The Mary Ann Key Book Club uses reading to catalyze conversation on systemic racism, discrimination, and other forms of bias that affect marginalized communities. Each season, the Mary Ann Key book club selects a book title, organizes community events — often including the author — and gives residents the tools to form their own discussion groups. This collaboration between Hennepin County Library, Friends of the Hennepin County Library, and the Star Tribune is cultivating a metro-wide community of people who want to read, learn, talk, and listen.
Programming and events are built around the ambition to create a better, broader understanding of current and historic injustices, while ceding power within these conversations to those directly affected by racism and discrimination. The Mary Ann Key book club is named after partner and Star Tribune columnist Myron Medcalf’s great-great-great grandmother, who was enslaved in Georgia in the 1850s.
Each reading season includes community conversations facilitated by a local leader as well as a community panel discussion. These panels center the perspectives of individuals from marginalized communities who share their lived experiences and reflections in connection with the book.
“I loved the shared experience of reading and listening,” one participant told us. “Most of the time, my insights are a private experience. It has been so enriching to read something within a community and hear so many others weigh in on this book and ground it in our state and the greater Twin Cities area, a place we all can see is not immune to systemic racism, but at ground zero."
Following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, there was an outpouring of desire among Twin Cities residents to educate themselves about the area’s history of racist practices and learn how to support positive change. In December 2020, Star Tribune columnist Myron Medcalf wrote a column titled “How can Minnesotans face the truth about racism, past and present? Start with a book.” Medcalf shared a vision for a book club where readers would engage together in learning about our state and nation’s history of race and racism and its current impacts. Within days, he received more than 1,500 emails expressing interest.
In response, HCL launched the Mary Ann Key (MAK) Book Club with columnist Myron Medcalf in February 2021 with a goal to grow and support a community of residents interested in learning and taking action to combat racism. HCL supports broad participation through no-wait access to title selections. Residents can participate by reading, forming a discussion group, joining a community conversation, attending author events and community panel discussions. A newsletter provides reflection prompts, engaging video and written content and resources for further learning.
Program events amplify the perspectives of community leaders impacted by bias and discrimination. For example, our fall 2022 season featured Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong. At our community panel discussion, four Asian American leaders shared their experiences, highlighted their work to advance equity in our community and offered entry points for readers wondering how to take action in their daily lives.
In the next three seasons, more than 1,650 residents attended events, and book club title selections circulated 9,188 times. Our program newsletter – which shares video content and articles by Myron Medcalf and panelists as well as links to resources, organizations and further reading – currently engages more than 2,900+ subscribers.
The following quotes highlight the impact on participants:
“As an Asian American person,” one participant told us, “it was soul-supporting to see four Asian American people talking about a book written by another Asian American person. It made me feel seen and empowered to reach out to be part of an Asian American community in the Twin Cities.”
“I have a son we adopted from Korea,” another participant wrote. “This wonderful book, Mr. Medcalf's comments and articles, the author, and the panelists really made me think. I realize how many times I didn't support him or validate his experience when he felt something was racist or was hurt by something growing up. It makes me want to learn more and take responsibility for my behavior and change for the better.”
Contact: Ali Turner, email@example.com, Hennepin County Library Community Engagement Manager
“TESTIFY: American from Slavery to Today” ran from February 1 until March 29, 2023. TESTIFY was, first and foremost, an impactful exhibit of art and artifacts from the personal collection of Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and his family, which showed at the Cargill Gallery, Minneapolis Central Library. The exhibit confronted a record number of viewers, many of whom traveled from across the state or from neighboring states, with the historical reality of race in America. As Justice Page explains, “Our hope, in creating the exhibit, was that by shining a light on our country’s past we could learn to better understand the racial divide of the present. At the same time we hoped to illuminate a path to a brighter future, highlighting the strength, persistence, and resilience of the African-American community.”
From the start, both the Library and our partners knew that we didn’t want the exhibit to feel like a static experience. In 2018, when the exhibit first showed at Minneapolis Central, participants were encouraged to reflect on the experience. They expressed rage, sadness, and feelings of wanting to repair the damage done. For that reason, we designed a robust suite of programs for the TESTIFY 2023. Our main program was TESTIFY Tuesdays. For TESTIFY Tuesdays, we designed a series of 2-hour workshops, wherein participants would learn about advocacy opportunities around a specific topic (i.e. voting rights, immigration, police reform) from an invited non-partisan non-profit organization. This was followed by guided writing exercises, led by teaching artists from The Loft Literary Center, plus partnered learning and group share-outs. By the end of the session, participants will have learned more about a topic from a trusted resource, learned the importance of telling their own personal story as a tool for change advocacy, and were connected with resources that would allow them to stay connected with work happening in that week’s focus area at the local and legislative levels.
The TESTIFY Tuesdays workshops culminated in a Storytelling Slam the final week of the program. This program was held in the Pohlad Auditorium at Minneapolis Central Library. It featured invited performers, in addition to TESTIFY Tuesday participants who had workshopped their story to the point where they felt ready to present it onstage. The event was an emotionally cathartic success and a reminder of the importance of testimony.
TESTIFY Tuesdays proved to be so successful and well-received that we are currently in the planning stages to adapt the format for a more permanent program series promoting civic engagement and advocacy.
Libraries are seen as trusted partners when it comes to information literacy. We’ve increasingly seen community members grapple with misinformation and bias. Simultaneously, the murder of George Floyd in our community, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, attacks on the democratic process, and a political focus on removing books or historical facts from educational curriculums have all combined to increase a feeling of hopelessness, division, or socio-political apathy among our patrons. TESTIFY participants, in their written reactions to the exhibit, echoed a sentiment that residents felt at a loss for how to meaningfully affect positive change and were looking to the Library for support.
By partnering with organizations well-versed in the legislative process and who were trustworthy, presented accurate information, and who offered meaningful pathways to participation, TESTIFY Tuesdays provided participants with the resources needed to be more informed and more involved in areas that interested them. By presenting research on the importance of personal testimony in creating a persuasive argument, the program removed the perceived barrier that one must be an expert in a topic for their voice to matter. Finally, by partnering with teaching artists from The Loft, we were able to generate and polish personal testimonies using prompts and workshop tactics. In many cases, participant testimonies were voluntarily shared with organizations or elected officials where they may have an impact, and in a few cases, were courageously shared onstage at our Storytelling Slam.
We collected feedback from all participants, which indicated a universally favorable response to the programming series, a desire to see more of this type of offering from the Library, and encouraging responses that participants felt both more likely to meaningfully participate in civic engagement and political advocacy as well as more capable of doing so. As a result, we plan to expand this program model beyond TESTIFY and into an ongoing offering in our system.
Contact: Ali Turner, firstname.lastname@example.org, Hennepin County Library Community Engagement Manager