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‘By students, for other students’: Duke Anti-Racism Book Club lets students learn from each other

Senior Sydney McKinney was sitting in an airport this summer, scrolling through eBooks, when she noticed that the top 10 trending books were all about anti-racism. This gave her an idea: starting Duke’s Anti-Racism Book Club. 

“I had a lot of white friends who really wanted to help with the [Black Lives Matter] movement and be supportive and be an ally but didn’t know where to start,” she said. 

McKinney sent some of her friends a list of books about anti-racism, and their enthusiastic response inspired her to start the ARBC’s Instagram page.

Within two days, the page had over 1,000 followers, McKinney said. Realizing that the organization would be a bigger venture than she had originally anticipated, she decided to recruit an executive board to help organize events, select resources and run discussions. 

McKinney said that the most rewarding part of founding and leading the Duke 

ARBC has been realizing that she built “a space where people are really having important discussions and we’re all learning so much from each other.”

Senior Kiera Little, the ARBC’s discussion coordinator, decided to apply for a position on the leadership team because she was excited about the club being both led by and created for students.

“We as a generation have so much power. Working on something that was being led by the Duke community, and by students in that community, was really exciting,” Little said.

In June and July, the ARBC leadership chose one book per month for participants to read. The June book was “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi, and the July book was “Chokehold: Policing Black Men” by Paul Butler. 

In August, the ARBC shifted gears slightly, introducing a theme to which each month’s book would correspond. In August, the theme was how race functions within the criminal justice system, and the book was “Are Prisons Obsolete?” by Angela Davis. 

The September theme was medical racism, and members of the ARBC read “Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor's Reflections on Race and Medicine” by Damon Tweedy. The executive team was able to arrange a virtual conversation with Tweedy at the end of the month, an event McKinney called “amazing.”

In October, McKinney said that the ARBC will read “Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation” by Eric Deggans, an adjunct instructor in the Sanford School of Public Policy. Participants will have the opportunity to speak with Deggans virtually at the end of the month, McKinney said. 

Little said that the ARBC is currently planning a giveaway of Deggans’ book, which the organization ordered from a Black-owned bookstore in Charlotte, N.C. 

Although the group has more than 1,200 Instagram followers as of Sept. 29, McKinney said that about 60 members showed up to the first monthly virtual discussion. Now that the school year has started, attendance at discussions and events hovers around 25 members. 

The ARBC is not yet an officially recognized club at Duke, but McKinney said they have written a constitution and are in the process of looking for a faculty advisor in hopes of becoming one.

The organization sends out a regular newsletter with links to documentaries, podcasts and other relevant resources. Little, who is in charge of the newsletter, said the executive team recently decided to add a history section in order to help students familiarize themselves with the context surrounding the ARBC’s monthly books and themes. 

McKinney said she hopes to switch up the kinds of books the ARBC reads in the future. 

“We want to start transitioning into more books that are uplifting stories, uplifting Black stories. We don’t want it to always be such a heavy topic that can be really traumatizing for people,” McKinney said. She noted that this might include fiction. 

Little also noted that the group hopes to continue partnering with other student groups on campus. She said that a campus pre-medical group publicized the ARBC’s event with Damon Tweedy, which centered on medical racism, and the ARBC will be working with United Black Athletes when they take on the relationship between sports and race as one of their themes. 

Both Little and McKinney reflected that it can be difficult to facilitate conversations that encourage growth but also feel as safe and inclusive as possible. 

“Honestly, these are really difficult topics that we’re touching on, and they’re really emotional and can be very traumatic for certain people. Trying to figure out how to have conversations and create spaces that are simultaneously challenging and a safe space is a challenge that we’re constantly working on,” McKinney said. 

As discussion coordinator, Little said that she has to grapple with how to facilitate productive conversations without presenting herself as an authority or making meetings feel like class. 

Despite these challenges, McKinney said it is rewarding to see the engagement from participants. 

“Our members come ready to talk, which is great. People really come with things they want to say, things they want to talk about. It’s really exciting to see people passionate about this topic and learning from each other,” McKinney said.

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