“Telling our stories in a way that matters” – A Conversation with Jurema Gorham
Educator, reading champion, and mom of an avid reader, Jurema Gorham made it her mission to unite her community around books. In 2018, she founded the nonprofit Burst Into Books to support children and their families through culturally relevant reading opportunities in Chicago’s South Side. We sat down with Jurema during Black History Month to discuss reading, representation, and the impact of stories.
Worldreader and Burst Into Books partnered in 2023 through the Let’s Get Children Reading Grant, a Worldreader grant opportunity that supports community-based organizations, schools, and other learning institutions in getting children to read.
Thank you for joining us. Can you tell us about your inspiration to support children and families through reading?
I’ve always known that I wanted to work with children. When I was a high schooler, I started tutoring and realized that I enjoyed teaching very much. I worked with younger kids who were facing challenges, and being able to help them and see them grow inspired me to train as a teacher.
A similar thing happened when I became a mother. Seeing this tiny human become a person was an extraordinary experience. Very early in my journey, I knew I wanted my son to have plenty of reading opportunities that could help him develop as a person. But as a mother and a teacher, I was often looking for resources and programs that weren’t readily available in our community. We always had to travel outside of our neighborhood.
Living and teaching on the South Side of Chicago, I knew that resources might not have been there, but families were looking for them. Simply, organizations weren’t choosing our neighborhood. Burst Into Books was born out of a conversation with other parents who saw the lack of reading programs – someone said, “Maybe we should start a book club” and we took it from there.
Kids need to see their family involved. It’s a village mindset – if not only my teacher but also my parents care about reading, then as a child I’ll also value it more. We took that approach to everything Burst Into Books has become during the years – all the spaces, events, virtual talks, and our literary festival; everything is designed to get the whole family involved.Jurema Gorham, Founder and Executive Director, Burst Into Books
Representation by way of diverse authors, books, and storytellers, and highlighting the excellence of Black people are at the heart of Burst Into Books’ mission. What do you hope will happen when we help children access diverse, culturally relevant stories and storytellers?
I think ultimately, they will feel like and know they belong. If I can only read texts that sit outside of my community and my lived experience, if the main characters in the story do not resemble my family and who I am, then the way I speak, dress, and the things I like are not acknowledged.
Sometimes you can feel pigeonholed to only go one way because you haven’t seen another story being told.Jurema Gorham
Especially when I think of banned books, the idea that certain stories should be told and others shouldn’t, and certain stories matter and others don’t – it sends a very clear message to kids. And I think that it’s bigger than just representation. I believe, and I tell my son this all the time, it’s about understanding that none of us are the same and it’s okay to cultivate all sorts of different interests, identities, and stories. It’s okay for a Black boy to want to be an artist, or for a girl to aspire to be a scientist. It’s okay to love music and books, sports and cooking, all at the same time. There will be kids who look like you and like the same things as you. There will be communities where you belong and thrive.
What does Remixing the Narrative mean?
There’s this prejudice around the Black community that kids don’t want to read. It couldn’t be farther from the truth. Everyone’s way of engaging with stories is different – what makes you fall in love with reading isn’t going to be the same as somebody else. I took inspiration from music so that we could remix this idea of storytelling and what love for reading looks like.
And so remixing the narrative doesn’t only mean that we’re changing the prejudice that in the Black community, reading isn’t important; we’re also showing that our stories can be told in many different ways because my storytelling can be very different from my neighbor’s, yet we’re both telling our stories in a way that matters.
What does Black History Month mean to you? How can the power of storytelling help us honor Black history and help Black children reach their potential?
I think storytelling is a way to preserve history, whether that’s written or oral. And Black history often starts in the family. Too many children don’t know their own story – where does your name come from? How did you end up in your neighborhood? Did you know that you have a connection with a whole different continent? Who were the first leaders in your community? Who were the first activists? Who opened the first store?
They say knowledge is power. When you understand the patterns and contributions, good and bad, that led us here, you understand how to create change.Jurema Gorham
I think Black History Month is important for everyone. Just as much as Black children should know their own stories, all races and cultures should know each other’s. Not knowing the stories of those around us is dangerous because then we start making assumptions and base entire opinions on very limited information. We stop seeing each other’s value and potential.
What’s one story you want more people to know about this Black History Month?
I want to mention Fred Hampton. He was a Black Panther. He was from the West Side of Chicago. He was killed when he was 21. And yet he mattered so much because he fostered alliances with other groups that understood the struggle. And he created safe spaces with free lunch for children. Because he understood that if you’re going to school hungry, you’re not going to focus.
And when I think of literature, I can’t help but mention one of my favorite writers, Gwendolyn Brooks. She was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize, and was appointed Poet Laureate. She lived primarily in Chicago, and her writings highlighted experiences in the Black community. I think her work shows the power of storytelling in connecting with people, allowing them to see their experiences, to be recognized and honored.
How has Burst Into Books’s work evolved since being awarded the Let’s Get Children Reading Grant?
BookSmart was a game changer for us because we’re serious about accessibility. All our events – book clubs, community events, festivals – have always featured free books for families to take as they want. But then the pandemic showed us how difficult access can become when you can’t be there in person. Having a digital platform means that we no longer have to worry about getting books to parents and caregivers – they can just download them right on their phones.
But access goes beyond just the number of books one can read. It’s also about language. Having a digital library where you can easily switch from English to your mother tongue is incredible. And finally, we love that we can help guide families through BookSmart’s reading activities – all our parents want to be involved in their children’s reading journey, but not all of them are teachers.
What got Jurema reading?
A lot of my love of reading I owe to my grandmother. She exposed me to the arts since I was a child, and we’d read a lot together. But we’d also sew and cook and stain glass together, and she’d take me and my brother to community festivals. She helped me understand that reading would allow me to see the world.
Later on, I started seeing how reading impacted who I was becoming as a person. Reading is a life skill. It’s not homework, not a punishment. Readers understand people and understand the world. Thanks to my grandmother and my family, I kept engaged in reading and the arts, and through them I became the woman I am now.
What’s in store for Burst Into Books in 2024?
For the first time, we’ll be holding monthly pop-up events throughout the city of Chicago leading up to our Words of Wonder Literary Festival in July. It’s a way to promote the festival, sure, but also to bring our approach to reading to different communities. I’m excited because each year it just gets bigger and bigger and we’re able to create more spaces that celebrate reading for families to engage with, while staying rooted in our community.