diversity through books diversity through books

Traverse City Area Public Schools is beginning to diversify its population, beginning with books. It all started with one student’s petition.

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Small Michigan towns are often described as quaint destinations, beloved and appreciated by Michiganders. Traverse City is among them.

This community is changing the narrative on small town life. A mostly homogenous community, Traverse City is taking a big leap toward embracing diversity and they are doing it through books.

US Census Bureau data show that Traverse City’s population was about 93% white as of July 2019. In the same year, Black, Latino, and Asian residents made up about 2%, 1.5%, and 3% of the city’s total population, respectively.

“It’s a predominantly white area, so, in my [high school graduating] class, I can only think of a handful of nonwhite students, and [I had] all white teachers,” said 23-year-old Ashley Ko, whose military family moved around a lot, eventually making the northern Michigan town home. “I consider it my hometown, and I feel I have personal connections there and can speak to personal experience of being a nonwhite student in that environment,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of misconceptions that race and racism doesn’t impact northern Michigan.”

Ko, who is Korean American, graduated from TCAPS, the Traverse City Area Public Schools. She says she began to reflect on her high school education as civil unrest developed across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis Police. 

She felt inspired to lead TCAPS could do more to embrace diversity. She did it through literacy.

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Small Changes, Big Impact

Initially, Ko started a petition asking TCAPS to diversify its school curriculum to include more stories of and by people of color.

“Among my classmates, it was well received,” she said of the petition. “And it had the support of the new superintendent, Dr. VanWagoner. He’s really passionate about these changes and talked a lot to me about his support.”

Local author Jillian Manning saw Ko’s petition and wanted to help.

While the newly-installed TCAPS superintendent works to update the curriculum that has been received with mixed support in the area, Ko, Manning, and the school system’s librarians began their own push for school diversity; starting with books.

“We started brainstorming,” Manning told 9&10 News Cadillac. “I’m a former book editor and a current children’s author, and so we thought books are a great way to get stories into the hands and lives of kids.”

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Together with Brilliant Books, their online book fair is centering stories by and about people of color.

Twenty-five percent of the proceeds from each book purchased from the digital fair goes to the TCAPS librarians’ efforts to diversify their own titles.

“We’ve done virtual book fairs before,” said Caitlin Marsh, Brilliant Books director of digital marketing and events. “This time we wanted to get a little bit bigger, and do something for the entirety of TCAPS and so all their libraries could benefit.

“It was something that the entirety of TCAPS and their library system definitely wanted to get involved with. It wasn’t just something that one school or one classroom was getting, but something as a district they really wanted to embrace.”

Ko speaks positively of the collaboration.

“They’ve been really supportive and excited to help us out,” Ko said of Brilliant Books’ involvement. “I’m really excited to see this launch.”

Click here to purchase books through TCAPS digital book fair.

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