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University of Minnesota Duluth ‘co-conspirators’ target racist literature

Students, faculty and staff work to challenge library shelves and transform children’s literature one book at a time.

Woman checks book.
Meghan Hesterman pulls a children’s book from a shelf in the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Kathryn A. Martin Library on Thursday, March 17. Hesterman is active in the efforts of UMD’s Antiracist Literary Advisory Board to reduce racist representations in children's books.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Some members of University of Minnesota Duluth staff and faculty — self-proclaimed “co-conspirators” — aim to strip libraries of racist representation in children's books with the help of students.

The Antiracist Literary Advisory Board, also known as the “A-LAB,” was created by UMD elementary education assistant professor Suki Mozenter in August 2020.

The board aims to analyze literature in elementary classrooms and replace books that include inappropriate and racist representations with inclusive, authentic stories, language and imagery.

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The A-LAB group holds their picture book choices to place in the Kathryn A. Martin Library.
Contributed / Lissa Maki

"The children's collection at the (Kathryn A. Martin) library (at UMD) currently holds several problematic texts and it doesn't reflect the racial diversity we'd like to see in a children's literature collection. So, rather than just talking about the importance of representation, let's do something about it,” Mozenter said.

Twenty students and three other education faculty and staff members, Insoon Han, Kayleen Jones and Ariri Onchwari, gathered teacher candidates to review library collections at local elementary schools and the Kathryn A. Martin Library.

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Students identify problematic books and either replace them or display a cautionary sign with commentary explaining its harmful representation.

"Most people think we can't do anti-racism work with children. We can do it through babies," Ariri Onchwari, associate professor of unified early childhood studies, said."Children need to understand color when they are concrete thinkers.”

On the third floor of the Kathryn A. Martin Library, the children’s literature section tucked in the back-right corner displays a variety of picture and fiction books. Among them is a Dr. Seuss section.

Sign by books.
A note that books written by authors whose surnames start with “A” are being reviewed for racist content sits on a bookshelf in UMD’s Kathryn A. Martin Library on Thursday, March 17, 2022.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Alongside Dr. Seuss’ many books was “If I Ran the Zoo,” one of six books that ceased publication in March 2021 for racist and insensitive images, according to the Associated Press.

“If I Ran a Zoo” includes an illustration of two African men barefoot, wearing grass-like skirts, with their hair tied above their heads. Their faces have a monkey-like appearance, creating a dehumanizing image.

"The books you give them, who is there? The kids that look like them, and those kids that don't look like them (white children), what are they doing? Are they being stereotyped?” Onchwari said. “They are little, but they are subtly getting those messages.”

Each student in the A-LAB works on a project to actively inspire immediate change to the shelves.

Meghan Hesterman, second-year unified early childhood studies major, partnered with Laitzia Yang to conduct a universitywide survey asking UMD students about their personal experiences with children’s books. With that data, they will present implicit biases and under representation to educational leaders in the community.

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A-LAB students analyze children's books in the Kathryn A. Martin Library.
Contributed / Lissa Maki

“Sometimes these presentations in professional development can seem like a check-the-box kind of a thing and we don’t want it to be like that,” Hesterman said. “Antiracism isn’t an extra component. It should be integrated into what you’re already doing.”

Hesterman said one of her goals is for students to become aware of antiracist teaching methods and advocate for diversity in the classroom.

“Young kids are just little sponges and books are like this window into worlds and communities that they may not have access to,” Hesterman said.

Hesterman’s partner in the project and fourth-year biology major, Yang, said she’s become a social activist during her time in college, which drew her to apply to be a part of A-LAB.

“When I was younger I didn’t feel represented in books,” Yang said.

When Yang read children's picture books, she longed for the blonde hair and blue eyes white characters presented, causing her to lose a sense of worth and identity for the majority of her life.

“It made me feel ashamed, I always thought, ‘Why do they not like us? Why am I different? Is there something wrong with me?’ It sounds so weird to say now, but I was just thinking: ‘I wish I was white. Why was I born Hmong?’” Yang said.

Representation acknowledges the existence of nonwhite students, Yang added, and contributes to a sense of self.

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Laitzia Yang, fourth-year biology and education student, holds up her book choice to put into the Kathryn A. Martin Library for a more authentic representation of nonwhite students.
Abigael Smith / Duluth News Tribune

Hesterman, Yang and Mozenter agreed that targeting children’s literature is essential in addressing racially insensitive stereotypes, and establishing a sense of belonging is crucial to early childhood development.

“We are responsible for showing them what’s out there because they have a limited view of the world and society in early elementary grades,” Hesterman said. “They’re just learning about other people, cultures, communities, society, their role in social groups and their identity. If you don’t have representation, stereotypes develop.”

“Topics like this are supposed to be uncomfortable,” Yang said. “It is a learning experience of what we can do better and how we can advance our community.”

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Abigael Smith is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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