The Big Read Blog (Archive)

The Brooklyn Open: Engaging Communities through the Big Read

Zaira James performs at the Brooklyn Open. James is a member of the Urban Word's Word Wide Youth Leadership Board. Photo by Brenda Williams-Butts

"I love the two-way aspect of [The Big Read]. We give and we get, and the public gives and gets from it, too." --- Brenda Williams-Butts

One of the things I love most about the Big Read is how it encourages communities to come together and explore the themes, ideas, and the significance of a good book. The Big Read isn’t just about  encouraging people to dig deep into a story---it’s also about readers exploring the moral and societal issues present in the literature. And, as my conversation with Brenda Williams-Butts shows us, it’s about the process of readers exploring themselves, too.

As senior director of community engagement and audience development at New York Public Radio (NYPR), one of this year's Big Read communities, Williams-Butts is responsible for all of NYPR's Big Read events. On December 3, Williams-Butts saw her hard work personified in the Brooklyn Open, an open mic series centered around the exploration of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Held at the Brooklyn Public Library, public radio station WNYC partnered with Urban Word, a literary arts education and youth development organization, in presenting poetry and spoken word inspired by the novel, as well as a group book discussion. “It was incredible,” said Williams-Butts. “They were doing spoken word, singing, stepping---and what I thought was the greatest thing is that these young people were not discouraging one another. They were encouraging. There were so many of these young people---it was so gripping.”

Below, Williams-Butts gives us insight into the Brooklyn Open, and shares the depth of her passion and dedication to community engagement at NYPR.

NEA: How does the Big Read fit in to your role at New York Public Radio?

BRENDA WILLIAMS-BUTTS: Our focus is to ensure that the station reflects the diverse voices found within the New York metropolitan area. At the heart of our efforts, we are always looking to discover, understand, and address community needs and aspirations. We do this with community conversations, listening sessions, and forums. We develop meaningful partnerships that help us create awareness about who we are. We think that it's really important to partner with culturally diverse organizations, build credibility with them, and create authentic relationships. I see us as the arm that extends into the community. The Big Read totally fits within all of these things. The Big Read allows us to not only take advantage of some of the partnerships and relationships we have, but it allows us to build new ones. We're always looking to build new partnerships and relationships and support like-minded activities. In this case, these activities include storytelling, literature, and literacy. These are all a part of what we're continuously trying to give to the community.

NEA: How did you get connected with Urban Word and the Brooklyn Public Library? What sparked an interest to collaborate with these specific organizations?

WILLIAMS-BUTTS: Initially, when we applied for the grant, we secured the Brooklyn Public Library as our main partner. We’ve always been associated with the library, and this gave us the opportunity to build a larger and stronger partnership. At our first meeting, the regional librarian suggested their Urban Word project was a great fit for the Big Read. We loved the idea, especially because it meant working with youth. Urban Word already supports programs established around poetry, spoken word, and giving teens a voice. So, we asked Urban Word’s youth board to work on related poems to showcase Their Eyes Were Watching God. They had about five or six teams as a part of the board, and they prepared poems around the theme of the book. They were all so excited and ready to participate. It was probably the best decision we could have made.

NEA: The book for this event was Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. How did this particular piece of literature influence the creation of this event?

WILLIAMS-BUTTS: When we learned that Their Eyes Were Watching God was on the list of the books for the Big Read, we were thrilled. We had already been preparing for a 2012 commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the book at our Jerome Elman performance space, which we call the Greenspace. It was the executive director Indira Etwaroo’s vision. She is passionate about this book; I understand she actually did her dissertation on it. It gave her an opportunity to explore a series of programming around this American icon. So, this was the impetus for all the events and the Big Read sessions. It was really perfect that everything kind of worked together.

NEA: Can you talk about some of the original poetry that was presented? Were there any pieces that particularly stood out?

WILLIAMS-BUTTS: There was a young man who wrote a poem he called "The Ashanda Story." It was so powerful. He talked about her dreams, and he addressed her life from being a baby to womanhood. He talked about how she desperately tried to find love. The poem was so thought-provoking and really deep. He just kept talking about how the world looked through her eyes. His interpretation was really mind-blowing. That didn't top it off, though. There was a young woman whose poem was so gripping---all we could do in the audience was rub our goose pimples and sigh. She started her poem with "part I: I sit on this porch. Eyes shut in a nostalgic rocking chair, whispering. I was young till I was old. Time ran away with his love. Part II: His dying gift was a noose to hang myself with. The demons are loud in heaven. Then, Part III: she talked about Halloween and it felt like October 31st. I wore my Halloween costume and the whole funeral was a Halloween party." I mean, it was amazing! This is someone who is 18 or 19 years old!  It was just so profound. I can’t say enough about how well they interpreted the message and the direction and came back with exactly the right type of pieces.

NEA: Can you talk about how the host of the event helped facilitate the group novel discussion?

WILLIAMS-BUTTS: Carl Hancock Rux hosted this particular event. He’s an author, a poet, an essayist, a professor---he is just wonderful. He is a part of our year-long program as well. We wanted to have Carl read a commissioned piece that was really focused on Tea Cake’s perspective. Tea Cake, of course you know, was in the book, and he was Janie’s third husband. The poem was about a drum, and how the drum is your voice. It really struck the kids; they got the message so profoundly. They were so in awe of him. There were some questions for him, and Carl showed how and why he wrote the poem. We didn't get into a lot of discussion because there was a larger program this fit into.

NEA: Were there other topics that were brought up during the discussion?

WILLIAMS-BUTTS: They talked about Zora and why her work is so iconic, and specifically why Their Eyes Were Watching God is iconic. They couldn't believe the book has been around for 75 years. They talked about the title. The kids could really relate to it. There was a Jamaican girl who spoke about God and what the book meant to her. Others talked about how their parents read the book. I want to let you know that every one of the youth in the audience got a copy of the book to take home. We felt it was important to get the book in their hands. We want to do a follow-up in a couple of months after they've read the book, and see what might come out of that. We’re interested to see what kind of stories, poems, or songs might come out reading it.

NEA: In what ways do you feel this Big Read event particularly benefited or engaged your community?

WILLIAMS-BUTTS: I think in many different ways. We stirred up interest throughout the boroughs around this book. We weren't in every borough, but we were in many of them. Everything we have done for the past year has been around the education of this book, and how important literacy and literature is. It was a great way into the community. I think the Big Read benefited us by providing the opportunity to get to know folks through literature. We wanted to send the message that WNYC was a friend that could be trusted. We love to read and we uplift all great authors---white, black, Asian, whatever. I thought that this Big Read event helped us to continue building credibility into communities we're trying to reach.

NEA: Are there any other Big Read events you've led that you feel were particularly successful?

WILLIAMS-BUTTS: I think that all of them have been pretty successful in their own way. There was a session we did in Harlem that I thought particularly stood out. These folks knew so much about Zora Neale Hurston and the Harlem Renaissance. You were talking to people who could actually educate you. We were there discussing Their Eyes Were Watching God and promoting the Big Read, and they were like, “YES! I'm glad you're finally recognizing this!” This event had a lot of youth attending who really understood the book from their perspective. I think our moderators did a good job of breaking the book down to meet them where they were. They talked about the gossiping and whispering at the beginning of the book---kids can relate to that. They drilled down so that everybody on every level could talk about the book, whether they were youngsters or adults. Really Harlem stood out because the people there gave us a few lessons. Our audience really understood the magnitude of Zora, her work, and the Harlem Renaissance. This might be because Zora had a connection to Harlem. She wasn't born there, she wasn't raised there, but she lived there for a while, particularly when she connected with other well-known writers and authors.

NEA: How do you think the Big Read can be used as a community engagement tool in your community, and throughout the nation?

WILLIAMS-BUTTS: I think it can be done with like-minded partnerships. Public radio is about storytelling. We can connect the threads between us and the public with Big Read materials. I think it can be a discovery that we both can have together, which helps to connect the dots. I love the two-way aspect of it. We give and we get, and the public gives and gets from it, too. So, the Big Read helps us build inroads into other communities that we may not have gone into before. It raises awareness about literacy and literature. Across the country, everyone can use this as an engagement tool. It allows us to send a positive message without getting in their space. One of the messages we certainly promote is that people should be reading, so why not pick up one of these good books we’re recommending? I think the positive part of the message is not getting in their face and telling them what they need to be doing, but just sharing. And that's where I think the engagement comes in, because you're allowing people to talk to you, and you're listening. That to me is engagement. You can't always go out there preaching about who you are. Our approach was more, "Here, we have something we want to share, we want to hear you talk about it, we want to understand what you think about this." Whenever you give someone an opportunity to speak, it's always a good thing. It’s not condescending, it’s inviting.

NEA: New York is an incredibly large and diverse city. How do you think your approach toward community outreach through the Big Read might be different in New York than in a smaller city or community?

WILLIAMS-BUTTS: I don't think there is a big difference. It doesn't matter whether it's a big city or a small city. I think the approach to all outreach should be thought-out and strategic. You have to plan and know the communities you want to reach. Today, so many cities are mixed and diverse. It's a new world, and we have to think about unity in our approach by embracing all ethnicities and cultures. Some of the smaller cities and places used to only be one race. Now, people are coming and going everywhere, so those little towns are no longer just one race. People are mixing. I feel like our goal as a public radio station should be to reach a wider and more diverse audience. I think the only way we’ll reach unity and harmony is to serve all, not just one audience. I don't think it has to do with the city. It’s about serving the public and reaching all of the folks who may have an interest, no matter who they are. If they're curious and interested and smart, then we can deliver to them. We try to treat the big city the same as the small city.

NEA: What would you say is one of the biggest long-term goals you have for developing your audience and community at New York Public Radio? How does your Big Read programming fit into this long-term mission?

WILLIAMS-BUTTS: Our long-term goals continue to be to help the station cultivate new voices, and help build a more diverse audience. This includes building credibility and creating authentic relationships. We do that by forming key community partnerships. The Big Read is a logical extension of our work with these institutions and being in the community. I want to find ways to continue to engage around this book and the Big Read. We want to look for ways to continue engagement online and through social media. We want to continue building our partnerships. We will look to partner again with Brooklyn Public Library's Urban Word. Storytelling and education is a big part of our mission, so we're looking at taking examples from this program to add to other elements of things that we do. I'm excited. We're always looking for something fresh and new, and something was brought to us. Now there's ways to keep it alive.

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