At KIPP Iluminar Academy, class was in session with the Alphabet Rockers bringing students together with their music, dance moves, encouraging words, and the magic of books and reading, including their very first picture book, You Are Not Alone.
Inspiring words invited our KIPPsters to love their beautiful selves, celebrate their unique identities, stand up to hate, and have each other’s backs no matter what. In fact, each 3rd and 4th grader at KIPP Iluminar got to bring home their own copy of this empathetic and inclusive children’s book that reminds kids that they always belong — made possible through our "Authors to KIPP" program in partnership with the Creating Conversations bookstore.
KIPPsters were also reminded, “In those moments that you are afraid or feel like you don’t belong, know that YOU ARE NOT ALONE,” by Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Shepherd, co-founders of Alphabet Rockers, a multiracial, intergenerational, three-time grammy-nominated group making children’s media to make a change.
We (virtually) sat down with the talented musicians and authors, McGaw and Shepherd, to dive into this moving read and learn about what framed their purpose to create brave spaces and their drive to amplify authentic voices and experiences of the BIPOC community.
What is the biggest factor in K-8 that helped frame your purpose and relationship with the world?
Kaitlin McGaw (M): In seventh grade, we had a collection of “great books” that we read in class. But, it felt like I was just reading from a white man's perspective on what the white man was seeing … It was very soon after that I started listening, reading and understanding African American poetry, in particular. It actually felt like, ‘This is it! This is the world that I understand to be true.’
Tommy Shepherd (S): Music shaped me from zero to now. But, in school I started to see that I’m Black and was treated differently because of it! I had a lot of inspirational people in my life, but I didn’t have anyone really strengthening my Blackness. So when I was at school, my vulnerability made me want to be white because white people were treated better! But I’m on the other side now, [interrupting the patterns that got us here and] embracing who I am.
What sparked the idea forYou Are Not Alone?
M: Our communities needed content that was healing, that reflected who we are and empowers us— that embraces Black liberation, Queer liberation, Indigenous rights, immigrant rights, and intersectionality. ...
We had to really call in the energy of kids just like the KIPPsters we met today. We had to call in their bravery and remember them at the center of our story. I do believe this book will be different, depending on who's reading it. There's an opportunity to ask questions and discuss: ‘What do you see? What do you hear? What do you understand? What can we create together?’ That's really what it's about.
You Are Not Alone read-aloud by Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Shepherd.
What advice would you give a child to remind them that they belong?
S: There could be some comfort in the fact that you are not the only child that's sitting by themselves. There are other kids everywhere that are not going to let you be alone. You just have to find them. They have to find us and we can do that with patience and love! And even if we're shy, we can draw people with our energy to us or we can be brave enough just to make one small friend. But you're not alone in those feelings, there's a lot of people that feel that way.
M: “You are perfect the way you are! And, you are enough.”
Some parents may feel like they are protecting their kids when they avoid talking about racism. What are your thoughts on talking about racism at a young age to help children learn how to stand up, show up and get loud as change makers?
S: Personally, I wasn't afforded the option to wait because my son was experiencing racism in preschool and his friends were witnessing it. Then, it happened again in kindergarten, and again in first grade. We have to amend how people are going to look at him because he's getting older now, and he stops being cute and starts being threatening in other people's eyes.
When a person says, ‘I want to shield my child and protect their innocence [by not having the talk]’ that to me feels like you don't care about protecting my kids innocence. I need you to actually think about this the way I have to, because [both of our kids go to school together and need to know how to protect each other].
Illustration Credit: Ashley Evans
M: We need to do that investigation in our own cultural framework and find out why we are complacent to things that are anti-Black, anti-immigrant, etc.
We encourage parents/guardians to do that work perhaps when the kids are sleeping at night. There's plenty of resources, even school counselors who may be available to help. It's okay to be vulnerable with your children and say, ‘I don't understand this, but I know it's not right’ — it's okay to enter with that clarity and not feel like you have to be an authoritarian about how the world needs to change.
"We all have big feelings." As great successful writers, composers, educators, can you speak to the power of journaling for young students and adults alike?
M: For people trying to do anti-racist work, it's advised to journal on your own. Write down the questions, write down the fears, all the things that you're not sure about. Let it out so it's not spinning in your mind. ...
I record voice memos or videos which are either spoken word, inspiration, or just a moment. And that's what journaling is, it can just be a moment! It doesn't have to be finished, it doesn't even have to be who you are tomorrow, but it's a pause for you to connect with your heart.
You speak about radical imagination beginning with the way we read, sing and ask questions about the world. What would you say are some good tips for parents and/or educators to nourish some of this radical imagination?
M: Listen. I think that a big part of it is listening, because you don't even have to ask any questions to hear what someone needs. That's something that we don't do very much. We ask questions that we already know the answers to like, ‘How are you doing today?’ We already know they’re going to say, ‘okay/all right’ so I'm not really listening at that moment. I think it's very important to recognize that.
How do you keep your spirits up and continue bringing that continuous love for community, art, and activism?
S: I think it’s our ancestors, I think it's our predecessors in activism, I think it's the people whose words we grew up learning and I think it's seeing the actions of those not living anymore and those still alive – all of that gets jumbled together and that just builds the soul, you know. We get lit up by it!
Illustration Credit: Ashley Evans
M: There are some legacies of change that are sparking now from young people. So having young people rewrite the world with us is essential. We need to be really present with one another, we need to be extra loving with one another, we need to listen to the ancestors who reminded us to rest. It's not about a sprint… Send that love to one another at a time when we need it the most.
Overall, “we hope people feel like they are not alone,” said Shepherd. “It sounds so simple, but it’s huge for someone to see another person’s experience and really connect to it and feel that they are not the only ones that are feeling this way.”
Our KIPPsters not only received free book copies, journals, and pens, but they received the book's message loud and clear! With so much excitement students shouted: “I am powerful. I am brave. I am brilliant.” They continued, “You are powerful. You are brave. You are brilliant.” Yes, and we are stronger together. We're not alone. Today, let’s show up for someone who needs to feel that support.
Lastly, in the words of McGaw and Shepherd, “if all you have is a pen, use it. If all you have is a song, sing it. If all you have is a drum, play it” to help build the world we all want to see — one story, one song, one beat, one moment at a time. “Your story matters.” It’s that powerful. We are that powerful.
“We hope this book empowers you to love yourself and stand up to hate. Enjoy this activity kit based on the book.” — Alphabet Rockers