Dana Anderson prepared to take her three young children to a vigil in her affluent, mostly white town after George Floyd was killed earlier this year.
She was shocked to see the reaction in the suburb of Chicago where she lives.
“It was boarded up like the whole place was going to be bombed,” she said. “Instilling that white fear.”
Anderson, who is white, only saw one familiar face at the peaceful protest of about 300 people.
It made her even more grateful for the community she’s found in We Stories, a St. Louis-based nonprofit that recently expanded its efforts nationwide.
Adelaide Lancaster and Laura Horwitz began the organization five years ago as parents of young children looking for a way to respond to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. They wanted to give white parents a way to talk to young children about race -- primarily through reading and discussing diverse children’s books, and later by working through a curriculum they developed.
They didn’t expect that they would also change hundreds of parents along the way and possibly alter the way young white children think about race around the country.
Lancaster said families outside of St. Louis have long wanted to join the program, but that the primary hesitation in expanding was their tiny organization’s bandwidth. They finally decided to add a small cohort of remote families to launch this summer. The pandemic led We Stories to transfer their program to completely virtual operations. Then Floyd’s killing created a surge of interest among parents around the country, so they brought in more families.
In all, We Stories added 110 families this summer, who participated remotely from 28 states and the District of Columbia.
A little more than 80 percent of those families are white.
Anderson, whose children are 9, 6 and 4, says the experience has been positive for all of them. She grew up in a home where race was not openly discussed. The mentality back then was to take a “color-blind” approach and treat everyone the same, she said. “Now we are realizing we need to understand and acknowledge people’s differences and lived experiences in regards to race,” she said.
She found people trying to do the same thing in her We Stories group.
“The cohort connected me with white parents who are working through this in their own homes, which I feel like I didn’t have in my own community,” said Anderson, adding that there hasn’t been a lot of talk in her kids’ school about race or racism.
Lancaster hopes the expansion will help the group also make a contribution to the field of scholarship. They have developed partnerships with professors doing research at Washington University in St. Louis, New York University and the University of Pittsburgh.
“We have a large ‘laboratory’ of white families wanting to incorporate anti-racist practices in parenting,” she said.
Lori Markson, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University and director of the school’s Cognition and Development Lab, developed tasks and tests to try to see if there was any measurable impact on the children who participate in We Stories.
Her team tested hundreds of children -- a We Stories group and a control group -- on five to eight tasks. In one of the coloring exercises, they discovered a statistically significant difference.
Children who had been through the We Stories program and were exposed to books with diverse characters were more likely to color the faces of the outlined children using different skin tones. The exposure to diverse books through We Stories may have made them more open to differences, Markson said.
“That was really fascinating,” she said. “I’m excited about the research potential.”
She said she’s also encouraged by the change she’s seeing happen in a broader context of racial equity.
Anderson, who wasn’t sure how to involve her local community before doing We Stories, is now trying to start a parent equity group in her school.
“When I’ve spoken up in the past, I’ve felt like the lone person,” she said.
That might finally be changing.