09/18/2014 10:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Power in the Palms of Our Hands: The Third Annual Literacy Across Harlem March


The ask is simple: if you're in Harlem on the first of the month, #RockThoseReads. And if you're in Harlem this Saturday, September 20th, bring a book and join the march.

For the past three years, education activist Joe Rogers and his organization Total Equity Now (TEN) have worked tirelessly to spread the joy and power of reading across upper Manhattan. Through book drives, mentorship fairs, and workshops--as well as the monthly campaign for people to be literacy role models by showing off their reading material--TEN has been at the forefront of literacy efforts at the community level.

On Saturday, TEN will stage its third annual Literacy Across Harlem march. I spoke Joe Rogers to learn more about the march, his organization's work, and what advice he'd give young scholars.

What do you hope to accomplish with Saturday's march?

Like our first-day-of-every-month Literacy Across Harlem Day initiative, which encourages Harlemites "#RockThosereads--to carry reading materials publicly and proudly--the Literacy Across Harlem March is all about celebrating and promoting our community-based identities as readers and writers and sparking reading-related conversations.

Our aim is to bring together intergenerational groups of Harlemites to demonstrate our love of literacy, give the neighbors we pass a bit of food for thought, and foster relationship-building among community members who, although they live in opposite corners of our community, share a fierce love of learning. Many people talk about the importance of reading, but taking that message to the streets and parks really drives home, for both participants and onlookers, the truly awesome role that reading plays in our lives.

If, at the end of the event, participants have had a good time, forged new relationships, and recommitted to serving as reading ambassadors in Harlem, we will have done our jobs!


You're dedicating this march to author Walter Dean Myers.

Back in June, we dedicated our 2nd Annual Visit Your Harlem Library Day to Pura Belpré, the New York Public Library system's first Latina librarian and a pioneer in making sure children of color at the four Harlem libraries where she worked over the course of her career, from east to west, had access to reading materials that reflected their ethnic and cultural backgrounds as well as their community context.

Walter Dean Myers, who passed away in June, was, like Pura, a transformative author and bold advocate for children's books about people of color, in a literary world that, as Myers pointed out in a NY Times op-ed in March, largely marginalizes such books. Through brilliant storytelling, rooted in his experiences growing up in Harlem, Myers gave countless young people the invaluable gift of seeing themselves, their families, and our neighborhoods reflected in books.

Myers legacy also parallels Belpré's in that very few of Harlemites seem to know much about him and his enormous contributions. TEN decided that this year's Literacy Across Harlem March should serve as a vehicle for recognizing Harlem-based and Harlem-focused authors like Myers who inspire children and adults alike to become voracious readers and excellent writers.

Tell us about your team and your partners. Who is helping making this third march happen?

For the second year in a row, the Literacy Across Harlem March kicks off at two of our community's literacy hubs, La Casa Azul Bookstore, in East Harlem, and Sister's Uptown Bookstore, on the West Harlem-Washington Heights border. Both La Casa Azul owner Aurora Anaya-Cerda and Sister's Uptown's Janifer Wilson are themselves cultural gems; more importantly, though, they are deeply committed to helping the rest of us shine through powerful books and programming enriched with history, creativity, and a commitment to social justice.

This year, for the first time, we are very fortunate to introduce a few new Literacy Across Harlem March partners, including the three reading-friendly cafes that anchor our Literacy Across Harlem Day program: East Harlem Café, (in East Harlem, obviously), Astor Row Café (in Central Harlem) and Café One (in West Harlem). These community-minded businesses will offer participants delicious food and beverage samples as we pass their locations. These businesses are genuinely invested in the educational success of Harlem.

What have you learned by doing this work? What has surprised you most?

I can't say that it surprised me, but I am extremely grateful for and inspired by all the love that folks have shown TEN around our reading-related programming, including the Literacy Across Harlem March. So many individuals and organizations here share our vision of a Harlem in which books and reading are as cool and common as, say, the latest high-tech headphones or stylish designer bags--when our phenomenal writers and their works are as renowned amongst Harlemites as our most famous entertainers and celebrity chefs. Everyone seems to understand that marching against injustice is sometimes necessary, but that we must also march for reading and other positive activities that represent the best of who we have been, who we are, and who we will become as a community.

One thing that has surprised me, though, is the number of reading-related landmarks here in Harlem. Local authors Dr. William Seraile and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, both historians, sent me lists of historical sites connected to writers from the Harlem Renaissance and beyond. Did you know, for example, that Ralph Ellison, of Native Son fame, is buried in the Trinity Church Cemetery, located between 153rd and 155th Streets, on either side of Amsterdam Avenue? I didn't either, but all Literacy Across Harlem March participants will now be "in the know," as our march leaders will be pointing out some of these key spots as everyone makes their way to Marcus Garvey Park.

What words of wisdom would you share with young scholars?

Each every person you encounter, like each and every book you pick up, has something to teach you. The lesson may be simple or profound, stated or implied. It may lead you in the right direction or, if you're not careful or don't know any better, down the wrong path. Whatever you learn, though, whether in person or by interacting with a person's thoughts through their written words, always remember that the purpose of education is to prepare us to serve. The more you learn and the better you become at learning, from personal interactions or from books, serve more and serve better.

For more details about Saturday's march, visit the TEN website.