Where We Are Now – and Where We Go From Here

by Ginger Young, Executive Director

As I write this, we are wonderfully close to welcoming in 2021. I have spent time this week reflecting on 2020 – a year in which even the smallest tasks became exercises in adaptation and contortion, blanketed with a constant mist of uncertainty and anxiety.

As ever, extreme circumstances yield the opportunity for new insights – and, at least on that front, this year delivered spectacularly. I am closing out our 2020 blog with a few of those insights on where we are and where we are going in the new year.

Around midnight every night, historian Heather Cox Richardson posts another installment of “Letters from an American”, a daily news roundup and reflection that greets me (and her hundreds of thousands of other subscribers) when I awake. Her latest post plus a cup of coffee are always the very first parts of my day.

The beginning of her entry from December 3rd has continued to haunt me since I first read it:

One of my children asked me once if people living through the Great Depression understood just how bad their era would look to historians. I answered that, on the whole, I thought not. People are focused on what’s in front of them: finding work, feeding their kids, trying to keep it together, making it through the day. It’s only when historians look back to gauge an era that they put the full picture together.

So for those who cannot see it: we are in one of the most profound crises of American history.

Sobering words, for sure.

I am aware every day of how little I am able to put the full picture together in the midst of this crisis. Though this full picture may be elusive (and perhaps that is a good thing, since grasping the full picture might make everything feel insurmountable), I am humbled by the glimpses I get of the strength and resolve of parents who are, across our country, moving mountains every day to keep their kids, first and foremost, safe, healthy, and fed, and, second, learning and growing.

The second is a very, very tall order when survival is the first order of each day. That we at Book Harvest can assist, even in tiny ways, in the essential work of keeping kids learning and growing is an immense privilege that I hope I never lose sight of, in good times as well as bad. Helping a young reader feel the joy of finding her next favorite book, or equipping a parent with a delightful board book that enables cozy bedtime stories with his baby: these are our why.

And sometimes the difference these efforts make is profound and lasting.

Meeting parents where they are with books and literacy support matters more now than it ever has. How we do that is something that, ten full months into this crisis, I am still learning to do, alongside my staff colleagues, every day. Nothing about our work right now is rote – in the abstract, I find that surprising. In practice, it feels obvious; it is necessary and so compelling during this bizarre time to continue to pilot new approaches alongside the tried and true, to fulfill our mission of providing books and literacy support in ways that are both established and pioneering.

So, even as I am troubled by the likelihood that I am not at this moment grasping the full scope of this crisis we are in, I am buoyed by the ways we have thought differently in 2020. Here are some of the phrases that live on post-it notes on the wall of my home office and that guide me every day:

Keep learning alive with books
Keep parents connected
Books for every child, support for every parent
Learning happens everywhere
Literacy starts at birth
Books build brains
Proximity, proximity, proximity

What unifies these phrases? The superpower behind each of these is PARENTS. In point of fact, parents have always been the superpowers; but we are now collectively seeing that reality in a way that we never have and with a depth of understanding that we have never felt before – and that, with any luck, we will not un-see after Covid resolves.

Here is a photo I snapped outside a school on the last week of the school year in 2019; this message felt relevant in the moment, appearing as it was on the cusp of summer, but it turned out to be prophetic as well:

This is NOT to suggest that teachers are not central to learning right now – yes, they are! AND parents are truly the first responders to their children’s educational, social, and emotional needs because of their proximity to their children. How fortunate is it that these first responders are also the ones who know their children the best and love them the most?

And there is a sensational silver lining here, a once-in-a-generation opportunity. As Sonja Brookins Santelises, CEO of Baltimore Public Schools, wrote in Education Week last month, “our actions in this unprecedented moment could do much more to dismantle inequity than to exacerbate it.” I could easily quote her entire amazing article “Parents Are Watching Like Never Before. ‘Trust Us’ Isn’t Enough” (you can and should read it here), but just to excerpt a bit more in hopes that I can share with you my sense of the potency of this moment:

COVID-19 has blown the doors off our schools and the walls off our classrooms. It has Zoomed educators into homes and parents into classrooms, providing the transparency that parents have long deserved. No longer are our practices hidden behind doors or buried in the pages of policy and collective bargaining agreements; they are now in full view on a screen. And our parents are watching.

Let’s, together, start 2021 ready to make the most of this opportunity to forge a new normal that repairs longstanding inequities – one that lifts up parents and that at long last earns their trust and gives them a valued place at the table.

SO much is possible for our children if we can just get this right. There’s never been a better or more consequential time to dream big, to stretch further, to challenge our old ways. We owe our kids that much – and more.

Both the near and far horizons are brighter. I end this final blogpost of 2020 with a profound sense of renewed hope, for all that we have learned and all that we can do. Today, however, I wish everyone in the Book Harvest family a safe, healthy, and book-filled new year!

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