11 Feb 2021

Little Black Library: Q+A with Founder Cathy Chukwulebe (MBA 2021)


by Shona Simkin

Cathy Chukwulebe

During the summer of 2020’s unrest over racial injustice, Cathy Chukwulebe (MBA 2021) launched Little Black Library. Similar to little free libraries, but with the mission to promote discussions of the Black experience through literature, Little Black Library sent 400 books around the country. We asked Chukwulebe about the inspiration behind this nonprofit startup, its goals, team, and her hopes for its future.

What was the inspiration behind Little Black Library?
The widespread publicity of violence against Black people last summer clearly sparked a hunger in people to learn more about anti-racism, the Black experience, and allyship. It was very much a big moment, but it felt like it was lacking a structure to drive that momentum forward and continue the learning journey into the future.

While people are eager to talk about issues of race, those conversations can be uncomfortable. Our hope is that discussing these topics through literature can create a space where uncomfortable conversations are welcomed in a way that can help us grow together. It's pretty easy and inviting to talk about a book. Reading about experiences different than our own can also really impact our individual perspectives and illuminate actions that readers can take in their own lives to break down racist ideas and systemic policies.

As I reflect on my own experience as a biracial immigrant, I realize that my main education on systemic racism came through articles, literature, and conversations. I think these are key elements to include in our personal anti-racist journeys.

How did you get it off the ground?
It started as just an idea with a friend of mine, and then I solicited reactions from others. An enthusiastic group quickly came together. In the beginning I worked with two phenomenal women; my younger sister and the younger sister of one of my section mates. Later, the team grew and two mentees that I worked with on a separate diversity, equity, and inclusion research project through the Takeoff Institute came on board to help. We tested a series of small-scale library models, sending books to 10 various locations around the country. There was no standardized location in each city—one set of books went to a social worker at a children's hospital in Seattle; another went to a writer who was working closely with Black Lives Matter activists in Louisville. These locations came about through individual interest that we received from social media and word of mouth.

What are the books in the collection, and how did you choose them?
We started off with only 10 books in the collection to try to keep things standardized across locations, but we have since pivoted to working with public libraries, which have the capacity for a much wider collection. We are continuing to curate a wide-ranging list of books for all ages and of all genres. The current list includes social commentary, antiracism literature, memoirs, young adult fiction, children’s books, and many other books featuring Black protagonists and by Black authors. We’re hoping this “library within a library” model will grow in popularity.

What was the reaction to the books? What did you hear from the 10 locations?
The locations varied vastly, and so did their reactions. For example, we worked with a writer in Louisville who wanted to bring the books to the site of the Breonna Taylor memorial and peaceful protests. This location started a drive to raise money for more books and to allow community members to donate books, and they ended up receiving 150 additional books! Some locations encouraged more quiet, introspective learning among individuals. For example, we had one “little librarian” set up the collection in her office. Other locations wanted more children’s books! It just goes to show that there are different needs in different communities. We’re hoping that setting up the collections under existing infrastructures such as libraries will meet the diverse needs of different communities and create easier access for everyone.

Where are you now with the project?
Now that public libraries are beginning to open back up (at least for online ordering and pickup), we are bringing the focus there. We have curated a list of over 70 books that we provide to the libraries. Based on their stock, the libraries can pull a variety of the books into a single location rather than being spread out throughout the library. We’re also providing some of our posters and educational materials to help our participating libraries promote the collections and cultivate interest in continuing this education.

We are also thinking about how we can help readers engage with each other, and are in the early stages of developing a digital conversation platform. There are two ways of educating oneself that the Little Black Library system really nourishes—introspection and conversation. We believe that reading is a powerful tool to expose people to new perspectives and spark deeper thinking about their own everyday actions and beliefs. By encouraging discussion of the books and their content, we hope it helps readers connect what they’ve read to real life and realize actionable takeaways.

How do you fit this in with your classwork? Are there any HBS programs or resources that have been helpful?
It is a wonder how any student here fits anything in between classwork, extracurricular activities, and socializing. We are only here for two years, and we are all trying to pave career pathways for ourselves while making lasting friendships! Luckily, the community has been very supportive in helping spread the word and helping me find a team of seven amazing volunteers. Through the HBS Social Enterprise Summer program, I also established relationships with mentors and an adviser to help me with strategy and execution.

What’s next for you and for Little Black Library?
We’re continuing to expand into libraries and planning to test a conversation platform by matching groups of readers based on topics they’d like to discuss and prompting them with discussion questions. We are also exploring an author chat series that readers can tune into, and we would love to work with anyone interested in helping make these initiatives come to fruition.

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