The Albion Big Read, an initiative to foster community and an appreciation of reading, is turning the page to its ninth consecutive year this October.
Nels Christensen, English professor and member of the Big Read planning committee, said that the program itself was created by Big Read Director and fellow English professor, Jess Roberts, in 2015. In its beginning, she started by bringing together a small group of interested Albion citizens.
Nine years later, the Big Read has grown to include “youth advocates, people who were educators back in the day and college students who went through the program themselves at some point,” Christensen said.
Albion College senior and Big Read volunteer, Kali Johnson from Lincoln Park, said via email on Sept. 19 that in the midst of planning events around town, “each leader participates in leading a community discussion that is geared towards the book, and for each discussion, the leaders get to pick what topics they want to talk about.”
Keena Williams, committee member and book selection advisor, said that involving students is important because it aligns with the goal of engaging “youth in leadership around town.”
Roberts said that the program pursues community engagement and youth leadership by running several events throughout the month of October.
“(We want) to let folks know what’s going on and to sort of get people into spaces where we’re talking about interesting and relevant and powerful ideas,” Roberts said.
“They have this opportunity to think critically about the material they’re reading, making connections to their everyday lives in ways I don’t think they always get a chance to,” Williams said. “Then they get to shine.”
Albion College senior and Big Read volunteer, Ian Lee from Albion, said that the Big Read “tears down the systems where kids are held back from expressing themselves.”
“We strive to build up a space where they can be themselves,” Lee said.
The Big Read committee chose “Mighty Inside,” a novel by Sundee T. Frazier as this year’s subject. The book revolves around issues of racism and finding your voice in a world that wants to silence it.
Frazier said what inspired “Mighty Inside” in an email on Sept. 25.
“I wrote the book as an homage to my grandparents, and especially my grandfather, whose civil act of disobedience was to be himself,” Frazier said via email. “He chose to live where he wanted, in spite of systemic forces that worked against him.”
Frazier added that she wants her readers to know that it is “worth it to speak up for yourself and others; we can’t let the bullies win.”
“You are more powerful than you realize,” Frazier said via email.
Johnson said she thought the book would resonate with the Big Read participants because “it has a lot of underlying issues in Melvin’s life that the leaders and the community can see and find similarities in with their own lives.”
This year’s Big Read will also involve a lecture led by abolitionist educator and freedom dreamer, Bettina Love. Love is set to discuss her book, “Punished for Dreaming: The Case for Abolitionist Teaching and Educational Reparations” on Oct. 19 at the Bohm Theater. This event is free and open to Albion College students, faculty, staff and community members.
“It’s a history of the last four decades of school reform in the United States and the way that school reform has harmed black children,” Roberts said.
Roberts said Love is dedicated to establishing liberatory educational spaces for black and brown children, aligning with one of Big Read’s goals of fostering education.
Another goal of the Big Read, to engage the entire community, achieved a milestone last year.
“This past year, we piloted a program called Albion’s Little Big Read, which takes place at Harrington Elementary School,” Roberts said.
Committee members and volunteers met with principals and educators over the course of the school year to choose one book for the third through fifth-grade classes. Kindergarten through second graders were assigned a book as well.
“Little Big Read helps kids to connect with literature in meaningful ways, in ways that are exciting. Getting kids excited about reading is near and dear to our hearts,” Wiliams said.
The Big Read not only creates spaces for deeper conversations but also gives students a chance to get involved directly in their community.
The middle school and high school leaders, like Johnson, get the chance to participate in a leadership summit every June. Lee said that leaders talk about the book every day for a week while brainstorming community involvement ideas.
Albion College junior and Big Read volunteer, Kyndall Lewis from Albion, said in an email on Sept. 19 that this year’s Big Read experience revolves around “standing up for what is right, even when it might be hard to say/do.”
Following tradition, the kickoff event will be held in Holland Park on Sept. 30 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Roberts said that Holland Park was the site of a formerly segregated elementary, West Ward School. However, community efforts led to its closure and the establishment of an integrated school.
“The black community mobilized to close that school in order to gain access to greater resources for their kids,” Roberts said.
In all, the Big Read is more than discussing a book distributed in free libraries and city halls. As Roberts said, it’s about “loving the people who are with us. It’s showing our joy at being with them and creating.”