Social work professor initiates social justice book club
It was an innocent question from her 3-year-old son that prompted Paola Leon to start a children's book club that focuses on social justice topics.
Leon, associate professor of social work, said she and her husband routinely read to their son, who is now 6. When he was 3, Leon said her son began to point out the skin color of the family members in the books.
"I am from Peru and my husband is Canadian. Our son's skin tone is lighter, like his dad's," Leon explained. "Our son wasn't seeing biracial families represented in the stories. He could point out a child he identified with in a picture, but the mom with that child didn't match me. He would ask where I was or why I was with the other child."
Leon was familiar with a children's book club in East Lansing that she said offers a "gentle introduction to hard topics" and she decided to spearhead something similar in Grand Rapids.
She formed a monthly book club called Social Justice Begins With Me, which meets at the Grand Rapids Public Library and is a partnership between the library and Grand Valley's School of Social Work.
It is designed for children ages 4-11 and explores social justice topics with a different theme each month. Past themes have included poverty and hunger, racial justice and prejudice against older adults.
Leon involves undergraduate students from her social work courses who, using a social justice framework, analyze the books and help develop materials for the library program.
She said while not every book is perfect, the stories give children the opportunity to learn and parents some tools that are developmentally appropriate.
"Because of my social work background and my work in human rights, I’m very aware of the developmental stages of children," she said. "In this program, we can bring it all together and give parents tools to know what is developmentally appropriate for a child at a certain age. For example, you can talk to a 6- or 7-year-old in the context of fair and unfair, they tend to understand concepts like discrimination and privilege."
Leon earned a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and came to Grand Valley in 2012 after working as a social worker, primarily with immigrants and refugees.
She received a Fulbright Scholarship in January 2019 to conduct research in social work at the National University of San Marcos in Lima, Peru.
"We have a responsibility as individuals in making social justice happen," Leon said. "It isn't something other people do, or something that other people have. Social Justice is something universal that we need to engage in."
The Social Justice Begins With Me book club began in 2018.
For more information and a list of recommended books, visit grpl.org/kids-and-teens/sjbookclub/