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Community groups place free little libraries in north St. Louis to boost literacy

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Change and Action for Racial Equity
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Members of Change and Action for Racial Equity, St. Louis Association of Community Organizations and community volunteers place a colorful little library in north St. Louis in June.

Change and Action for Racial Equity and St. Louis Association of Community Organizations are working to promote literacy in north St. Louis by placing tiny libraries north of Delmar Boulevard.

The project is part of the national literacy organization Free Little Libraries, which encourages people to place book boxes in neighborhoods. The initiative aims to provide communities with access to more books by diverse authors.

Residents will be able to pick up and drop off gently used books at one of four pop-up libraries in north St. Louis neighborhoods north of Delmar Boulevard — Covenant Blu, Vandeventer, Lewis Place and West End. In the coming months, six more small libraries will be placed in the Fountain Park, Academy and Visitation Park neighborhoods.

The two organizations began building the libraries in January with help from volunteers from the St. Louis Arts Chamber, AmeriCorps and other groups. Each colorful book drop can hold about 10 books. The St. Louis educational nonprofit Ready Readers donated 300 adult and children's books to stock the library's shelves. Residents are encouraged to take a book and replace it with another one.

The tiny libraries are the coalition’s way of helping reduce educational inequality, said Kisha Greenidge-Kader, founder of Change and Action for Racial Equity.

“Our goal for these little free libraries really is to encourage literacy in these neighborhoods, inspire kids and families to be lifelong learners and readers,” Greenidge-Kader said.

The community organizations and Change and Action for Racial Equity decided to work on the project to help areas north of Delmar Boulevard that have long suffered from inequality, little investment and vacant homes.

Research shows that children who are not proficient in reading before starting fourth grade are more likely to drop out of school.

About 15% of Black third grade students in the St. Louis Public Schools District tested proficient or advanced in reading, according to the 2019 data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The tiny libraries likely will not end systemic disparities in education, but placing reading materials in the neighborhoods could give children a boost, volunteers say.

“Hopefully people will read the books and parents will be able to get their kids off of those computers and those iPhones and get them outdoors where they can use the resource,” said Judith Arnold, program director and urban planner for the community organizations.

Educators say many children in low-income neighborhoods face challenges to becoming avid readers. Some do not have transportation to libraries. Others often do not read at grade level, which can make children feel uncomfortable reading to themselves or aloud.

Arnold and Greenidge-Kader hope the little libraries will reduce barriers to literacy and promote book ownership.

“We can no longer afford to work in silos and work by ourselves,” Arnold said. “We have to all work in unity together on projects, we have to raise money together, we have to look at the seven neighborhoods as one group.”

By the end of the year, Change and Action for Racial Equity plans to place 50 free, tiny libraries across St. Louis and St. Louis County in neighborhoods that have a lot of vacant homes and are not close to public libraries.

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.

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