Women of Wednesday: Kristen Williams on Representation, Celebrating Diversity, and the Importance of a Welcoming Space

WOMEN OF WEDNESDAY is a micro-interview series featuring women of color in various industries and walks of life, focused on highlighting their pursuits and making it easy for readers to support their endeavors. If you would like to be featured, please submit your answers to the below five questions here.

Kristen Williams, 28, Community Storyteller (Louisville)

1. Tell us about the work you’re doing and why it’s important.

My husband Agyei and I share multicultural stories with children. We do this by selling new and used books featuring main characters of color or other marginalized groups, performing plays, and leading story-themed children’s programming. We started this work in order to have fun with kids and teach them to celebrate diversity, but when our son was born the work took on a whole new meaning. It became an opportunity to share wonderful, humanized characters that reflect him. In a world where black children are criminalized and overly diagnosed with learning and behavior disorders, I knew that we would have to be intentional about teaching him who he truly was and sharing that message with the world.

It is imperative that children form a worldview that is inclusive and diverse. Marginalized children in particular must be given materials that reflect their lives and potential. The stories we hear create the framework for what we believe is possible. Marginalized children must know that anything is possible for them too.

2. What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in pursuing the work that’s important to you?

We have found the literature and children’s programming available for children of color and other marginalized children to be greatly lacking. There are few places where these children can go to find positive, adventurous, magical stories that envision someone who looks like them as the main character. In a survey of 2,000 educators by the literacy nonprofit, First Book, 90 percent “agreed that the children in their programs would be more enthusiastic readers if they had access to books with characters, stories and images that reflect their lives and their neighborhoods.” However, according to a 2012 study from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, in a survey of 3,600 books for children: 3.3 percent of them were about African-Americans, 2.1 percent of them were about Asian-Pacific Americans, 1.5 percent were about Latinos, 0.6 percent were about Native Americans.

3. What do you need in order to continue your work in the way you envision?

It is not just about the delight kids get out of being represented in books, but about the interest they take in reading and the way we are teaching them to see themselves. 70 years after Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s doll test we are still seeing children who hold disdain for their bodies in relation to whiteness, or who characterize blackness with negative traits. We want children to grow up knowing that they don’t hold a supporting role in this world but that they are main characters! We want them to know the world belongs to them and anything is possible!

We have collected thousands of books, purchased seating and bookcases, and are saving all that we can for this business. It is our mission to open a child-friendly bookstore and coffee shop in our community, west Louisville, KY. The biggest challenge we face right now is the purchase of a storefront. This area is largely African American and families here deserve spaces that are intergenerational, intersectional, and welcoming! Currently there are only a handful of places you can patronize in west Louisville and be welcomed to sit down. Sometimes it can feel like you are unwelcome in your own community.

4. Where and how can we support you to make #3 happen?

It goes back to playing a supporting role or being cast as the main character. We must create space for ourselves and invest in each other. Blackberry Books and Coffee is changing the narrative. We serve to bring stories of the marginalized to the center in full color and culture. That is why we have asked the community and anyone who believes in the need for this space to support our GoFundMe page. We need funding to match with our savings and purchase a property in West Louisville. We are applying for grants, raising money via GoFundMe and asking for community support.

5. What is your favorite quote?

“If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” — Ellen Johnson Sirleaf