Inspired by a Netflix series “Bookmarks” with famous celebrities of color reading books about people of color for children, Rev. Jenny Hirst – with the support of the ministry team at Collister United Methodist Church – set out to do something similar in Boise, Idaho.
“It started with just me and my iPhone,” said Hirst, who is also a tutor at Taft Elementary in Boise.
It has since grown into a multi-faceted storytelling and hands-on art lesson supported by multiple community partners called “Turning Pages.” And it is now being used by 12 of the most diverse, low-income schools in Boise to showcase Black, Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) telling stories about people of color.
Not only are the people on camera telling the story, but Hirst said the church was adamant, as it works to understand and dismantle systemic racism and de-centering themselves as the story, that the person behind the camera be a person of color as well.
Using grants from the Oregon-Idaho Conference Committee on Religion and Race as well as the Peace with Justice committee, Hirst hired a young, entrepreneurial videographer to record and edit the first four episodes of the series (there will be 12 in all).
“Without those two grants and first four episodes, [Turning Pages] wouldn’t have had the momentum,” Hirst said.
Hirst reached out to other UMCs in the valley as well as the interfaith community and was floored with the adamant “yes!” she received from everyone. Nonprofits like Idaho for Business Education and Storyfort (a division of the Treefort Music Festival) have also stepped up to provide financial resources and marketing support to get this project off the ground.
The team secured a YouTube channel and has provided reading kits to all 12 of the participating elementary schools in Boise, with a lot of the books being purchased at the local bookstore, Rediscovered Bookshop.
With connections to Boise State University and their elementary education program, Hirst said students in the elementary art program there developed art curriculum to go along with each book reading. The art projects utilize simple materials that can be found in existing classrooms or hopefully at home for many of the students who might still be doing distance learning.
“The ripple effect has been insane and amazing,” Hirst said. “It’s all about elevating BIPOC leaders in Boise who are sharing their stories and talking about their heroes and then reading a book.”
Guest readers include R-Jay Barsh, assistant coach for Boise State men’s basketball team reading the book “Kia the Queen” by John Gaines. Fowzia Adan, a representative from the Islamic Center of Boise and BSU student in public health will read the book “The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family” by Ibtihaj Muhammad.
“It’s just the spirit,” Hirst said. “You are just running to stay after what’s developing.”
Episodes started dropping on the Turning Pages YouTube channel in the beginning of February and Hirst said new ones will be published every two weeks until April or May, when they become weekly before the end of the school year.
Tim Lowe, principal at Taft Elementary, said nearly one third of their students are English Language Learners, the majority of which are refugees from central Africa or the Middle East. He thinks Taft teachers are already doing a good job of addressing the issues of race, diversity and inclusion, but that the Turning Pages project is becoming a powerful tool in their toolbox with local BIPOC leaders lifting more BIPOC voices.
“[The students] probably see the readers as special people, but I’m hoping they find them a little more accessible because they are from our community,” he said. “In the end, I want to ‘normalize’ conversations around race, diversity and inclusion.”