When Somali families collaborated with local organizations on two book projects, they created more than just reading material.
Working on the projects created space for intergenerational dialogue in the Somali community.
“It was a very good experience, we engaged more than just making the book, we were singing, we were doing Somali stories,” said Maryanne Abdulle, who also runs a Somali community childcare company and who was a co-facilitator on the project.
The collaboration between the Somali community, the Seattle Public Library and the Seattle Public Schools and the Seattle Housing Authority has resulted in two children’s books in the Somali language, the school district’s third-most spoken non-English language.
The first book published in 2018, “Baro Af-Soomaali,” means “Learn Somali.” That book teaches the Somali alphabet using objects common to Somali culture.
The latest, “Baro Tirinta Af Soomaaliga” which means, “Learn to Count in Somali,” involved five families from the High Point and Holly Park neighborhoods of Seattle.
They spent Friday evenings in the summer of 2018 working together on the project. They worked with teaching artist Amaranta Ibarra-Sandys. Ibarra-Sandys’ role was to help illustrate the book. Abdulle helped provide structure during project sessions.
Like the first book, the second book features objects common to the Somali culture, including fruits and vegetables such as dates, papayas and mangoes.
People of all ages in the Somali community engaged creatively with the process — which sometimes resulted in new projects.
“One of the students, she came [to the United States] when she was 12 or 13, so she speaks Somali, reads and write when she came to this country… [because of the project] she offered to teach young kids the Somali language, every Sunday and Saturday for two hours,” said Farhiya Mohamed, the executive director of the Somali Family Safety Task Force, an organization that also collaborated on the book project.
Mohamed said she suggested children’s books when the Seattle Public Schools first started asking the community for ideas on how to serve the Somali community.
“I thought we should make a book… because I was working at the library before, [and] we were short with Somali books,” Mohamed said.
Amy Twito, Informal Learning program manager for Seattle Public Library, said the library’s lack of books in Somali language was its most glaring gap.
“From the library’s point of view, we have just about the biggest gap in between the number of books that we have in Somali, which I believe is under 200 books in our entire collection,” she said. “There are other languages where we have very few books available in that language, but the population is also fairly small, whereas the biggest, most glaring gap is between the Somali community and the number of books that we have in our collection.”
The Seattle Public Schools also created community listening sessions to hear directly from the Somali families about their needs.
“When we talk to families about their educational experiences and what they wanted for their children, it wasn’t just about academics or education,” said Kathlyn Paananen, the housing and education manager for Seattle Public Schools. “There’s a lot about culture and feeling like families were raising children who were living in two worlds. It’s like kind of Somali traditional culture and American culture, they were straddling these two worlds and the families talked about this feeling of loss, like their children were losing their Somali culture and heritage and language even.”
The book projects were funded in part by the Seattle Public Library Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Seattle Housing Authority and Seattle Office of Arts and Culture.
One agreement from the book creation partnership was to give the families control of how the book would be created.
“They decided the layout of the book. They decided the title of the book, what to call it, they decided that they wanted it to be bilingual and not just in Somali. They decided they wanted to feature fruits and vegetables in it,” Twito said.
The families — not the institutions — led the project, Twito said.
“I represent mostly largely white organization that’s rooted in dominant culture. I had to kind of relearn how to approach these things and, and give up control. And just because the library was paying for it doesn’t mean that the library gets to take 100 percent of the credit from it. It’s just a new way of working and building up trust with the community.”
Paananen hopes that what they learned from the collaboration with the Somali community can help them better engage with other communities of color.
“After the first book was done, we created an educator’s guide with the Somali Family Safety Task Force,” she said. “It talks about recognizing differences in culture, it helped us have conversations within our classrooms to recognize that there’s beauty in differences in cultures and it has to have that conversation with our young people in schools too.”
The Seattle Public Schools math department is also rethinking how it serves families of color after the book experience.
“The math department is in the middle of convening parents at a school to hear what their goals, ideas and needs… as opposed to developing a predetermined solution for families,” Paananen said.
“We could do more to honor and recognize all families that are part of our community and not just think of them as meeting as recipients of services,” Paananen said.
Abdulle said she hopes the projects lead to a culture change on the institutional level.
“They learned from us, we can do whatever we want and then we are very creative people and hardworking families who just need support to do things,” Abdulle said.
The Somali Family Safety Task Force will hold a launch party for the book at the New Holly Gathering Hall for “Baro Tirinta Af Soomaaliga” on Friday March 29.
Somali Numbers Book Launch Party
Friday March 29, 5:30 – 8 p.m. New Holly Gathering Hall, 7054 32nd Avenue South, Seattle, WA 98118. Program begins at 6 p.m. Food and drinks provided