What started as a book club for her son has transformed into an advocacy group for childhood literacy thanks to the determination of Chez Smith. Smith wants to provide socially relevant books to black boys to get them excited about reading. Through various community programs and outreach initiatives, the Brilliant Brown Boys Book Club works to spark a love of leisurely reading among young boys.
What inspired you to start this organization?
I have a son who is about to turn 10, and I used to do a lot of volunteer work in his classroom. I noticed that when it was time for reading, the boys would start acting up and goofing around. They thought of reading as a dreadful punishment, which surprised me since I and a lot of girls love to read. The disparities between girls and boys in reading just hit me in the face, so I decided to start a book club for my son to get him excited about reading. I talked to other parents who had similar experiences with their sons, and found through my research that so many black boys have horrible literacy rates. It added fuel to the fire for me to promote literacy in my community, and it really grew from there.
What do your programs entail?
We have a 12 week program that is now all virtual. The boys are sent a box that has a book, activity, treats, and a reading prompt, and they are brought together twice a month to discuss everything. The book sessions are led by male educators to add a layer of positive representation. We also bring on guest storytellers from different sectors of the community to participate. Our newest initiative is “Fades, Fros, and Books” to provide books in barbershops so boys can read while getting their hair done. We try to get boys access to books in every way possible. We had billboards installed in the community that featured our boys so that they could see themselves representing literacy and feel like superstars. This summer, we have a camp where we partnered with Reading Breeds Greatness and Chatham Academy to provide reading and cultural experiences.
Where do you hope to take the organization in the future?
In the short term, we definitely are going to expand outside of Chicago. We have a lot of interest in Houston and Dallas to start chapters there. Long term, I would love to start some kind of after-school or learning center so that we can have something with a structured curriculum that could be a supplemental program to school. I have been so amazed by the boys we work with and by the instructors in our camp that I want to make this more of a daily experience for them.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Watching the organization grow has been great, and I love to see the boys connect with each other. Since my son is in the program, I try not to watch it live because my mom mode kicks in. When I watch it later, I see them laughing, playing, connecting, having fun, and forming bonds over reading. When kids are encouraged to do something like reading, they are empowered to defy stereotypes and change the narrative. I’ve been so inspired by the feedback I receive; parents who think their kids will never want to read tell me that their sons are suddenly racing to their computers for our book sessions.