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Get to Know Two Chicagoans Helping Kids Access Books

Rebecca Silverman and Iesha Malone have seen firsthand the power books have to develop empathy and open up a world of imagination for their South Side students.

In honor of Banned Books Week—the  American Library Association (Opens in a new tab)’s annual week-long campaign that shines a light on the freedom to read—we spoke with Rebecca, a University of Chicago Obama Foundation Scholar, and her co-founder and Chicago Public School teacher, Iesha. Learn more about their community organization  Rose Café (Opens in a new tab), the power of representation, and the corrosive effect silencing diverse storytellers can have.

Rebecca and Iesha hold up copies of The 1619 Project, a frequently banned book that reframes America’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the center.

Q. How did Rose Café come to life?

Iesha: The idea for Rose Café was really born during the Black revolution of 2020 following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. As I marched through my neighborhood with my sons, I knew the South Side of Chicago would never be the same. The next morning, my community came together to clean up the streets after some looting and while we were cleaning I noticed that this area-–my home for 26 years–was missing something: A place to read. A place for healthy conversation. A place to highlight the beauty of our community and not the negativity.

So I posted my idea online and immediately Rebecca reached out and was like “Hey, whatever you’re doing, I’m doing it with you.” So we became thought partners and we decided we were going to do a reading café and provide books to the community. Not just any books, but books that can inspire, books that are representational, and offer something that’s super different in Roseland.

When you take away important stories and information from books, you lose that idea of discussion and debate.”

Rebecca Silverman, UChicago Obama Scholar

Rebecca: And the name Rose Café comes in part from the neighborhood, but also from the poem “The Rose That Grew from Concrete” by Tupac. We both taught that poem in our classrooms, and I know that Tupac was really influential for Iesha growing up, and we were really hoping that having this cafe and access to literacy for people in the neighborhood will help people be able to grow, just like the rose.

Rose Café hosts different pop-up booths around Chicago.

Q. According to the American Library Association, 2021 had the highest number of attempted book bans since they began compiling lists more than 20 years ago.  Pen America (Opens in a new tab)’s data shows the majority of banned books have either LGBTQ+ themes or characters of color. What ramifications can that have on representation in literature?

Iesha: I think it’s really important to understand how people persevere through things and sometimes you really need evidence to say “Oh, they did that, so maybe I can survive, succeed, and do that too.” So banning books that uplift voices and stories that actually happen, like racist history, pushes us back.

Rebecca: I agree, and “we” means everybody. Whitewashed history affects everybody and that includes white people. We believe that everybody needs to be reading books by Black authors–and especially because our bookstore is going to be in a predominantly Black neighborhood, we really want to highlight Black authors.

Like Iesha was saying, I feel like when you ban books by someone that is a minority, whether they’re a minority because of their race or their sexual orientation or their religion, it just takes away power. It’s really an idea of power and equipping students with power I think scares people, and that’s why they want to take that away.

A young student reads Maus, a nonfiction book by Art Spiegelman, which depicts him interviewing his father about his experiences as a Polish Jew and Holocaust Survivor. Maus has been placed on a number of banned books lists.

Q. Why is representation in literature important, especially for young readers?

Rebecca: Someone once said to us, “books can be windows and mirrors” and that’s really stuck with me lately. We have really been focusing on books as mirrors and how important it is for kids and even people of all ages to see themselves reflected in books; but then at the same time, we also use books as windows and use them as a way to teach about different people and different places and new ideas. Both are very important.

And on top of that—there are so many books with Black characters that are not just focusing on some sort of struggle. We also have books where the characters just happen to be Black and they’re just doing regular things and kids need to see that as well.

Iesha and Rebecca walk in Chicago’s Juneteenth Parade together.

Q. Can you explain Rose Café today and what you hope it will grow into?

Rebecca: While we don’t have our physical brick and mortar yet, we do pop-ups around Chicago and bring books, mostly by Black authors. When we go to neighborhoods that are predominately white, people are excited to see these books and that’s another way that we’re showing representation.

Iesha: There are a lot of boarded up buildings in Roseland, and I like to imagine this beautiful café where we get to mentor youth, not only serve you coffee and give you books, but we get to build those relationships.

Rebecca: In addition, we hope to not just be a bookstore or a coffee shop—we hope to have after school tutoring services available there. We want it to be a complete community hub. We have been hosting  virtual author talks (Opens in a new tab) for the past few years and we want to have those talks in person and bring people to Roseland to have these events. We also want to create a job training program where we could teach things like baristing or managerial skills right in the book shop. There’s a lot we want to do by just having the store there.

Obama Foundation Scholars from the University of Chicago and Columbia University together for their cohort’s orientation.

Obama Foundation Scholars from the University of Chicago and Columbia University together for their cohort’s orientation.

Q. Rebecca, you just finished your orientation for the Obama Scholars program. Can you share how you’re feeling after your first week with your cohort of other emerging leaders?

Rebecca: Absolutely! Honestly, I always bring everything back to books, so after meeting the other Obama Scholars during our orientation this past weekend, I had so many great conversations about their areas of interest. Whether it was climate change or criminal justice reform or immigration—any topic that the Scholar covered, I always asked what book they’d recommend so I could learn more. And it got me thinking, what books should we include at Rose Café? Because we all don’t know about these topics, and we can learn from one another and books are a great way to do so.

Everybody in the Obama Scholars program is from very different places and we had a lot of discussions. It kind of mirrored how Iesha and I envisioned our book club discussions could go. We want everybody to bring their different opinions and have discussions about the books we’re reading. Reflecting on Banned Books Week—when you take away important stories and information from books, you lose that idea of discussion and debate and that’s what we like to cultivate.

A young Rebecca (pictured right) listens to then-Senator Barack Obama in Chicago.