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The Learning Tree Grows Mississippi Readers

The Learning Tree Book Club gathers for its first virtual meeting. Photo courtesy Learning Tree Book Club

The Learning Tree Book Club gathers for its first virtual meeting. Photo courtesy Learning Tree Book Club

We saw this before George Floyd: We have systemic imbalances in our society, and reading is one way to impact that," Meredith McGee says.

To help combat this imbalance, a group of community activists banded together to create learning opportunities for readers ranging in age from "6 to 60-plus."

To do this, the group, headed by McGee, hosted a weeklong reading fair at Pearl Street AME Church in spring 2018, and at the end of the week, the group members adopted the moniker of the "Learning Tree Book Club" and voted to begin having monthly meetings in a free space in the Jackson Medical Mall.

Armed with a suitcase full of reading materials ranging from picture books to novels to periodicals, McGee spent the first Saturday afternoon of each month reading with various members of the Jackson community.

"It's a learning exchange," she says. "One person at a time reads to the group, so if an adult reads a poem by Langston Hughes and the kids have a question about the poem, everybody learns something."

With a record attendance of 16 readers, McGee says that she never minded small groups. "The beauty (of a smaller crowd) is that you might have a father and a mother reading to their 3-year-old, or you might have a child visit only once because the child spends time with us while their parents are having their taxes done elsewhere in the building," McGee says.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, changed the format of the meetings, with the Learning Tree Book Club deciding in July to move its meetings online. "(The pandemic) has helped us expand beyond our local base," McGee says of the transition. "We've had readers join us from as far away as California and Detroit."

In addition to its hour-and-a-half-long monthly reading sessions, the group is also currently hosting a speaker series, which the Mississippi Humanities Council funds in part. But McGee says, this progression is not the end goal for the group.

"We want to raise money to create community libraries, which are basically abandoned houses converted into libraries so that local kids can walk to them," McGee says.

Community libraries differ from public libraries in that parents, grandparents and other community members control them instead of a city or county government.

"Literacy is a serious problem in Jackson and across the country," McGee concludes

She says giving children ready access to books and opportunities to read them through the book club and the someday-libraries will continue the group's "social justice awakening" that will improve literacy in its wake.

To learn more about the Learning Tree Book Club, find the group on Facebook or visit meredithetc.com/learning-tree-book-club.

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