March 16, 2018

Coming Together Around a Divided Past | Diversity 2016

Johnson County Public Library, KS

 A public library connects high school and college educators
to build a framework to learn about race


ljx161201webdiversityslugbig2When youth specialist Mary Shortino at the Johnson County Public Library (JCPL), a suburban system near Kansas City, KS, read Tanner Colby’s Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America (Penguin Bks.), she got excited. About a quarter of the book is about Kansas City, where racial real estate covenants first began, and the specialist, who is in her 50s, remembered when the city’s schools were first integrated. Shortino pulled in Angel Tucker, youth services manager of JCPL, and the two went to see Colby speak nearby in Kansas City, MO. Colby’s response to meeting them, says Tucker, was, “ ‘I should’ve come to your library,’ ” and with that, a collaboration was born.

Reaching across the divide

Tucker and her colleagues followed up with Colby, pulled in a local teacher who had used Colby’s book in her sociology course as well as at a local community college, and worked to develop a racial justice curriculum through a grant-funded partnership between local schools and the library, now known as Race Project KC. (Originally called Beyond Skin, it was rebranded to “build a platform so it can scale” to other locations.)

In particular, the initiative connects students and faculty from a predominantly white and affluent high school with students from a predominantly black one, offering “a sincere investigation into the history of racial politics in Kansas City and its schools and how these issues affect us today…by offering multiple opportunities for intentional dialog,” both digitally and in person. The students read the same material and take bus tours of Kansas City neighborhoods. Students from local universities serve as facilitators.

Convening the conversation

An integral part of the success of the curriculum is educator summits, which bring secondary and postsecondary educators together at the JCPL to discuss how to tackle these topics. Says Tucker, “The next step is creating spaces for educators to build curriculum because that’s how you create real change. The library can be the connector. We can provide the space, they can do the work, and we can host the results and pull authors into the conversation,” bringing in writers such as Colby, Jason Reynolds (Ghost, Caitlyn Dlouhy: Atheneum), and Greg Neri (Yummy, Lee & Low) to speak to the students.

FROM WRITER TO READERS (l.–r.): Author Tanner Colby addresses program participants, while students from a Race Project KC bus tour process their impressions together. Photos courtesy of Johnson County PL

FROM WRITER TO READERS (l.–r.): Author Tanner Colby addresses program participants, while students from a Race Project KC bus tour process their impressions together. Photos courtesy of Johnson County PL

While Some of My Best Friends Are Black continues to be a key text, fictional accounts of race and racism are also included, and as the program has evolved, it has added “a counternarrative that allows Kansas City youth the opportunity to tell their stories, react to others’ stories, and break down barriers.”

For other libraries looking to replicate and adapt the program but whose own local history is not chronicled in Some of My Best Friends, other texts can form the basis of the conversation, says Tucker, recommending Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau). Resources from the program are available at

The program is also going beyond books: a local museum hosting an exhibit that speaks to race and the country’s legacy of discrimination—Nick Cave’s “Property”—created a half day program for students to experience the art. The library hopes to expand into younger age groups as well, hosting social justice work for elementary students.

Measuring impact

As to whether the program has lasting impact, one study has already been done that was created by Colby, but the library plans to add its own assessment, asking in January and at the end of the semester how likely participants are to travel to different neighborhoods. In addition, says Tucker, the library plans to work with teachers to develop questions related to outcomes. But teachers and librarians can learn just as much from observing the sessions still in progress, says Tucker, watching “where kids sit and stand, how relationships are forming.”—MS

How To Connect with Teachers

  • Voice-mail first—hearing the voice behind an idea is key
  • Follow up with an email
  • Send a copy of the book(s) with a handwritten note
  • Ask to meet in person. Go to them. (However, once an initiative is working, inviting people to come to the library is crucial)
  • Follow up
  • Be kind
  • Be patient
  • Be organized
  • Teachers are busy— they need our support
  • Focus on electives first— they have more freedom within their curriculum
  • Provide support with articles, discussion questions, class visits, planning of events for extra credit
  • Set the platform up in advance so all a teacher has to do is say yes and use the resources
  • Partner with the author

This article was published in Library Journal's December 1, 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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  1. Mary Shortino says:

    Thanks for the lovely article about Race Project KC! May I add one thing? As librarians we know that it is the web of connections that adds the crucial energy to our most impactful work. It is always with the support of one’s colleagues that the most exciting work is done. Race Project KC has been nurtured every step of the way by Johnson County Library’s Civic Engagement Committee. Ashley Fick, Civic Engagement Librarian and Caitlin Perkins and Brent Wyatt, Information Specialists, have contributed wholeheartedly and their work has been invaluable. It is important that they are recognized here as well. Thanks very much.