Interview with Sarah Kamya, founder of Little Free Diverse Libraries
by Lisa Stringfellow
I'm excited to welcome Sarah Kamya, the founder of the Little Free Diverse Libraries movement. As a steward of a Little Free Library myself, I was inspired by Sarah's work to build a Little Free Library in my community that served a two-fold need; that of BIPOC children who needed to see themselves reflected in the books they read and that of BIPOC authors and illustrators whose work I wanted to amplify. My library, The Little Free Kidlit Library, launched in April in my home of Hyde Park, MA and I'm so excited to have Sarah here to talk about her journey and what inspired her to start this movement!
Lisa: What was the inspiration behind Little Free Diverse Libraries?
Sarah: I was inspired to start Little Free Diverse Libraries during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. After many weeks in isolation I found myself passing the same three Little Free Libraries on my nightly strolls, and as someone who has always been an avid reader and book lover, I would always stop to see what books were inside. When the murder of George Floyd occurred on May 25th, I knew I had to do something within my community. Fueled by the current tide of civil justice, I had the idea to create and install a Little Free Library to amplify and empower Black and Brown voices within my community of Arlington, MA. I wanted to create a Little Free Library where the only books that filled the library were books featuring diverse characters, written by BIPOC authors, purchased from Black-owned bookstores. I set out to normalize diverse stories and bring diverse narratives to the forefront, especially for Black and brown youth, who so often cannot find themselves represented in literature. My mission throughout this project has been to amplify and empower diverse voices, one book at a time.
Lisa: You're also an educator. How has that influenced your work?
Sarah: As a school counselor at a Title 1 Elementary School in New York City, the majority of the students I work with are Black and brown, and come from low-income communities. My work as a school counselor involves teaching coping skills, helping one build self-confidence, stress management, and more. My work in this field has influenced my work with Little Free Libraries significantly. I strongly believe that if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. With a lack of representation of BIPOC characters in literature, the children I work with are significantly being impacted. As I continue to work with future change-makers, leaders, and activists, I am passionate about elevating their voices, and helping them see their worth. This can be as simple as seeing a character that looks like them, that becomes an astronaut for a day or goes on an adventure with their grandmother. When I was growing up I did not have books and resources where I saw myself. This impacted me greatly, and it is not something I want my students, or any other BIPOC individual to face.
Lisa: What’s been the biggest surprise about this project?
Sarah: The biggest surprise about this project has been the outpour of love and support across the United States and Canada. I have connected with a Little Free Library lover or steward in all 50 states, and have been able to send diverse books to fill a Little Free Library in every state. This connection and impact is something that goes beyond me. The books that enter these Little Free Libraries are shared, borrowed, held tight, and passed along. Knowing that these diverse books are in the hands of many across the country is unbelievable. I have also loved connecting with people on Instagram. There are so many incredible humans doing amazing work. I feel so lucky to be connected to other diverse book lovers and those who are continuing to support this project.
Lisa: What books have been popular in your own Little Free Library?
Sarah: In my Little Free Diverse Library in Arlington, MA books are constantly leaving and new books are being returned weekly. Since we live five minutes from one of the elementary schools, the library can be a frequent stop on the way to or from school. Many families can be seen stopped outside the library selecting books, trading books, and promising to return back another day when they have a book to leave. Some of the most popular books have been, Tallulah the Tooth Fairy CEO by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli, I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes, Becoming by Michelle Obama, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, and The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett.
Lisa: How do you select titles to include? How do you keep your library/libraries stocked?
Sarah: When selecting books I like to mix between children’s books, young adult books, and adult books. As of lately there are more children’s books in the library as I am focusing on collecting books for children, and find that there is so much to learn and take away from a children's book. We keep a back-stock of books so that the library is never empty, and thanks to the Amazon wishlist people have been kind enough to send books to our house.
Lisa: What’s your favorite story about the Little Free Diverse Libraries project?
Sarah: This is a hard one! I mean meeting Ryan Seacrest and Kelly Ripa was pretty spectacular…. But I would have to say the day I installed the Little Free Diverse Library. My Little Free Diverse Library is installed in the front yard of my family's home in Arlington, MA. This home is where I grew up, where I was raised, where I was the only Black girl in school until 6th grade, where I learned who I was. Installing the library outside my home was a very significant and memorable moment.
The day of the installation was a beautiful July summer day, and I was surrounded by my family, childhood best friends, and neighbors who have seen me grow up. Seeing the installation of the Little Free Diverse Library signified change for not only the small town I grew up in, but for myself. The library reminds me that the quiet, lonely, isolated Black little girl who never saw herself represented in literature, or the people around her, was making something of herself, and changing the narrative so future little Black girls never have to not see themselves represented, supported, amplified, and empowered in books, or when they walk down our street.
Lisa: What advice would you give to someone wanting to start a Little Free Diverse Library?
Sarah: My advice for someone who wants to start a Little Free Diverse Library would be to just do it!!! If you have the passion and the dedication to diverse literature (and the ability to stick something in your yard or community) then why not! When setting up a Little Free Diverse Library think about your community. Who is represented? Who is not? What conversations are missing? How can you foster a diverse space for sharing, communicating, and inspiring? It is absolutely incredible to see how the community has come together because of this library. I see a Little Free Diverse Library as an educational tool and resource for non BIPOC community members, and a beacon of hope for BIPOC authors, children, and adults. There is so much to gain from having a Little Free Diverse Library, and personally it feels like my very own baby.
Lisa: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Sarah: I hope to install 10 more Little Free Diverse Libraries before January 2022 (totaling 20 Little Free Diverse Libraries in one year)! I am eternally grateful for the team at Little Free Library for all their support, and the incredible organization that they created that allows others to connect with literature, any day, anytime, for free.
Sarah Kamya is a child of an Ugandan immigrant, has a Masters from NYU in Counseling and Guidance in Schools K-12 and now works at P.S. 191, a K-8 Title 1 Public School in New York City as a School Counselor. It is here she witnessed first hand how hard it is for young Black and brown students to find their own experiences reflected in popular media, especially literature. What started as a passion project turned into a small movement. In the first 10 days LFDL raised over $6,000 to purchase books from Black-owned bookstores. To date, Kamya has raised over $20,000, has sent diverse books to a Little Free Library in all 50 states, and has installed 10 Little Free Libraries at schools in Boston and New York City.
You can find out more about the books Kamya is reading, sharing, and amplifying on LFDL’s Instagram (@littlefreediverselibraries).