For nearly two years, Kierra Robinson has brought her tiny roving library to El Paso’s parks, churches and coffee shops. The baby-blue booth is decorated with butterflies, twinkling lights and paper poppies — and stuffed full of books. Sleeping atop two bookshelves is Lola the stuffed-animal sloth: Robinson’s favorite animal, there to add “comfort and peace of mind,” the 23-year-old said.
A closer look at the two crammed shelves shows this is no ordinary book giveaway. The library took root in the first tumultuous months of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, when Robinson was still a student at the University of Texas at El Paso. With titles like “Girl Positive” and “Extraordinary Hispanic Americans,” Robinson’s library — a nonprofit called Readvolutionary — offers up free texts about racism, sexism, and multiculturalism for readers young and old to digest at their own pace and on their own terms.
Now a librarian’s aide in the Socorro Independent School District and an after-school activity leader for the YWCA, Robinson spends most of her days educating middle schoolers. But her quiet Readvolution has begun to spread across the country, with new chapters popping up in Texarkana, Oklahoma and Los Angeles.
She took a break from her 10-hour workday to talk with El Paso Matters about Readvolutionary, critical race theory and teaching middle schoolers about Black history.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
El Paso Matters: How did Readvolutionary get started?
Robinson: At the time I started it, I was very angry. It was at the peak of all the protests and George Floyd had just gotten murdered. Breonna Taylor had just gotten murdered. Every day I would open up social media and just see Black bodies, either on the floor because they were hurt in protests, or just a lot of police brutality and a lot of racism on the timeline.
I had a lot of negative energy, and I was really upset. So I asked for all that energy to be used in whatever way, shape or form it needed to be used. And then I had a dream about Readvolutionary — I don’t really remember what the dream was. But I had a dream.
And then the next morning, I woke up, and I opened up Instagram, and I was getting a lot of ads for Black authors, like Black children’s books. And so I started looking into little libraries. And that’s how Readvolutionary came to be. It gave me a route to channel my anger and use it positively.
El Paso Matters: Had that anger been building before George Floyd’s death?
Robinson: Yeah. I personally feel like El Paso lives in a bubble. We’re very sheltered here because (Latinos) are the majority. And so there’s a lot of ignorance: a lot of turning a blind eye to racism, and a lot of the struggles that African Americans and Afro-Latinos go through in El Paso.
And then I was seeing ignorant comments on Twitter and stuff, like people commenting on (the FitFam instagram account), and I was like, ‘Wow, this city is racist.’ Well, there are racist people in the city.
(That anger) also started when I took an African American history class with Dr. (Michael) Williams at UTEP. I was learning a lot of real African American history — not just what they teach us in American public education.
I was learning about Claudette Colvin, who actually sat on the bus and refused to give up her seat before Rosa Parks. Why didn’t the NAACP choose her to be the face of the movement? Why am I taught all my life that Rosa Parks started the movement, when it really was a pregnant 15-year-old? But they didn’t want to use her face and name because she was pregnant at 15.
And I was learning more about Malcolm X and learning more about Martin Luther King and just being upset that those people and topics are just scratched on (in public education), just barely the surface.
El Paso Matters: Beyond your dream, why did you decide to push for change through books? Are you a big reader?
Robinson: Actually, I used to hate reading when I was a kid. But my thought process at the time was, I didn’t know how I could personally be an educator, or if I ever have children in the future, how I could teach them without continuing the cycle, without continuing to push prejudices and biases that have been taught to us. I feel like books give children a plain canvas for them to read and interpret their thoughts on their own — and to express their thoughts, and for myself to just be a listener, to just absorb everything that they’re taking in from the books. It allows them to form their own thoughts, rather than me telling them, ‘Hey, this is this.’
El Paso Matters: How do you identify, in terms of your racial or ethnic background?
Robinson: My mother is Hispanic and from El Paso. My father is African American from South Carolina. Growing up, it was always really clear that we were mixed. With the Hispanic side of the family, we were always Black, and with the Black side of the family, we were always Mexican. And so it was really hard to form a sense of identity growing up because it’s like, ‘Well, half of my family is saying this and the other half of my family saying this, so like, what really am I?’
El Paso Matters: Growing up, do you feel like you had enough books where you were able to identify with the protagonist?
Robinson: No, and I think that’s definitely why, even with my own collection, I read some of the children’s books. I guess I’m going back and healing that inner child because I never experienced things like that, you know? Even books like “I Am Enough” where there’s an African American girl with curly hair on the cover — I never saw things like that. I don’t even think that I had seen anything in Disney until Princess Tiana came out. And even then, half the movie she’s a frog!
Had I been exposed to this (at a younger age), maybe the course of my life would have been different, you know?
El Paso Matters: Are you still angry? What are your emotions now?
Robinson: I’ve channeled my focus into the library (and) into education, so that I don’t focus on the negative parts of what’s going on. Last week, when there was another no-knock warrant issued and (Amir Locke) got shot by the police in Minneapolis, we discussed it with the children. And we just gave them the facts about no-knock warrants — that African Americans are getting shot in their sleep basically, by police.
My coordinator started off the program by saying, ‘Hey, we’re gonna share some stories with you. They are real stories.’ And we talked about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland. I think we had 32 to 35 students that day. And out of those students, when we brought up George Floyd, three of them knew who he was. And then when we talked about Breonna Taylor, nobody knew who she was. And this is recent. It was shocking.
I was amazed and then a little, I guess, jealous — because I’m like, ‘Dang, you guys really don’t have to know about these things.’ Or not that they don’t have to know about these things, but they don’t have to learn about those things in fear.
El Paso Matters: What has changed since you started Readvolutionary? What still needs to change, and how has your mission changed along with it?
Robinson: The pushback against (anti-racism) is bigger than what it used to be. Teaching children critical race theory, it’s not like we’re turning them into little soldiers. We’re not brainwashing them into thinking that America is bad, or that governments or white people are bad even. It’s just giving facts, like, ‘Hey, you look like this. Other people look like this. This is what happens to people who look like this.’ It’s that simple.
El Paso Matters: What do you think about the push to ban critical race theory in schools, even though critical race theory is not currently taught at the K-12 level?
Robinson: It’s honestly amazing to me. These kids really are not going to learn anything. Because they gave us scraps. They picked and pulled and weeded what we could learn, and now they’re picking and pulling and weeding from what little they gave us. These children are really not gonna know anything. I just don’t see what’s wrong, giving them the truth. I feel like being biased and (forcing) people to go out of their way and have to learn things on their own, is what’s going to cause more anger and is what’s going to cause more pushback eventually, in the long run. Letting children form their own opinions and thoughts is healthier.
Cover photo: Kierra Robinson at a Readvolutionary pop-up at El Paso’s Dick Shinaut Park on July 4, 2021. (Courtesy of Kierra Robinson/Readvolutionary)