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New kids book makes rallying cry for solidarity and justice

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Fort Wayne native Caroline Brewer has written an engaging new children’s book called Say Their Names, a poetic look at the Black Lives Matter movement.

In the author’s own words, “We're at a point in human history where we need to imagine bigger things for humanity, better, higher ways of being for ourselves and all of humankind.”

With this thoughtful and engaging offering, Brewer hopes to make certain that those lost in this battle are never forgotten.

When WBOI’s Julia Meek heard that Brewer was in town for the week from her current home in Washington DC, she invited her into the studio to discuss the book, and how literacy empowers and amplifies the cause of social justice for the world.

Caroline shares two short excerpts from her book following the conversation.

You can connect with Caroline and pre-order Say Their Names at the author's website.

Julia Meek: Caroline Brewer, welcome.

Caroline Brewer: Thank you so much. I'm really excited about being here.

Julia Meek: You are a fierce literacy activist, which obviously drives your amazing world. Why is that the heart and soul of your core mission?

Caroline Brewer: I just so happen to have met a number of children who are hungry to learn to read and write. And I love seeing them fall in love with themselves when that light bulb goes on, and they get it and they're motivated.

Julia Meek: That's a beautiful love affair, it sounds like, on everybody's part, good for you.

Caroline Brewer: Thank you.

Julia Meek: So what do your educator and especially author roles add to your arsenal, Caroline?

Caroline Brewer: Just every opportunity to engage with children to engage with their parents and teachers really provides invaluable insight into my work as an author and to my work. As a literacy activist, I learned so much about how children think, about how they process information, about the struggles that they have, about the struggles that their parents have, the struggles that teachers have. You know, teachers really recruited me into being a literacy activists, because when I showed up as an author to share a story, they would start talking to me about the challenges they had getting kids to read and write. So we have this common and very powerful bond that inspires everything that I do, and really supports it and keeps me going, because I know I've got a community of people that I'm in relationship with, and they matter. And they tell me that my work matters.

Julia Meek: You're talking gateways and openings, right and left and right and left. That's very, very exciting.

Caroline Brewer: Thank you. Yes, it is.

Julia Meek: So your newest title, Say Their Names, affirms the Black Lives Matter movement in a beautiful, poetic way. It is, in fact, a rallying cry for solidarity and justice How do you manage to make it all work? How do you do your magic to put that together in an impactful and beautiful way?

Caroline Brewer: Well, thank you so much. This story came about because this movement was unfolding before our eyes...was unfolding in downtown DC, where I spend a lot of time so I went to Black Lives Matter Plaza before it was given that name, to really connect with what was happening there, to really be a witness to what was happening in the country. And I went there only to be a part of it in the way that I could at that time. And when I left, all of what I had seen just started to flood my mind and replay itself over and over again. And it came out in a poem. And then as I started to work with the poem and share it with friends and family, I, you know, began to think about the children that I work with so often. And I wondered how they might be seeing and experiencing this movement. And so the story of Say Their Names was born.

Julia Meek: Do you think in poetry, in words, in colors, colorful words?

Caroline Brewer: (chuckles) That's a great question. I hope I do. (laughing) One of the things I know that happens is I am a really sensitive person. And children are very sensitive and thoughtful and imaginative. And so whenever I am thinking about how I'm going to communicate, how I'm going to express myself, I'm thinking about really tapping into my emotions really being as raw as possible, as honest as possible. That's the beauty that we get from children, we get raw honesty. And when you go with that, it will take you to a place that feels right and that other people connect with. So I can definitely say that that happens. And it happens when you talk about the colorfulness of the language, when we are being open and honest and not censoring ourselves. That's where the color comes from.

Julia Meek: And you are a fantastic storyteller. We cannot overlook that magic fact, speaking of the magic in your work, Caroline. So your two big themes in this book, probably in a lot of your life, are love and imagination. Now, what do these look like through a child's perspective, by way of your own, would you say?

Caroline Brewer: Thank you, I grew up in a household where I was deeply loved. I was so supported, there was nothing that I couldn't do,.according to my mother, that certainly was on the side of what was right. I was so supported, so loved. And we know when we're loved--children know when they loved, they know when they're supported. And so growing up in a very loving home--home where I was encouraged constantly to do what I wanted to do, even when it seemed challenging to me or seemed challenging to others gave me a lot of confidence and I've seen that with children in my life, children who were my own children, children who were family members and children that I've taught. W hen they are loved and supported and encouraged, the whole world opens up to them. And so you can imagine when you're in a state of fear, or a state of oppression, it's very difficult to imagine something new, something different, something beautiful. But when you are feeling loved, when you are inspired by love, when you understand the power of love, that just opens up all kinds of possibilities. I see that in children so often. And when we are in the place that we're in now, as a country, where so many things seem to be out of control, turning to what love is, what love looks like--turning to our imaginations to say, Can we imagine a different world? That's where the most powerful movements come from. The most powerful movements for social justice have come from a place of imagining something different, something higher, something deeper, something better, a better way of being human. So that's been my journey, is to be a better human being, to support others and being better human beings. And I know that's where children are coming from. I've had children respond to me--to books I've written--and they've just said, the most remarkable things that I never considered and that many adults won't consider, because they are coming from a place of purity and honesty. And so they are imagining, you know, something different,

Julia Meek: And therefore, they get it.

Caroline Brewer: And therefore, yes, they get it.

Julia Meek: That's fantastic. Now in Say Their Names, there are so many names in that book that are so very, very impactful. Would you be able to share one that particularly impacted you?

Caroline Brewer: Yes, so many names, so many stories connected to those names. The name of Aiyana. Stanley Jones is one that I think is so instructive for all of us. Aiyana was a seven year old little girl living in Detroit, sleeping on a sofa in a duplex when, according to the reports, I read, police threw a grenade into the home because they were there searching for a murder suspect. But this was after midnight, so everyone was asleep. They threw the grenade in, apparently a couch caught fire. Aiyana was sleeping on that couch, she caught fire, a relative went to rescue her and at the same time police were coming in to the front door with their guns drawn and they ended up shooting Aiyana in the head and killing her. And so when I talk about imagination, I'm challenging us. Ayana is challenging us, Alia, in the book, children are challenging us to imagine a different outcome. We know that Aiyana is not the first child to have been killed in a police shooting. But can we imagine a world where she is the last? That's what Say Their Names is asking us to do.

Julia Meek: Thank you for that amazing share. And yes, thank you for once again writing such a book, giving us such an option in such a way to achieve it, Caroline, what a beautiful, beautiful way to do it.

Caroline Brewer: Thank you so much.

Julia Meek: Now a lot of horrors like you just shared, that actually drive your mission to unite and move forward, have driven many people in the opposite direction, Caroline, what's the key to reverse here?

Caroline Brewer: I think the key to reversing what has been happening in this country and around the world is really focusing on the simplicity of ideas that we get from children. And love is a very simple, and we know also a very powerful idea. Love can change things. Love for ourselves, love for one another, love for our neighbors, our friends. It comes to children very simply, it's we adults who make it complicated. And that's why imagination is so important because children inspire us to think differently, to think more creatively. And if we are committed to a world that allows everybody to be safe--as safe as possible--then can't we not imagine that there are so many new technologies that have emerged over the last couple of 100 years in the world--I mean, we're always innovating and creating--well can we not innovate and create with our imaginations, something that works for us as human beings? So those two themes, I think, are very simple. It's not that they're easy, but the commitment to them, and we have seen examples from all around the world, the commitment to love, the commitment to using our imaginations for a better humanity. Those things are very powerful and transformative. And I think that's the only way that we move forward.

Julia Meek: We hope that you're right, Caroline, where would you say we are now in the healing process then?

Caroline Brewer: Thank you Julia, for that question. I think we are in a place Where we need some new fresh ideas. I think we're in a place where we need new conversations. I think we're in a place where we need new commitment. Because when things are in the news day in and day out, it focuses our attention. But then when it's not in the news, people sort of move away on to other things and sort of, you know, become complacent. Because if it doesn't change instantly, or in a few months, they think it's too hard. But life and allowing other people, all people regardless of race, background, age, circumstances, neighborhoods, to walk the streets freely, to sleep in their homes without fear of being shot to death. Those are big ideas that will take time, but more importantly, take a commitment. And so we're in the place where we need to renew our commitment.

Julia Meek: Can we do it?

Caroline Brewer: I believe we can, you know, there's so many examples around the world, even here in the United States of people doing this. And so much of it happens under the radar. If we can't do it, if we decide that we can't do it, then we're doomed, I believe, because this is essential to our humanity. It's essential that we create a world where innocent people are not shot and killed on an almost daily or more often than daily basis.

Julia Meek: Amen to that.

Caroline Brewer: Thank you.

Julia Meek: And where does literacy stand in this equation, as well as in that great big picture?

Caroline Brewer: Thank you for that question. Julia. I think it's so powerful, and people often isolate literacy and compartmentalize it, and they put it in a place where Oh, it's just about what you do in school. But what we know for sure about reading and writing and self expression is that they are essential to how we show up in the world. And one of the things that I've seen happen with so many children, and I'm so grateful that my work as a literacy activist started right here in Fort Wayne. I saw children writing about their lives and overcoming problems that had plagued them for quite some time, I saw children transform from being angry to being happy for the rest of the school year. And you know, a counselor didn't have to step in, a social worker didn't have to step in, the principal didn't have to step in, and heaven forbid, no police officer had to step in. But having the confidence to write, losing the fear about failing as a writer or failing as a reader, transformed these children. And so they became more active and engaged and motivated around their lives, their lives of students, their lives as peers, literacy does that for all of us. When we can express how we feel, when we have confidence in our ability to do that, that's a violence prevention program. There was a psychologist who said, the reason we have violence is because so often there's a communications breakdown. So if we are confident as readers and writers and people who can speak to what's going on, to our frustrations to our hearts, then we have the opportunity to open up channels of communication that can bring about this peace and this justice that we want and need so badly.

Julia Meek: It's the ultimate empowerment then as well as the not so secret, but weapon.

Caroline Brewer: Absolutely. Thank you. I love the way you put that. Yes.

Julia Meek: Now you are an Indiana born daughter of an Alabama storyteller you'd like to say, hoping to be as good at it as she is one day. So between nature and nurture, what are the biggest ways she has influenced your work?

Caroline Brewer: So many ways my mother has influenced my work! This storyteller thing though, I didn't recognize it until after I'd written my first book and it was years later. My first children's book was called Kara Finds Sunshine on a Rainy Day. I wrote it after 911. It happened to be something of a, of a survey, a poetic survey of a lot of major crises that had happened in the world and not just 911. And it's provided these vignettes about how people like Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi responded to these major events, but also how some children responded to Hurricane Katrina. And at the end of it the story talks about a rainy day. And so this little girl is very upset because she wants to go outside and play but it's raining. So she's just complaining to her mother and then her mother starts to talk to her about how important rain is and how rain makes things grow. But also that we have the power to create sunshine in our lives, even on rainy days. And those are the kinds of stories that my mother would tell me. I was an impatient little girl, I would sometimes jump up and down and complain about what was going on. And my mother would tell me stories. She would not, you know, necessarily chastise me, although there were times where she lost patience with me, and she might say, go sit down, you know, do this or do that. But so often, it was the stories that helped me to think about what was going on in my life in a different way. And so I am now doing that as a way of life, as a way of communicating with friends and family members, I'm turning to stories. And I think stories can help save us.

Julia Meek: And it's also a way you work your magic Caroline, do you realize that?

Caroline Brewer: (Chuckles) Well thank you for saying that, Julia. I don't think it's my magic alone. I think it's our magic as human beings. So many people are really good at sharing stories that help us to think about our challenges differently, that allow us to use our imaginations. And so I am following in their footsteps as I am in my mother's footsteps.

Julia Meek: And how do you feel you are directly paying that forward with the kids that you reach-- adults too?

Caroline Brewer: Thank you. Yes, it's just been an organic experience, where as I said, I've seen children transformed. One of the first children to hear Kara Finding Sunshine on a Rainy Day was a 12 year old boy in a group home for abused and neglected children. I didn't know him, I didn't know that was his story, but counselors called me later to say, We want you to know that 12 year old Miles has written a letter that said you changed his life around and I got that letter. Then I offered to be Miles' mentor. So I was his mentor for the next eight months. But seeing children fall in love with themselves has compelled me to agree to tutor any child whose parent comes to me. And I give out lots and lots of free books, I've given out more than $50,000 on my own, of free books over the last 15 years or so. I am always open to supporting children, supporting teachers supporting parents. And that's the way I pay it forward.

Julia Meek: And that's a gift that keeps on giving to you and everyone else in your world, Caroline.

Caroline Brewer: Yes, yes, thank you, Julia.

Julia Meek: So this story, as well as your own encourages everyone to use their voices to ensure that those last are never forgotten. What are the next best steps you recommend right here and now for that?

Caroline Brewer: Thank you. The next steps, I think, for all of us, is to keep the conversation going--to talk to our friends, to talk to our family members, to talk to our neighbors, our co workers about what it means to imagine a different world where no one has to die in a police shooting, no one who's committed a crime. And even if we think they've committed a crime, we live in a country where they're supposed to be presumed innocent before and by the time that they are taken to trial. And so that should not mean that they end up dead. There are just too many instances where that happens. So how do we talk to one another about what that world looks like and how we can get there in our own communities first, and then in communities around the world?

Julia Meek: I do wonder, Caroline, your spirit is amazing, as is your message and your game plan's pretty good, too. But these are some overwhelming, uphill, terribly discouraging battles. Does it ever seem hopeless to you? And if it does, where do you turn for uplift and inspiration?

Caroline Brewer: Well, it never seems hopeless to me. It has not gotten to that point. I certainly have felt discouraged. I've felt frustrated, I felt a sense of deep pain and anguish over where we are now. Because even after all of those protests that took place, things have not changed a whole lot in terms of the number of people who are shot and killed each year by police. Things have not changed very much in terms of the attitudes that Americans have. I saw a poll just yesterday, day before, that said the views were so divergent in terms of political parties, and whether or not they felt police were generally handling incidents like this well, or they weren't. So we have a lot of work to do and where I turn, I turn to so many places. I have a lot of wonderful friends who are also deeply spiritual people. So that's an important part of my life and what drives me. I read a lot of philosophers, I read as much history as I can, and having been a journalist, I know that there are so many stories of people overcoming huge challenges for humanity that we don't hear about often, you know, it's not on the news day in and day out. So if we are to live, Jesse Jackson was famous for saying keep hope alive, keep hope alive, but I held an event with a minister, Reverend Gregory Jackson in Hackensack, New Jersey, when the first book came out and his message was, Hope keeps USalive. And I found that to be true. Children need hope. And we need hope. And if we are alive, we can imagine another world.

Caroline Brewer: And thank you for being able to verbalize it, Caroline, because that's what's gonna get us there.

Caroline Brewer: Thank you.

Julia Meek: So what's next on your drawing slash writing board?

Caroline Brewer: Thank you, Julia, for that question. There is a lot happening! I'm in the process of closing another book deal with Charles Bridge Publishing Company. You'll like this because of your work around Folktales. It's a 21st century folk tale, so I am very excited about that. It's a mix of African culture and American culture. And I'm working on a follow up to Darius Daniels Game On, which was released just before COVID, but it is going like gangbusters. There's a book club in New Jersey with more than 100 students who are reading the book now,1` we're going to have a celebration next month. So I'm working on the follow up to that book.

Julia Meek: Well, it sounds like we are going to have several more conversations in the fairly near future about all of these wonderful, wonderful projects. Best of luck, of course, on all of them. And before I let you go, since it's no secret that you love sharing your powerful words directly with the kids you write them for, what does all of this--all of this--do for you.

Caroline Brewer: What it does for me is I wake up every day excited about what's next and what I can do to support children and parents and teachers. We are all in this together. We need one another and their responses to my work really inspire me, you know, going all the way back to 12 year old Myles, who was so deeply affected by a picture book that it changed his life around, in his words. I'm always looking for the next Myles out there, and they always show up--little boys, little girls. I've even had grandparents tell me how a children's picture book has affected them. So all of that is just food for my soul.

Julia Meek: Fort Wayne native Caroline Brewer is literary activist, educator and author of Say Their Names. Caroline, your story of your storytelling is absolutely amazing. Thank you so much for sharing it and do carry the gift.

Caroline Brewer: Thank you, Julia, I really appreciated being here today.

Julia Meek: And this is Caroline Brewer reading an excerpt from her new book, Say Their Names.

Caroline Brewer: Mama said, good people come in every hue. So I asked we the people, what we gonna do? Come on and say their names. I see you and you see me, from shoulder to shoulder, from Sea to Sea. Let's breathe in justice. Let's breathe out peace--from the north to the south. From the west to the east. Come on, and say their names.

And one more: Let's perfume the planet. Let's say their names. Let rivers of love wash away this pain, love for our oneness we loudly proclaim, come on and say their names.

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.