BAIA Project: Untold Stories – Unity Through Teaching

 In Bay Area Inspire Awards, PVF News

By Savannah Lira, Program Officer

At the start of 2020, Philanthropic Ventures Foundation (PVF) awarded grants to six young Bay Area residents with fresh ideas for building better communities. These awards were made possible through the Bay Area Inspire Awards, which provides $5,000 grants to 18-30 year olds living in San Francisco, Alameda, and San Mateo Counties. The following is a report from one of those awardees, Renee Menart. Her project, Untold Stories: Unity Through Teaching, aimed to empower families by providing opportunities for family engagement, literacy development, and connection to community resources.

In September 2019, I proposed a project to serve Bay Area communities impacted by incarceration. In particular, I planned to write and illustrate a children’s book that depicted a child’s healing/coping experience with a parent’s incarceration. The book was intended to include rich vocabulary and opportunities for adults (e.g., teachers, caregivers) to connect with children on a subject that can otherwise get stigmatized and swept under the rug.

My project has evolved in method and style, and expanded in scope, but the root goals remain the same. The uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic caused obstacles to my original plans for a book release process largely dependent on in-person community events, and in June 2020, amid the rise in a national reckoning with systemic racism, I reflected on the ways in which my project could more closely align with my values and intensifying calls for racial justice.

I facilitated two focus groups with justice-involved women/mothers participating in Cameo House, a residential alternative sentencing and reentry program serving San Francisco women and their children, run by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ). They provided critical insights into their values, special memories with their children, and their own processes of healing. Their lived expertise established a strong foundation as I re-envisioned my story book from an abstract depiction of a parent and child (personified objects) to an honest and empowering representation of a young black boy in San Francisco.

In “Demetri Makes a Memory Quilt”, Demetri is accompanied by his grandma, Tia Alanna, and cousin Adla who help him find healing through creativity, love, and laughter during his mother’s incarceration far from home. I collaborated with a children’s book illustrator to bring the story to life and, as a Black illustrator, her work prioritizes meaningful representation of children of color and uplifts families of all backgrounds. I hope the story will be enticing to children of all backgrounds, encouraging community programs and families to utilize the book as an “empathy-builder” for young readers. All profits made from the book will be donated to non-profit organizations serving children and families impacted by incarceration.

Renee’s book is now published and available for purchase! Join her and community leaders on Sunday, November 7th (11am – 12:30pm PST) to celebrate the launch with a hybrid event, meaning in-person and virtual attendance is welcome.

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