see yourself in history

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In honor of Women’s History Month, this Pass the Mic article features an interview with Chanda Austin, author of Qiana’s Braids, which draws inspiration from the lack of representation of black girls and their hair stories in literature. for children.

Tell us about yourself and your advocacy work for linguistically diverse learners.
I currently work at DeKalb County Schools, a district outside of Atlanta, Georgia, as an English (EL) Learner Coordinator. I have been employed at DeKalb for over 20 years in several capacities. DeKalb County schools serve more than 15,000 diverse language students and their families. I always tell people that we are a UN. Our department serves as a support for teachers, administrators, students and their families. One of my most important roles, I believe, is to ensure that teachers have pedagogical strategies and knowledge to ensure that learners of diverse languages ​​receive an equitable education.

It’s incredible ! What are some of the languages ​​represented in DeKalb? Can you give us an example of how you help support and advocate for linguistically diverse learners?
There are over 150 languages ​​spoken in DeKalb County schools and over 160 nations of origin represented. The three most represented languages ​​in our district are Spanish, with more than 15,000 speakers; then Burmese, with more than 1,000 speakers; then Amharic, also representing more than 1,000 speakers. In my role, I ensure that our schools follow state and federal guidelines with respect to screening, placement, and instruction. As an advocate for our families, it is important for me to know the current policies relating to each of these areas. While we support our linguistically diverse families, our department also houses a parent outreach program. In our Parent Outreach Program, we teach parents about the day-to-day operations of the school district and, most importantly, how to navigate public education. We also give them the means to know who to contact in the event of a problem. For example, at the high school level, it is important for parents to know who the advisors are and their role in ensuring their children are on the right track to graduating.

In addition to serving as an advocate, you find time to write creatively. You wrote and published Qiana’s Braids. Tell us about this experience and why the story is needed.
I actually wrote Qiana Braids in 2018. Qiana Braids stayed on my computer until the pandemic hit. It was around this time that it was completed and self-published. Qiana’s Braids was really born out of two experiences. First, my daughter was really struggling with her own hair and self-esteem at the time. My stylist suggested she wear braids to see how we could handle her hair differently. So, week after week, I sat in the barbershop, and there was something about sitting there that made me realize how much our stories needed to be told. Our stories must be told in an authentic and unapologetic space. I also wanted children of color to see themselves in the texts they read. I was really precise working with my illustrator. I wanted to make sure the characters really looked like black girls. I believe children should be able to see the story before they read the story.

So, would you agree that some underlying themes that Qiana addresses are self-love and care? These concepts can be particularly difficult for young people. How does the belief that children should be able to see the story before they read it help cultivate cultural pride and validation? Especially the importance of braided hair.
As I think about the process by which I put the story of Qiana’s Braids to paper, I remember what I wanted readers to leave knowing and believing about Qiana, her family, and her life. black hair experience, which is a story in and of itself. Often people just think of braids as a protective hairstyle. I wanted my readers to have a story around braids and their importance in black history and stay that way as part of black culture. For example, pigtails were used to hide and transport valuable goods during the transatlantic slave trade. Enslaved Africans used the patterns of their braids, also known as cornrows, to escape their plantations. So when I think of cultural pride, being able to understand how a hairstyle could actually lead people to freedom is a story that needs to be highlighted. I want all children to understand the importance of this information. I want little black girls to read this book loud and clear and understand that they are an important part of the story. I want policymakers to “humanize” black hair and stop creating policies for black people that make natural hairstyles “unprofessional.” There is nothing unprofessional about your body parts.

The book has gone international! It’s fantastic, tell us about this partnership.
I have a beautiful partnership with Brothers and Sisters in Christ Serving (BASICS) International in Ghana, Africa. BASICS is an organization dedicated to ending illiteracy and poverty by promoting literacy and economic empowerment. I was able to donate 100 books to BASICS. I am delighted to visit Ghana this summer.

It’s fantastic! How did this partnership start?
As part of my job, I wanted to donate books to an international organization focused on literacy. For advice, I contacted a friend who had donated dolls and books to Ghana. I was immediately directed to BASICS. I had several meetings with the founder, Patricia Watkins, to discuss how we could partner. Ms. Watkins was very clear that their organization intends to have culturally relevant materials for students who participate in their program. We had a long chat about Qiana’s Braids and how this story would be a nice addition to some of the literacy work they were already doing.

What are your plans for Qiana? How do you want her story to be shared?
After I return from Ghana, I will start writing another story about Qiana’s visit with her grandmother. I believe being in this space will give me an authentic experience with Africa and bring the story to life for readers. I hope this will bring an increased awareness of diversity and diverse experiences.

What guiding/open-ended questions can we add to accompany a read aloud? Think about lesson planning…
Qiana had her hair braided for the first time for back to school. If you were Qiana, how would you feel?
What are the things that make you feel good about yourself?

Do you have any other writing projects you are working on? Do you see writing as a form of self-expression, advocacy or something else?
I am currently working on a coloring book for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). This project is exciting because I am an HBCU graduate and several of my family and friends are HBCU graduates. I really wanted to celebrate the campuses I chose to feature and give the kids a bit of information about each one. Writing has become a form of therapy as well as advocacy. I hope I write relevant information to keep readers engaged, empowered, and happy about literacy.

What advice do you have for those interested in writing children’s books?
The biggest piece of advice I would give anyone interested in writing children’s literature is to find a good illustrator. As mentioned earlier, images should tell the story. Also, invest in a good editor. I had to reprint my book several times due to errors that my human eye missed. Finally, have fun! You have a story and someone needs to hear it.

Chanda Austin is an author, educator, proud member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and mother of an amazing and talented teenage daughter. A native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Chanda holds a BS and MEd from Alabama A&M University and an EdS in School Leadership from Cambridge College.

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