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ConneXions Academy libarary opening: An Interview with principal Kia Harper by Friend of a Friend program director Dominque Stevenson

ConneXions library opening
Eddie Conway and friends cut the ribbon at the opening of the ConneXions Leadership Academy library opening in Baltimore. A book drive for the library was organized by the AFSC's Friend of a Friend program. Photo: Bryan Vana / AFSC

In October 2014, AFSC’s Friend of a Friend program organized a book drive to support the opening of a library at ConneXions Academy in Baltimore. Led by Friend of a Friend associate Marshall “Eddie” Conway, the drive brought in thousands of books to fill the empty shelves, which were unveiled in a public ceremony featuring activist artist Emory Douglas.

Dominque Stevenson: How did ConneXions [Community Leadership Academy] become involved with AFSC?

Kia Harper: The relationship between AFSC and ConneXions is probably one of the most serendipitous experiences. Our newly formed spoken word team performed at the Louder Than a Bomb competition shortly after Mr. [Edward] Conway had been released from prison and he happened to have been in the audience has an honorary guest. One of our teachers who was there for support thought that it would be a great idea for Mr. Conway to come and speak to our students, considering his contribution to the history of civil rights. However, the teacher was too timid to approach him as the announcement was made that he was exiting the building.

After getting the nerve, we went outside and ran after him figuring the worst that he could say was no, introduced ourselves, and asked him if he would come to the school. He said that he would love to and that was the beginning...

DS: How did the idea come about for the new library, and how did the school reach out for assistance?

KH: Interestingly enough, Mr. Eddie (as he was endearingly termed) began having his community meetings at the school and we would tell him that he should have his meetings in the library. And he was... having his meetings for about a month in the shell of a newly renovated space with completely empty and mobile shelves. One day Mr. Eddie asked if they were going to get to see the library. We responded to him saying that he was in the library and in fact, the space had just been renovated. We seemed so proud and didn't realize how desensitized we were once Mr. Eddie replied, "Where are all the books?" We let him know that it was the school's responsibility to supply the library and due to budget constraints, the library never seemed to make the priority list. Mr. Eddie was appalled and began making phone calls, rallying volunteers, collecting thousands of books, making double dozens of visits and in October, kept his word by hosting the grand opening of the library for the school and the community. We will always be grateful to AFSC, Mr. Eddie, Ms. Dominique, Ms. LaKeyma [Pennyamon] and the dozens of volunteers who made it possible.

DS: How will the new library impact the students and staff at the school?

KH: Honestly, I think that it's a resource that we have to get used to. It's unfortunate, but not having a functional library for so long has immunized students and teachers from its value and usefulness. It's sickening that our children's reality does not include the standards by which many schools in suburban America take for granted. To be fair, you do see many libraries in the elementary schools that are vibrant and full of literary options. And yet, in many of the secondary level schools that are not considered "elite," you have situations like ours. And, when many of our student's reading levels are so far behind, having a library in urban schools should absolutely be the priority in every school, not let to whether or not the school's budget can support it or not.

I think that the impact will be monumental not only for students, but for teachers and parents. I think that it symbolizes the rejuvenation of a community when adults who span generations unite and rally for the cause of education in the name of future generations. I think that it was important for our young people to see this in action, to see folks who did not know them, care and invest their personal time and energy to ensure that there was some sense of adequacy in the school where they spend so much time.

I think that reading uncovers truths. I think that reading offers choice. I think that reading changes lives. And having the library has allowed our students and teachers the ability for school to finally "feel real."