BLUE MANATEE LITERACY PROJECT

The Blue Manatee Literacy Project, a non-profit that operates out of an independent bookstore in Cincinnati, Ohio. Now more than a children’s bookstore, BMLP serves readers of all ages from infant to adult, and reaches far beyond the four walls that make up the retail space. For every book purchased with BMLP—either in-store or online—a book is donated to a child in need. In partnership with local schools, educators, volunteers and staff, donated books help build classroom and home libraries, with books in varying reading levels and written by own-voices authors. Pop-up bookstores with donated books, author visits to classrooms and schools, booths at local flea markets and holiday markets and more—now there are more ways than ever to spend time with BMLP.

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness

Thank you to- I'm joined today by Kevin Kushman of Blue Manatee Literacy Project. You're based in Cincinnati and your work is, um, a little bit different than many of the programs that we featured on this podcast because if I'm correct, you started off originally as a bookstore. So, explain what you guys are doing and what some of the work that you currently have undertaken in this crazy year. 

Kevin Kushman

Sure. Thank you, Molly. I'm really- really glad to be with you, um, onto this important topic. So, uh, yes, Blue Manatee Literacy Project, uh, still does include a bookstore that's alive and well and operating in, in very different ways this year during COVID, uh, but still, uh, alive and kicking and serving customers. But the original premise, uh, of the Blue Manatee Literacy Project was born out of a change in ownership, uh, at the bookstore itself, what was called the Blue Manatee Children's Bookstore- been around for 30 years, uh, a few different owners and at the end of 2018, the owners at that time decided to make a change and offered it up essentially, uh, to, “an auction process for the community” and asked for inbound interest to see if anybody who wanted to pick up the baton for this neighborhood treasure and keep it going. Uh, they received over 120 individual solicitations about folks that wanted to do it as a path to retirement or just something to do, or a group of moms wanted to get, get together and do- do something. Um, and I had come out of a few years of working as a mentor in one of the most impoverished areas of Cincinnati, uh, reading with kids, uh, second and third graders and looked at this opportunity and said, uh, here's what an interesting kind of off the cuff, um, wrinkle. What if he uses this amazing institution, this neighborhood institution about children's bookstore and used it as a way to pivot attention to kids. The, like the ones I had worked with for a few years who have never stepped foot in a bookstore who don't understand what it means to go somewhere with a parent or a family member to read, to enjoy books, to select books and just to have a constant availability and access to literature, uh, as they grow up and they go through their reading journey. So, I boiled it all down to an essay, sent it to the, the owners of the time. They really gravitated to the idea of turning it into a nonprofit and really matched me up with this operations guru who ended up being my partner in crime, Amanda Kranias. And we took it and morphed it and reinvented it into a bookstore that now resides as an engine inside of what is a larger literacy organization.

 

Molly Ness

So, um, first of all, I love you must be a really powerful writer to beat out all of that competition. Um, and I...

 

Kevin Kushman

Maybe they felt sorry for me. I don’t know.

 

Molly Ness

Um, well, whatever it is it worked. Um, I love that you bring up the experience of so many kids not having that experience of physically walking into a bookstore. It feels like of course, months ago, since I have had that experience because of COVID. Um, but I will say that the act of going into a bookstore and wandering around and spending time looking at what's available, um, not necessarily buying anything, but just being immersed in the physical presence of books, um, is really a part of my routine with my daughter. I have a fifth grader and pre COVID, we would go to the bookstore, um, literally once a week and just be there for an hour. And it's such a part of our reading culture and reading identity. So, you sort of equate that experience to taking the bookstore itself and expanding its reach and expanding it from a physical bookstore to more of a, um, service orientation. So, what are the programs that you're offering now and how are they sort of working a little bit more in a broader vision than an actual bookstore?

 

Kevin Kushman

So, the first approach we took was how can we make this, the new mission, the reinvention of the store, uh, the most visible? And so, we started off by saying that first day it reopened, and it was in kind of transition phase for a couple of months. The first day of reopened, it was going to reopen as a buy one, get one model right out of the gate. And to say anyone that continues to support the commercial enterprise, the bookstore itself would be immediately creating a multiplier effect in the community. We match unit for unit a book purchased inside the store with a book we donate to our focus partner schools and partner agencies. So right away it became obvious that this was a different approach to the, to the problem. So, as we started to go, go out and distribute the matching books over time, we've now, uh, approached about 38,000 and a little over a year and a half. We started creating relationships. Naturally when you're providing books to folks who aren't used to that type of consistently resourcing, you start to have conversations. And as part of those conversations, it wasn't necessarily about how many books do you need, or when do you need to be delivered? It was where are the gaps? Where are programs failing because they don't have adequate resourcing. So, the tutoring isn't anchored by something that a tutor and a and a, and a student can work on together, or how do we start building home libraries? How do we create knockoffs of the bookstore in neighborhood community center? So we started doing a lot of these things. So, one of which is called manna tanks, which is essentially shrinking the bookstore experience we have down into four or five bookshelves, and we placed them in community centers, um, in significantly, you know, areas of concentrated poverty, where kids go after school for enrichment, or they just go for childcare, uh, while their parents are doing something or taking GED or English as a second language courses, and they can stay there. They can take a book from the manna tank and keep it at home. We're in constant communication with the folks at those centers. And they, like, they tell us what books are most popular. We go and refresh them periodically. So, it's almost a free bookstore. The purpose of which is to create that link, come back, read a book, bring a new one home and really build those home libraries. Um, we've also had wonderful partnerships with universities and schools in the area to construct a new program called Near Peer Mentoring, which isn't a new concept, but we've actually brought books into the, into the opportunity and used it to team fifth and sixth graders within a school with first graders and kindergartners who are struggling to read and who may have had similar traumatic domestic experiences that the fifth and sixth graders are just now working their way through, um, as a way to really create partnership and a mentor mentee relationship around reading. So, we've done that in a couple of schools in Cincinnati public schools as well. So, we're just looking for seams and gaps, where we use the books as almost a wedge to find out what, what we can do more of, or where we can take programs that are already, already have great traction and really help expand them. So, it's about it's about teaming and way more than it is about creating new things on our own.

 

Molly Ness

And one of the things that, um, when I have spoken with programs, we, we talk about it being important. Yes, as a first step to get the physical book into the hands of kids. But if we're really going to address our nation's literacy crisis, it's longer-term work of building a sustainable reading culture from within the community and that cross-age kids coming together around a book, um, certainly is a way to actualize that, um, building a community of readers and having kids bond over books,

 

Kevin Kushman

It's a huge advantage and it's a simple, it seemingly simple, and those are muscles we've exercised as either parents or growing up ourselves and taking for granted having the resource and access to these types of experiences all along our path. But in, in certain circumstances, you know, up to 35%, honestly, uh, of Cincinnati Public School children, don't, haven't had any of these experiences and we found 80 to 90% have one or no books at home themselves. So, these are foreign situations and you need a trusted, almost advocate, whether it's an advocate as a fifth grader, working with a kindergartener or as a parent, uh, working with their children with their children, just to create that value of reading, what it means to share a story, what it means to start with that kind of dialogic reading approach. And just ask questions about what's going on. Even if the parent themselves struggles to read it's about the sharing of experience and creating that value in routine, that is as important as what the book actually has inside of it. So, um, w you know, we're trying to attack multiple surfaces there, and I'll honestly be led by the folks that do it very well. And if we can provide, uh, resources along the way, we're thrilled to do that.

 

Molly Ness

So, you've got the physical structure of the bookstore. You've got this school-based tutoring program, you've got these, um, manna these manna tanks, which are sort of, kind of reach kids where they are in their physical neighborhoods. These sort of almost pop up, um, book distribution, any other projects that you've got as, as if that's not enough. And do you have any other projects that you want to highlight? Um, and or how has this work adapted because of the current situation?

 

Kevin Kushman

Well, what we were doing and what was really a wonderful lifeblood of, of being, having a bookstore at our disposal as a tool in the tool kit, uh, and also relationships with publishers, because we're a bookseller is access to authors and illustrators. And so even over the course of the first year of our existence, before we, everything had to be shut down in person, we were able to sponsor 20 individual events at our partner schools, with authors and illustrators and writing workshops. And we had, uh, Rosemary Wells come in and do three school visits, where she talked about the creative process around Max and Ruby and worked with kids in that environment. We had Sonia Sotomayor visit with a few of the groups that, uh, schools we work with just to provide that approach to, I grew up in an environment very similar to your environment. And let's talk through what your challenges are, and to listen to kids, ask the third graders, ask a justice of the Supreme court. Was she ever scared, or did she ever want to give up? I mean, that those are gut wrenching moments where you guys, that this is an opportunity to use what we do in the bookstore and completely change the approach to helping kids grow through literacy and recognize what it means to read and learn from other's experiences. So that's one thing we miss significantly is having access to events. But what we have done in the meantime is teamed up with local resource groups that are doing things from food and school supplies, to just providing other support measures and teaming on those logistics, to get books out into the community while we can't be physically with the kids, as much as we used to be.

 

Molly Ness

So how, um, in, in all of this work, what are you doing to address your impact and to investigate your impact and really to understand is the work that you're so intentionally doing, making a difference in the lives of kids, as well as the overarching community.

 

Kevin Kushman

We, we lean tremendously on teachers and teachers is, are really eyes and ears to the progress, just even whether it's qualitative in terms of metrics and everybody wants to understand metrics and how the impact is measured. And w we would be incredibly arrogant to say, Oh, the test scores are ramping in this school because we started providing books. We realize we're one tiny sliver of what could hope to be and a positive impact, but we listen for things like confidence engagement. We really thrive on the ability for students, through their teachers to have a component of choice in what they read, because engagement through choice and interest-based reading is so critical to keeping kids involved and moving them up, the kind of the Lexile ladder in terms of difficulty in content. So those are the things we're basing our early success metrics on. And honestly, how many teachers keep coming back to us and how many teachers really word of mouth, other agencies and program partners come to us and say, boy, we really like what you did here. Here's what we'd like to plug you in on next in our district or with our enrichment program. So we view those, this really in our, in our life cycle as, um, motivating metrics. Ultimately, we'd love to see lift on the map, test the DIBELS test, the more quantitative metrics over time, but we know we're only just a contributor to that success, which we hope will start bending kids toward being more proficient readers by the time they're third graders.

 

Molly Ness

Sure. And what is down the road for, for you guys, other than surviving COVID and even getting flexible and what you're having to change in terms of your offerings and how you're reaching kids? Wow.

 

Kevin Kushman

Well, we, well, we have learned, and it's a great question. So, we're, we're doing everything we can just like every group out there focused on literacy. Um, we're trying to do everything we can during this gap period where formal instruction is really under a lot of pressure. Um, up to 10% of kids in Cincinnati, Public Schools remain somewhat or completely out of connection to their schools, even though there's been a ton of device distribution and so forth. So that really worries us. So, we're continuing to find ways to get books out into the hands of, uh, the agencies most closely serving those families. But, um, what we are looking to do is take all of our learnings over the last couple of years and merge them into much more of a regional approach to book resourcing. And we studied quite a few of the regional book banks that are in operation in places like Chicago, uh, Houston, Nashville, Cleveland, and Maryland, and have taken quite a bit of learning from that. Uh, and we intend to actually couple that learning with a lot of the digitization of book inventory processing in placement that we do through the bookstore and create a slightly different twist on the regional book bank approach. And Cincinnati doesn't have an enterprise like that. So, we intend to focus on bringing that forward in 2021 to provide a little more of a clearinghouse opportunity for, uh, the book demand that really not all of us can meet collectively on our own.

 

Molly Ness

Well, there's so much that I love in that. First of all, the work that you are doing with community partners, um, all of these, the schools and teachers and pre-existing community resources is, um, just so, so necessary. You were clearly not working in isolation and I'm really growing alongside with and benefiting from your partners. Um, and then that second component where you're looking at people who are doing similar work in different pockets of the country, um, is really sort of what I envisioned that this podcast would do. It would bring together a community of people who are working in their little neighborhoods and their grassroots organizations all the way up to these larger structures, um, and have conversations where we can learn from each other and grow alongside each other so that each organization is, um, is not recreating the wheel is not operating in its own independent silo after all, we are all in this for the exact same reason, which is getting books into the hands of kids, engaging kids as lifelong readers. Um, and so you're taking that, that collective wisdom and learning along with it and absolutely contributing to it.

 

Kevin Kushman

W- we've been very fortunate, um, in that as a new entrant, so to speak in our region’s literacy, uh, community, that we've been able to lean on a lot of folks who have tons going on in their own world but have stopped it long enough to say here's where we think you could help. Here's what isn't being done and really to help coach us up, uh, in that environment. So, we, we lean on everybody. You're Molly- what you're doing is adding that connective tissue, where we can share best practices across regions, which is critical again, when we're in our own silos. Sometimes we don't have enough time to lift our head up and look around and we've been fortunate to have that kind of time. And then finally, our, our approach to this is really not from a typical nonprofit approach. Uh, both Amanda, my partner and I, uh, have, uh, backgrounds in startup and technology businesses. So, we have a bigger risk appetite, uh, potentially than some non-profits. And we're willing to try things that may or may not be visibly, uh, likely to work out. And we're ready- we're willing to test things that we might put aside after six months and say, well, we tried that. We found out some things, and then let's go over here. And the folks that are on our board are very supportive of that approach because unless we try and break a couple of things, um, early, not going to determine if we can scale any of these solutions. And right now, we know we're not meeting the full need, so something has to change.

 

Molly Ness

Well, I know that, um, I'm going to be knocking down your door sometime. I have a vision of, um, a creating a book bank in the area that I live that is, that serves, um, the, the New York city area, as well as Southern Connecticut, where there are a lot of, um, under-resourced areas. Um, but it's more than just a physical book bank where people donate and pick-up books, but really is a literacy center. And I've got the literacy knowledge, and I know the research, but I have no business background whatsoever, no startup experience. So, I will certainly follow up with you and figure out how to, how to iron that, that path. I actually had a dream last night about working in the bank, and I just remember waking up feeling like I, um, that that is my happy place. And that's what I'm supposed to be doing in this world. So hopefully I'll be able to join your ranks someday down the road.

 

Kevin Kushman

I’m with you. I mean, I tell people when I started this and they looked at me, so give us an interesting twist. And I said, look, it only took me 30 years of work to figure out what I really wanted to do, when I grew up. And, you know, you find it in your you're just to say, this is exactly right. And there's no reason through efforts like yours, we can't connect folks who can lift this model up and move it to different places in the country where it can be replicated and refined and done better. So, um, kudos to you for putting this platform together, to share those ideas. And we're just hopeful to be a contributor.

 

Molly Ness

Yeah, it strikes me, um, every time I see the research around book access it's as many times as I have cited it and spoken about it, it still blows my mind that in 2020 kids- now more than ever in many capacities cannot get their hands on a physical book. Um, it still is just mind boggling that that's a reality that we're facing. And so, when you look at the whole domino effect of that, um, this needs to be a part of the larger conversation, um, in public policy and child development. And so, there is strength in numbers and the more of us that come together and have these conversations and learn from each other and collaborate, the more we can push the national and local platforms forward on, um, having policies and having programs and practices that make, um, those, those figures a thing of the past

 

Kevin Kushman

We're, we're completely with you. We, we agree that this, that literacy itself should be elevated and, and be looked at as equal as an equal social determinant of health for children as they're growing up and not having access to books is just one component of that journey. So, for us, it's, you know, obviously food, water, shelter, all the basics, but literacy comes right along there because it's the longer-term impact of illiteracy that doesn't reveal itself until later on when kids are struggling to graduate. And then what happens in that, you know, critical point in when they're 15, 18, 20, and having had the chance to build the skills that they need. So, um, it's a slow, revealing issue overtime versus the immediate issue that we were facing currently with things like COVID.

 

Molly Ness

Well, I want to, um, save some time to ask you the question that I just love asking, um, of all of my guests in the spirit of, um, literacy culture and, um, talking about our identities as readers. I am hoping that you can share out a book from your past or present that has really had a meaningful impact on you. It's sort of a little bit of a twist on the conversation that we often go to, which is what's your favorite book? This is more the book that, um, just continues to resonate with you and has somehow shaped the path that you're on. Now I know as a lifelong reader, it's nearly impossible to narrow it down to one and people always try to say, kind of manipulate the system and say, well, I might consider this one, but I'm going to say this one instead. So, I won't be too much of a stickler for the rules. Um, if you need to work in a couple.

 

Kevin Kushman

Yeah. So, I'll break the rule since you'd given me, uh, an opportunity to do I'll break the rule right away. And I'll say I'll, I'll focus on two. One of which was, uh, I was introduced to when I was very young, uh, book by Leo Lionni called Frederick. Uh, the story of the field mice and once specific field mouse, who on the surface appeared that he wasn't kicking in, uh, his fair share of the duties and gathering food and preparing for the winner, uh, alongside his, all, all of his industrious peers. Uh, and it seemed to be daydreaming the days away, um, while he should have been preparing. But then as it turns out, Frederick contributed in a completely different way to the community, by sharing thoughts and bringing cheer and lifting spirits in the darkest of periods. And for me, uh, I loved it because, you know, I was often, uh, daydreaming as a kid and head in the clouds in a lot of ways. And even today thinking about things that, you know, love to work on and, you know, taking away from what I should be possibly getting done during the day, uh, does it speak to me, it tells me that all sorts of folks have value. And just because on the surface productivity isn't measured in the way that that that person or contributor would measure it, it doesn't mean it isn't important. And so, I think we, I carry that at least in the back of my mind, uh, really since I first was introduced to the book and still love it, and my kids have love it. Um, the second book is called Second Mountain, uh, by David Brookson, New York Times columnist and a completely different approach, but actually resonated with me when I read it last year, just as we were taking this journey. And I was really investing more of my time into trying to help lift this, um, Blue Manatee Literacy Project into being. And it talks about how to take your experiences of either building your professional career or what you've done in your personal life and pivoting it 90 degrees into a cause that's just very close to your heart instead of close to your head and thinking about really revisiting purpose in your life, and a lot of different examples and anecdotes about folks that have done that. And he stepped away from amazing careers to do something more, or just woven this into who they become, um, as kind of their second mountain to climb. So, I found it both inspirational and also reaffirming, uh, into what we're doing with our, with our little group.

 

Molly Ness

Well, I love, I haven't read either book, obviously, I know Leo Lionni’s work, um, but I love that. And I need to revisit that book, um, as a reminder to myself that right now, my productivity as I navigate this pandemic, and I have a fifth-grader who is home 100% of the time that, that my productivity is not what it used to be. Um, and that's okay. And maybe productivity now looks a little bit different than it did in 2019. Um, and that second book, um, really helping you find a path that was a little bit different than the path you started out on and look what amazing things have happened because of that second mountain and, um, that you have embraced these new adventures and are really, um, carving a path that will be very different now and make a much brighter future for the children in Cincinnati.

 

Kevin Kushman

Well, thank you. Thank you. We're hoping to do our little part and we're learning a ton every day. So, for, from our perspective, we're just fortunate to be given the opportunity to help it really, it, everybody, it sounds trite, but it truly is a privilege. And we view it as, as that, uh, when we're just glad to be part of a group of folks that are like-minded in our community.

 

Molly Ness

Well, we will direct listeners to find out more about Blue Manatee on the End Book Deserts website. Um, I know that you're going to get people who want to hear more about it and want to look into your programs and learn alongside of your wisdom. So, thank you for your time today, and we will look forward to following you guys as you move forward.

 

Kevin Kushman

Fantastic. Molly, really great to be with you today. Thanks.

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