Urging more boys of color into a world of reading

Male mentors encourage a "hunt for wisdom"

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By Cassandra West

As a library board member, Christian Harris champions reading and readers. He especially wants to see more young boys experience the kinds of pleasure and discoveries he finds in books.

Reading wasn't always easy for him, though. His early experiences were frustrating. "Reading initially was pretty difficult for me," he admits. Around the time he was in the second or third grade, he was struggling with comprehension.

Luckily, his family found a reading specialist "who sat down with me and made sure I understood everything," says Harris, 27, an Oak Park and River Forest High School grad and local business owner. Once words on the page began to click for him, he began devouring the Harry Potter series. That turned into a competition with his friends over who could read a Potter book the fastest.

"It was important that I got that comprehension down because in school you have to read so much," Harris says. 

"It's easy to get frustrated and think you're dumb" when you have reading challenges, he adds. And, in a lot of cases, children give up on reading and miss all of its benefits.

That seems more true for boys, as indicated by gender disparities in school reading scores. In both Districts 90 and 97, boys significantly lag girls in reading by the time they reach third grade. 

Nationwide, research shows that students who do not read proficiently by the end of 3rd grade are four times more likely than proficient readers to drop out of high school. That fact alone when combined with other research on the importance of early literacy skills has intensified the focus on improving 3rd-grade reading proficiency, according to an Education Commission of the States report.

Disparity in reading scores is also pretty well divided by race, Harris says. For him, that's a concern and a cause he has taken up. He and several other African American adult males in June launched a monthly mentoring event built around reading and exploration aimed at boys in grades kindergarten through 12, though anyone is welcome. 

The events take place at the Oak Park Library's main branch on the third Saturday each month. Organizers named it Zingela Ulwazi, a Zulu phrase that means "hunt for wisdom."

"We wanted to have a series of events where minority men show up and youth of color can see men are interested in reading and interested in investing in them as well," Harris says.

The program has the support of Success of All Youth (SAY) and its executive director Linda Francis. "As I looked at challenges we had around literacy, particularly with respect to boys and even more particularly with respect to boys of color, one of the things it was important to address was the need for them to see other men of color promoting this [effort]," Francis says.

Both Francis and Harris want the still-evolving Zingela Ulwazi to be a sustainable and community-based approach to encouraging reading. "Not just reading for the sake of raising test scores," Francis says. "But reading for community and cultural basis—the hunt for wisdom."

About 20 or so mostly elementary school-age boys (some girls and parents, too) have been showing up. Francis says the mentors decided to go with the popular Black Panther comic book series and movie as a theme for the summer events. The program will be retooled for fall, she says. 

At the July meeting, Mark Willis, an OPRF alum who plays a warrior in the blockbuster "Black Panther" movie, did a dramatic reading then talked with the group about the importance of reading. Other activities get folded in to broaden the experience around four categories: arts & culture, social justice, geography & language, and science & technology, Harris says. Participants have designed letters from the Wakadan alphabet and done some 3D printing.

Another Zingela Ulwazi mentor is Doug Dixon, a community leader who works with local groups on bridging social/cultural divides. He hopes that over time the young wisdom hunters come away with a deeper love of reading and a love of learning. "It's a good thing to put an image in the minds of young men in the community that black men are engaged in social justice, technology and education issues and it's not necessarily uncool to think and read," he says.

As for library board member Harris, he wants to see more black youth checking out more books. He thinks that because of tablet and smartphones, kids today are probably already reading a lot of words. It shouldn't be that hard to get them engaged with literature that will benefit and stimulate them intellectually, he says. 

"If we can just shift that and get them to read books, it would good for the community" and their social and civic development as well.

SIDEBAR 1: Never stop reading to your kids

SIDEBAR 2: Like slime? Here's a book about it

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY). 

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