By: Heidi Stevens, Chicago Tribune
Every once in a while, you meet someone who makes you grateful to be walking around on Earth right now, sharing space and time with such a delightful character.
Marley Dias is one of those people. She’s the 12-year-old force of nature behind #1000BlackGirlBooks, a grass-roots campaign to collect and donate children’s books that feature black girls as protagonists. She hoped to collect 1,000. She’s up to 9,500.
Dias will be in Chicago on June 6 and 7 for the Social Innovation Summit, where a bunch of grown-ups will talk about “sparking social action” and “driving change” and use phrases like “increasingly complex global landscape.”
“I’ll be talking about how to use frustration as fuel to help others,” Dias told me. “And how I was able to use the problem of only seeing white boys and their dogs as characters as a way to uplift and elevate the stories of black girls.”
Dias began her campaign to diversify reading lists in 2015 when she was a sixth-grader tasked with reading a whole lotta “Old Yeller,” “Shiloh” and “Where the Red Fern Grows” and not enough (meaning zero) “Brown Girl Dreaming” and other tales with girls of color at the center.
With the help of her mom, Janice Johnson Dias, co-founder of GrassROOTS Community Foundation, she launched a social media campaign to collect 1,000 books with black girl main characters to donate to libraries.
Booksellers and authors quickly jumped on board with donations. Ellen DeGeneres gave her a check for $10,000 to buy books. Dias, who lives in West Orange, N.J., discovered authors and titles she never knew existed.
“I normally got books from big publishing companies like Penguin, Simon & Schuster and Scholastic,” she said. “I didn’t know there were so many independent authors out there making books. Now I want to promote their stories even more.”
Of the 9,500 books she’s collected, she said 1,500 are unique titles. One of her favorites is “Aya: Life in Yop City,” a graphic novel by author Marguerite Abouet, who was born and raised on the Ivory Coast.
“My goal is to promote the stories of black girls, not only for black girls, but for other kids who are different,” she told me. “I come from a community that has a lot of white kids, and I notice how a lot of times they don’t understand our differences and how I come from a different culture and my ancestors are different and my history is different. I want to create mirrors and windows for people in communities all across the world.”
Mirrors and windows — I love that, I told her. Tell me more.
“When I say mirrors, I mean I want these stories to be reflected for the black girls who are reading them, so they can see themselves and identify themselves and learn about their history,” she said. “When I say windows I mean open up to people who are different, to understand and to see and grow from those things we don’t understand.
“If I meet someone who’s Native American, and I don’t know anything about indigenous people in New Jersey — which I kind of don’t, which is not really good — I can learn more and more about their lives and that makes me a more open person and a more accepting person,” she said. “And at the same time, I’m showing others that I can be kind, I can be caring, I can be special.”
I asked her about her real-life heroes, as opposed to the fictional heroes she reads about in books.
“I have role models,” she said. “But I take the attributes of the people that I admire, and I use them to create my best self. I can look at Madam C.J. Walker, who was one of the first (black, female) millionaires, and I can say, ‘I want to be as industrious and I want to be as motivated as her.’ Not that I want to live the life she did, but that I want to be my best self and have those traits and abilities of Madam C.J. Walker to allow me to do that.”
Dias said that when she’s 63 years old, sitting on her front porch — “hopefully in Massachusetts” — she’ll ask herself if she did all she could to channel her inner Madam C.J. Walker.
“Was I able to reach my goals and be a TV producer or film producer or a magazine editor for my own magazine?” she said. “Was I able to use those skills in my role model toolbox or my activist toolbox?”
Dias has a book coming out in January. “Marley Dias Gets It Done — And So Can You” will be published by Scholastic. “It’s a guide for everyone to use their gifts and talents to make the world a better place,” she said.
Also in January, she’ll head to Paris with her mom — a long-promised 13th birthday present.
“I’ve been reading a bunch of stories about young girls going to Paris, and now it’s actually going to happen,” she said. “I want other kids to see the joy in reading and literacy and how if you read about things they become so much closer, and if you’re willing to put in the effort and time and passion, you can really understand them.
“That doesn’t just go for places,” she said. “That also goes for people.”
Watch out, world. This kid is changing you for the better.