Raising Children Who Change the World

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Episode 49│Raising Children Who Change the World

Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021

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Show Notes

Marley Dias & Dr. Janice Johnson Dias

Help your child channel their frustrations into social action! This week, our hosts chatted with author and founder of 1000 Black Girl Books, Marley Dias, and her mom, Dr. Janice Johnson Dias, who is an educator and author as well. They share how you can help your child develop their entrepreneurial spirit and enhance their problem solving skills—all while making the world a better place!


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Like this episode? Share your thoughts with us via social media @National PTA and by using #BackpackNotes. Be sure to visit PTA.org/BackpackNotes for more resources from today’s episode.


LaWanda Toney: Welcome to today's episode of Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm LaWanda Toney,

Helen Westmoreland: And I'm Helen Westmoreland and we are your co-hosts. November is National Entrepreneurship Month, and it has us thinking about how we can raise kids who are go getters, who follow their passion. Whether that's launching a business, advocating for causes they care about, or like today's guest a little bit of both.

LaWanda Toney: We're thrilled to have mother-daughter duo, Marley Dias and Dr. Janice Johnson Dias, on our show. Marley Dias, is the 16-year-old founder of #1000 Black Girl Books and author of Marley Dias Gets it Done, and so can you. #1000 Black Girl Books is an international movement to collect and donate children's books that feature black girls as the lead character. Marley is also the executive producer of Netflix Bookmarks, celebrating black voices, which was nominated for an NAACP Image Award in the Outstanding Children's Program category in 2021.

Her mom, Dr. Janice Dias, is the President of the Grassroots Community Foundation, a public health and social action organization. She's also the author of Parent Like it Matters, how to raise joyful change making girls, and holds a PhD in Sociology.

I'm so excited to have these two fantastic women with us today. Welcome, Marley and Dr. Janice. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Marley Dias: Thank you for having us.

Janice Dias: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here.

LaWanda Toney: Great. So I'm going to kick things off with Marley. Marley, can you tell us what inspired you to start the #1000 Black Girl Books?

Marley Dias: The 1000 Black Girl Books campaign was started, because of my love of reading. So, ever since I was young, I've always found reading to be a sense of really entertainment for me, especially as an only child when I was growing up, I still am, but I have, you know, I have a phone, I have all the other things now, but when I was younger reading was really, really special and important to me and continues to be. So, when I got to my classroom where I had assigned readings and I was getting graded on my comprehension, I noticed that a lot of the titles that I was being provided were not featuring diverse characters and were not featuring black girls' stories.

And for many kids in my grade, we noticed this as well. But I was one of the few kids that was able to see that these books are out there, they exist. I have them in my home. I read them every night. So why can't I have these stories in my school as well? So I then kind of sat on that feeling, I went through the rest of my school year feeling like, well, that was really fun. I liked that my teacher loved and wanted us to read.

But I never saw myself. I never saw a new perspective, a new experience, and a year later I talked to my mom about it and I told her that I was sick of reading about white boys and their dogs, that I was tired of my school system repeating similar stories and wanting to share a very similar and limited experience and not including black girl titles that I love so much.

So she encouraged me to do something about it, and I decided that I was going to collect 1000 books where black girls were the main characters, in 2016. And after that, I've been able to surpass my goal and build into both an international movement for diversity and inclusion literature, but also to support the idea that kids can change the world and that our voices, opinions, and the things we notice are valuable to everyday communities. I've collected now 13,000 books and been able to executive produce and host Bookmarks, the show that you guys were talking about.

So it's been a really fun and exciting journey, all through the help, the encouragement of my mom and my dad. And, and the encouragement of educators, parents, and caregivers everywhere.

Helen Westmoreland: Okay, so I want to segue then to your mom, Dr. Janice. As parents, our kids frequently come to us with different ideas and you don't always know how to react. So tell us about that conversation from your point of view, when Marley had the idea for 1000 Black Girl Books. What was your mindset? How did you support her?

Janice Dias: My mindset, I think was just of many working parents, who afterschool they're spending time with their children and their children are aiming to complain about the day and what it's like at school. And really feeling modestly irritated by the complaint and trying to draw on ways of making the complaint subside. So I know that now in the world, people read me as, you know, highly and deeply thoughtful parent who says the right things. But for me, it was a response to my daughter's complaint and that this complaint was for her to solve, not for me to solve.

And so I'm delighted to take the moniker of great mom in the moment, but really it is, I'm a working mom. And my kid is complaining about school and it's her problem to solve. So, when I asked her, what are you going to do about it? It wasn't to be prophetic. It was really to get her to address a problem that was fundamentally hers.

And a problem that I think, many of us as parents, now in reflecting, asking that question is really important, but I wouldn't say that my first thought was that it was really important. My first thought was to address the fact that I don't need another complaint about what's happening at your school, because my life is really good. I get to read whatever books I want to. You seem to have a problem. You should probably get into problem solving mode. And so that's that's the honest response of what was going on in that moment.

LaWanda Toney: Oh my God. I appreciate your realness so much. So I have an only child and I really feel, only child, and I felt your pain, Marley, when you said, "and I'm still the only child". But a lot of times with only children, they do feel like I can go to my parents, tell them what's wrong and they'll fix it, because what else do they have to do? There's nobody else, this is who you can focus your attention on. And I love that you were able to say, "No. What are you going to do about your problem?" And Marley, you didn't just say, 'I don't know' and sit on your hands. You did something. Tell us about that, like what happened next?

Marley Dias: Well, I also know that once I complained to my mom about something, I do have to do it. So I had been sitting on that for about six months, not wanting to talk about my own frustration, knowing that there was something that could be done and not wanting to which is what I try to encourage kids to not do is to sit and wait like me, because many people just see the result of my work and think that it was my immediate desire, but I was more of like, oh, I just want to fix this issue with my teacher, but the critical reason why I decided that I wanted to pursue this work seriously, was that I realized that I wasn't the only student that experienced this issue.

As I continued the conversation with my mom and she encouraged me to learn more about what diversity looks like in school, how are book titles selected? I realized that this was an issue across not only the United States, but the world. That assigned books and assigned readings are not necessarily always culturally inclusive. And that that shift in, in changing a new title for schools happens very rarely.

So once I figured out and was encouraged to discover, how does this issue extend beyond my own experience and into the world at large in my own community, I felt like I had more of a responsibility to do something, because I knew I wasn't the only black girl that felt misrepresented and I definitely had more privilege than other kids who don't have their own home libraries to find diverse selections.

So, I might've been one of only two other girls who had read often black girls stories in their own homes. And then I thought about kids that only go to our library that only go to our teachers, and if they were reading these singular type of stories, how will that affect the way they see me and see other people in the world?

Janice Dias: Now here's where I can say I did, now that part I'm totally wise mother, child. I can take all the credit for, for having raised a child up until 10 years old who saw the importance of getting information in order to make decisions, thinking about others in the community, trying to feel connected and solving issues in general.

Helen Westmoreland: Mm. Could you talk a little bit more about that? Because, I think for some of our listeners who are parents, like, you know, we have this desire to fund foster, an entrepreneurial advocacy spirit in our children. You've mentioned a few of these things, right, problem solving and researching. But, what is some of your advice for parents who want to support their kids in those journeys?

Janice Dias: And I mean, I think my first advice which comes directly from the book is if there's a thing that you want to teach your child to be, especially in terms of justice in terms of entrepreneurial-ism, is that you ought to model for them, not just say it to them. And my life, I do have, again, this advantage of having been a researcher. I really want my daughter to value science. I want her to value skepticism. I want her to value reason. So, when I talk with her I share those kinds of ways of engagement with her, which is to say, what are the questions that you have?

Furthermore, the other thing I tell parents is that if we want our children to care about the world, then we need to demonstrate to them that we care about the world. So we want our children to volunteer and be kind to other kids. In what ways are we kind to our own peers? In what ways are we volunteering? We simply taking our children at soup kitchen times like November is going to be here, and it's going to be time for the Thanksgiving holiday. Is it just a performance, where we take a picture? Is gratitude and volunteerism, a part of the way that you run your family and your household.

So children come home from school and if you only ask one question like how was your day? That question just leads, you know, young people to say good or bad, and it doesn't allow for it.

But if you ask a more open-ended question, tell me about the, your favorite part of today. Or tell me about something that you wish you could change, then you invite stories. Stories then allow you to get a sense of how your children are thinking about things. If you want your children to be the kind of children who love on, protect, guide and support and be connected to others, then you ask them about their peers, right?

Who's the child in your classroom that doesn't get called on or gets overlooked? Why do you think that is happening? Do you think there's something that you can do to support? So, those are the things that very early on, I really encourage caregivers to pay attention to, because if they're not doing it themselves, then it's very difficult to foster that in your children, because our children model the way we behave, more than what they will do, what we say that they should do.

LaWanda Toney: That's great, Marley for you, when did you know that what you were doing was a form of activism?

Marley Dias: That is a good question, because it's still arguable to this day that I don't know. My mom has run a foundation for women and girls like the Grassroots Community Foundation, for a long time. And I've never heard her use the word activist in describing what she does. We always called it social action, instead of activism. So I actually really quite honestly, never heard the term, it was always humanitarian, philanthropists – words I wouldn't use to describe myself still. And then, so, and then my mom just works in social action.

And the reason why I've always preferred discussing myself as a social activist or someone that has a social action project is because, I think, especially for kids, I don't want them to think it's the same as being a carpenter or a lawyer or a doctor where you need some sort of degree or specification, or you need to be an adult to have these sort of skills or the intuition or desire to help. So I heard the first term activist, when my campaign started to pick up more steam. I didn't, I had really, truly never heard someone use that, especially for a kid. And I'd never really thought of it as something to describe myself. To this day I use it to be brief, to make it clear what I do.

But I prefer when I talk to kids to tell them that I like to solve problems or I work on a project or I try to help people by doing this, versus giving myself a title, because I feel like the title can sometimes make kids feel like I'm inaccessible to them or that we aren't the same. When in reality, I've met so many kids that whether it's I'm at a book signing or I'm talking at a school and I just ask them, what's the most frustrating thing about going to school? They'll give you some really good answers. "We don't have enough balls in our gym class." "I can't walk to school, so I have to take the bus." "It's too cold in the winter."

Like, all of these ideas can be formed into social action projects and all of their little complaints and observations can turn into something that changes their community. So even though I do use the word, 'activist', among adults, because it's clear that it to them sometimes more than it's not just a title or I don't need any sort of degree to want to help other people, for kids I always describe it as, I like to solve problems or I'm a social change maker or I'm a social problem solver, anything to make it feel like when I can both do this together.

LaWanda Toney: I love that.

Helen Westmoreland: I do too. I think it's a good way of reframing activism a little bit. I it's like it is an action. It's not just an identity or a profession. It's an action you choose to take.

LaWanda Toney: And it's tangible, it's more kids can see it as something that they can actually do, versus that's for somebody else or that's for my mom or dad to do, they can be activists and I'll just reap the benefits of what they're able to do.

Marley Dias: Yeah. And for teenagers, it's really important to, to, I think, to not use the term, 'activism', because as this past year of social justice becoming more accessible to other people on these conversations opening up. We've also kind of seen a shift where the term activist is being used to describe anybody that wants to change the world, which I don't personally argue. I try to say that we can all be social problem solvers and that falls under activism.

Janice Dias: I like it. For us and the work at the Grassroots Community Foundation and what I tried to emphasize with the girls and the women that we trained is that we want to understand that regardless of the profession that you've chosen is that you can make a difference in the world and you can make a difference without being wealthy, without having a lot of resources, et cetera. All of us are connected to other human beings, and there are great inequalities in the world. And we want to reduce and eliminate those inequalities, and the greatest gift in doing so is the individual him or herself. And that is quite an important beginning for all young people to know. And it's also really important for adults who have not yet tapped into what they can do, which is to say, well, I don't have the time. I don't have the training, I don't have the money.

The thing is we're experienced in the world. And when we experience an inequity, we have to ask ourselves what is happening here and what is the entry point for me? And what do I bring to bear? The greatest resource I have, myself.

The term activism invites people to think about publicity and payments and job requirements and a lot of attention beyond people's individual communities and people's way of being connected. And so, I've never used a term to describe myself.

Marley Dias: Or me, really.

Janice Dias: And I don't use a term to describe Marley, and certainly because I have run a foundation and I do work across the globe, I think people do use that term to describe me, but I get to describe myself as an older person. I get to say, you know, I'm an educator, I'm a strategist, I'm a change maker. And those are the words that I use to describe myself for all of us around us. I think we each do have this capacity to change the world. And what we have to recognize is that the starting point is just us, right. And it's us to being aware of what's happening around us. And so that's what I try to emphasize to Marley, because right now she's working on children's literature. She's working on issues of inclusion, but she's going to go to college next year and there may be something else that is inviting to her spirit, and her passions develop.

Marley Dias: Completely agree. That's how I feel about it.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah, I want to ask you then just as a quick follow-up, since you talked about how we identify ourselves as so important to the change we want to make, do you both identify as entrepreneurs? Like we've put that term out there. Does that resonate with you?

Janice Dias: I officially now do. And I think that was not a thing for me.

Marley Dias: It wasn't for a while.

Janice Dias: Because also we didn't, I mean, what people should know and your listeners should know is that we didn't make any money. So.

Marley Dias: Yeah. Right. That's probably the first part of this.

Janice Dias: We should probably be really clear. And even if we do ten things, we probably make money out of three of them, even at this stage. In large part because, we want to reach under resource communities and under resource communities have no resources by which they can pay for our labor or time.

But I would say that now we identify as entrepreneurs, because entrepreneurs fill this gap. So, I think we've always thought of ourselves as social entrepreneurs, because we're filled in this gap in terms of conversations about women and girls, education, literacy and diversity. But we have decided that we want to begin initiatives that are specifically driven by our passions and our desires and so forth. By the time your audience hears this, they will know that we have formed a company in order to do such a thing. And that makes us entrepreneurs where we're seeking to actually gain monies from our ideas. But our justice work is not quite in that bucket.

Marley Dias: I think the one thing that has changed for me, I still wouldn't really consider myself an entrepreneur. I like the term social entrepreneur When I received the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, when I was 12, that was what they called me. And I was like, oh, okay. That's what I am. I like that. I never heard it before. So I think that the term is definitely a way you can describe what I do. And I liked the idea that I am filling a gap and a need. But I feel like I also have a lot of time to really transform what I'm interested in.

This is kind of the last approaching the last couple a year, or last month of, of this kind of traditional way that I've been doing and pursuing 1000 Black Girl Books for the past six years, which is a interesting shift that will occur. So, I think that the creative ideas that we have are, are valuable as well. I still am very bashful, I would say, compared to my mom. I have a desire to fill the gap, but I don't really have a desire to promote, to like sell my, like, not, not to sell myself, but to be like super proud of what I've done. I still struggle with that. I struggle with like, wanting to ask for help, wanting to get donations.

I could have asked for so much money when we started 1000 Black Girl Books, and I just could not, like raising money is so hard for me. So, there are aspects of social entrepreneurship that I still don't feel like I fully identify with, because I don't have that same drive or confidence to ask for what I need, or to ask for the resources to fill those gaps. So I always go with I know for sure I'm an author, you can find the book, I know that's the title, that no one can take away from me and I did executive produce a Netflix show. So, you can't take that away from me either, and then everything else is like, sure, I can do that too. I do that a little bit here and there.

Helen Westmoreland: I think one of the things I love about this conversation is like helping like us collectively challenge our assumptions, right? What does it mean to be an entrepreneur and activist? I think a theme I've heard from both of you is what's driving you is a desire to make change in the world. A desire for justice and that there are lots of issues you care about. I know you've both also been really involved in some mental health work. And so I want to give you a little bit of an opportunity to talk about that.

Janice Dias: Yeah. So several years ago, Grassroots Community Foundation partnered with RWJ Barnabas, which is a Robert Wood foundation and Barnabas Health merged. And we were able to train our middle school girls to learn more about public health. So oftentimes when we think about individual health, we think that our health is just affected by our own behaviors. And we wanted our girls to understand that there are many different things that influence our health. Largely, many of those things are structural factors. So the best way to do that was an internship.

So our girls participated in an internship and they had a capstone project that was due at the end. The capstone project was really about filling a gap. What did the healthcare system fail to understand?

Marley Dias: 'Fail' is a very strong word. It was what did the healthcare system misrepresent or not treat? I wouldn't go, they didn't fail, but we just felt like there was not a lot of focus on teenagers. Me and another girl named Tori Fergus came up with the idea for Greener Week in our project.

So within the project, my friend Tori and I came up with kind of a similar to Red Ribbon Week at our school where we knew that there was a really big push for anti-drug use and abuse within our school. And we thought, why don't we have that for something that, kids like actually experience, you know, it's not like it. When it comes to Red Ribbon Week within our school districts, it was really like, this is cool messaging, but it doesn't feel like it affects our everyday lives.

Especially growing up in upper middle class and middle class communities, we felt very distant from that issue. We wanted to tackle something that felt like, oh wow, they're actually talking about something I can... I experienced this, I see these signs. I know people that go through this, and I want to do something to help.

So we just had to kind of flip that and take some of the methods we saw that worked really well in our school towards drug prevention, combined with what we learned about public health and come up with something that would both create awareness and work on promoting positive mental health, rather than suicide prevention, which was something we didn't really think we should focus on. We felt like as teenagers, a lot of what's talked about when it comes to teenage issues is the most extreme situation that you can be in as a teenager. So it's pregnancy, drug abuse, and suicide, and we felt that sending those messages to kids of this is what your future will look like, and we want to do everything to stop it. And when you get to those points, we really can't help you that much. Versus saying, let's just take good care of ourselves every day. Let's try our best to be there for people and let's stay in as much of an overall positive mindset, accepting our highs and our lows.

So that's really what Green Ribbon Week was about. And it's continued to grow the town of West Orange, that I live in has adopted it for at school districts and just as a town in general. We will be wearing green every day. We will have we will have extra time outside to play. We will have art competitions to see who can discuss and describe their mental health the best. Our whole town has really done the best they can to support this work. And I've been doing it for the past four years

Janice Dias: So this is about moving beyond illness to wellness, and it was really the vein of the Grassroots Community Foundation. How can we amplify wellness? So Green Ribbon Week is really a dynamic week of fun activities, and our social media people can go back and look and they can employ those practices in their daily lives. And those includes breathing, playing, resting, talking things out. And we ask caregivers, which is to do this all the time, is to listen to a young person for 60 seconds without interruption.

Marley Dias: Which you probably think you do, but you probably don't. I will be honest. You probably do not.

LaWanda Toney: You are probably right. Probably, absolutely right. And I will take that advice today. I will do it today. I have a nine year old. And he talks a lot, but I don't know if I listen for 60 seconds. Yeah.

Janice Dias: You could put on your timer so that you have a real sense. Because I'm a trained high school teacher. One of the things that we learned is that 30 seconds is about how long most people can go. And then, they feel the need to say something. So even in the classroom, when teachers ask questions, teachers are often impatient and begin to start talking again, rather than just giving students the time to really think about their answers and to give them one minute to think about their answers before interjecting. So you could try and please do let me know how it works.

LaWanda Toney: I definitely will. Marley, I have a question for you about what advice would you give to kids if they want to make change in their communities? What's the first they can do?

Marley Dias: I think the first thing that kids can do really, I would say about 16 and under my age and under is to make note of your observations within your community, that you should be writing down, recording all of these smaller things that you begin to notice. So for example, in my town, even on my own street, the sidewalks stop about every a hundred yards where they'd have to, you have to walk to the other street and the other street and the other street, and it makes it very unwalkable.

So I don't have any place that I can hang out with my friends and walk to really consistently. And I don't have appropriate kind of sidewalks for that. If I record that and write that down and look up, what, how much do we pay in property taxes? How much, what is the average, you know, the health factors of my community, my county and starting to do research on things like that can really help you open your idea up to, Hey, all these little things that I notice every day at my school, with my friends, and even things that I do my own behaviors, they are rooted in something else that affects my everyday life. So that's advice I would give to kids is that it's not about action just yet, because I think that you do need to be really focused and intentional about what you want to do and to do that research and to do the work to see, hey, I get this problem and I see how it affects me. I see how it affects people I love. I see how it affects people I don't know. And I know why it happened. Then you can go from there and begin to work.

Helen Westmoreland: That is awesome. We've talked about all kinds of great stuff. And so I want to ask each of you, what's one thing that you want families and caregivers to walk away from today's conversation, really keeping front of mind?

Janice Dias: For me, it is my repeated mantra is, 'if you want to change the world, then how you parent your children really matters'. That the locus of control is yours. We are still shaping our children when they are under our rules. And so what we say to them, how we care for them, how we invite others in is going to have a big impact on what they do. And so you can change the world simply by the way you engage with young people.

Marley Dias: I would say to all the parents listening that it's really important to encourage your kid, to use their voice and to use your own voice, that a lot of kids mimic their parents' behaviors. I do in many ways. And they will watch and see how you engage with adults. If you talk to your friend on the phone and then hang up and immediately start talking bad about her, your kid will do the same thing. If you lie about when you're on your way, your kid will do the same thing. If you don't speak up when you see something wrong happening, your kid will do the same thing.

So I think it is about being intentional with the way that you act and not necessarily saying, 'Hey, I'm only, I'm going to stop doing these things just in front of the kid', but say, 'I'm going to stop doing these things all together', because kids will notice and observe all these behaviors.

Helen Westmoreland: And so if folks want some more, Dr. Janice and Marley Dias, where should they go?

Marley Dias: you can follow me on Instagram @IAmMarleyDias. You can also just search Marley Dias online and find all sorts of information about me. My show, Bookmarks, celebrating black voices is available on Netflix and on Netflix Kids on YouTube. You can also follow me on Twitter under the same handle @IAmMarleyDias. My book, Marley Dias Gets It Done And So Can You is available everywhere. And that's about it.

Janice Dias: All right, you can follow me @DrJaniceJohnson on Instagram and on Twitter, it's @DrJaniceJ. My website is www.thedoctorjanice.com. You can also follow the foundation @grassrootsfound or grassrootscommunityfoundation.com. My book, Parent Like It Matters  is available everywhere. And you can also have a direct link from it from my website.

LaWanda Toney: To our audience listening, thank you for joining us. For more resources related to today's episode, check out notesfromthebackpack.com. And if you like today's episode, make sure to leave us a rating or review on Apple Podcasts. Thanks for listening. Join us next time.