UKirk at MSU Students Taking on Issue of Book Deserts

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Emily Joan Elliott for ELi

UKirk at MSU is collecting books to distribute to children in the Greater Lansing area.

Students from UKirk at MSU, a group linking Michigan State University students and Eastminster Presbyterian Church, are setting out to end book deserts in the Greater Lansing area. They held a book drive during the Spring 2021 semester, and now, the project is evolving into something larger, both in East Lansing and elsewhere.

Based on the work of Dr. Molly Ness of Fordham University, the overall End Book Deserts movement hopes to do this by putting books in the hands of children who do not otherwise have access to a significant number of books.

According to Neil Myer, the campus minister for UKirk at MSU, book deserts exist in our area. Only 28 percent of children in Ingham County have access to 100 or more books. 

“That really inspired our students to get this going,” Myer said.

That statistic, as well as inspiration from similar projects around the country, led the students at UKirk to start their own project. Once the students began talking about starting a project, the executive director of the Indy Book Project, which works to get books into the hands of children in Indianapolis, was brought in to talk with them about how to get started.

The pilot book drive in the spring of 2021 was successful and brought in around 900 books. During and after the initial drive, students constructed a deposit box that can be found outside Eastminster Presbyterian Church at 1315 Abbot Road.

UKirk is collecting gently used or new books, particularly books that display diversity, that it can then distribute in the area. Examples can be found on a wishlist on the organization’s website.

“We believe in our campus ministry that our faith, our lived faith, calls us to the work of social justice and equity,” Myer told ELi. “And so we want to put diverse books by diverse authors into the hands of children so that every child can see themselves in stories.”

Claire Benson, a member of UKirk, helped with the diversity aspect. As the Advocacy Executive at UNICEF@MSU, Benson was able to research diversity in children’s literature and the role of children’s literature in culture. 

She shared her research with Myer when he mentioned that he wanted to make sure the books involved in the project were representative of the readers. Specifically, Benson and the rest of UKirk are looking for books with authors or characters that are part of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) Latinx, AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders), LGBTQ+, and disability communities.

“I think that this project is incredibly important because children are very perceptive, and if they are shown more representation in book culture, they will become more generous and informed thinkers,” Benson said.

UKirk hopes to partner with other organizations and schools since those organizations have a better idea of who is in need of books and how to get books to those in need of them. By making more connections in the community, UKirk hopes to be able to continue receiving donations. 

“We want this to be a perpetual project that will keep going because we know the need will not end,” Myer said.

Organizations and individuals can help by holding their own book drives and donating the collected books to UKirk, or they can ship books directly to the same address as the drop box: 1315 Abbot Road. 

The drive also inspired UKirk members like Benson to help their own communities. Benson helped launch a campaign in her hometown to collect books, and it proved to be successful with a total of 3,000 books collected in just the first two weeks.

“I hope to be able to reach out to families in Lansing in the same way and be able to collect as many books as possible,” Benson said.

And for Myer, addressing book deserts is vital to creating opportunities for underserved communities and helping to address systemic issues by both spreading awareness and getting to the root causes. He believes being able to have books to read is important to a child’s education.

“I know how I benefited when I was a child from the stories I would see and to allow my imagination to be connected to stories. And I think children’s books open the imagination, but they also teach us what’s possible in life, and how things can be, and they help us dream,”  Myer said “And so for me to be able to, to be able to put dreams in the hands of children is an important gift.”

This article was updated at 3:40 p.m. on Jan. 5, 2021, to clarify confusing language in the opening sentence.

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