you can do to help support refugees in Colorado
6/23: Radically Reimagining Healing for Racial Stress and Trauma – Reimagine what healing looks like for racialized people using a variety of traditional and indigenous practices
6/23: Virtual Social Justice Book Club discussing Bestiary by K-Ming Chang