Hillary Marshall was first introduced to the concept of a community-wide book group during her time in Brazil in the mid-to-late 2000s, when the school she worked at invited people from all around the area to participate in a two-day book conversation event.
“I was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be so cool to get a whole city reading like that?'” said Marshall, now a library media specialist at Washougal High School.
More than 10 years later, she brought the concept to East Clark County with the creation of Washougal READS, a community book discussion program that focuses on culturally relevant and diverse topics such as social justice and racial equality.
The discussions are held online, led by Marshall and Rachael Ries, branch manager of the Washougal Community Library.
“This was always my dream,” Marshall said. “I wanted to get the entire city of Washougal reading, and with COVID giving us these close quarters, the only way we can access each other is through Zoom, (and) it puts us all on the same level playing field.”
Ries thought that the program “would be a natural fit” for the Washougal library.
“We had done other programming around the protests in Portland,” she said, “but we thought this would be a great way to have people in our community read some books and be able to discuss the themes in those books, which apply to current social situations.”
The idea for the program came from one of Marshall and Ries’ previous partnerships, a “cross-generational book study” group consisting of students from the WHS Wild Panther Book Club and adults from a Washougal Community Library book club. Together they read and discussed “All American Boys,” a novel by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely about a Black teenager who is assaulted by a white police officer.
“That was super successful on both sides,” Marshall said. “As the community changed over the last few years and more social justice issues started coming up, I just wanted to encourage (people to read) more diverse books.”
In March 2020, Marshall submitted an application for Washougal High School to become a chapter of Project Lit, a grassroots literacy movement empowering readers and leaders in more than 1,700 schools and communities around the world.
“Project Lit encourages reading diverse books from authors of color around topics that have typically been taboo,” Marshall said. “When I was accepted as a brand-new Project Lit chapter at Washougal High School, of course I reached out to Rachael and said, ‘These are the books that are on the list. How many book kits does the Fort Vancouver Regional Library have?’ That’s where (Washougal READS) started. (We said), ‘Maybe we can do this together to get the whole city going.’ It’s always kind of been in the works since that initial cross-generational book study.”
The group began in September 2020 with Trevor Noah’s book, “Born a Crime.” It followed with “Scythe” by Neal Shusterman in October 2020; “All American Boys” in November; and “With the Fire on High” by Elizabeth Acevedo in December 2020.
The group’s next scheduled discussion is set for Jan. 27, when it will discuss “The Hate U Give,” Angie Thomas’ novel about a teenage girl who grapples with racism, police brutality and activism after witnessing her Black friend murdered by the police. Marshall and Ries invited Sergio Olmos, a reporter for Oregon Public Broadcasting who extensively covered the social justice protests in Portland last summer, to participate in the discussion.
“I live in downtown Portland, and the social justice movement really hit me,” Marshall said. “This summer I did a lot of reading, and I just said, ‘Where is my sphere of influence? Where can I make a difference? Where could I support our communities of color?’ I said, ‘Well, why not try this? I’m really good at getting books in people’s hands and talking about them.’ That’s why it felt right. And Rachael and I have such a strong partnership, I knew that we would do this very well together.”
Despite its name, the group is open to anybody from any city who would like to participate. People can register on the Fort Vancouver Regional Library’s website.
“We’ve had school board members attend, teachers attend, students attend,” Marshall said. “(This program can) build community. Every time you can connect, whether you connect with the story or are sharing about a story and sharing a little bit about yourself to the community, you’re building those bridges. Washougal is a very tight-knit community, and we have a lot of people in the community who are willing to talk to young people and be part of the discussion. It’s been really interesting.”
“People have questions, and they don’t always understand everything,” Ries added. “(This program provides an) opportunity for people to voice questions or ask for information in a safe environment and go forward. It’s a way to honestly interact and hear from other people and become more informed. Maybe they’ll take the next steps themselves, joining other groups or reading further. That’s what we’re hoping, that they’ll continue to educate themselves and participate.”
Marshall said that while the first four sessions have been “very positive experiences for everybody,” she highlighted November’s discussion as particularly revelatory. At that gathering, two Washougal police officers shared their thoughts about ‘All American Boys’ and answered questions from the other participants about a variety of topics, including the nature of their training and the concept of “defunding the police.”
Their honesty and authenticity made for a vastly better discussion, according to Marshall and Ries.
“The police officers were excellent,” Ries said. “They were candid. They came in wanting to participate in the discussion without hiding anything. They were fully present and added to what the group was able to talk about. They helped to give a full-sided picture of police brutality, one of the main themes in that book. It was a hard conversation, so it was important to have all players at the table.”
Ries said that by “encouraging discussion and dialogue,” the program can help to “build a better community.”
“It’s important because (a lot of people) need an entry point,” Ries said. “There’s different levels of awareness and education around Black Lives Matter and diversity and inclusion and what we’re dealing with in society among our social circles. These particular books are great because they appeal to a broad audience, and you don’t necessarily have to know a lot to get started. Anyone can read them, learn something from the themes and have a discussion.”