Defender of the Week: Candice Washington on Passion, Literacy, and Brown Books and Paint Brushes

DOTW3.jpgCandice Washington, mother, child educator, and nonprofit founder has discovered the key to instilling black culture, art, and a love for literacy in the minds of children, is to start them when they’re young. By walking in the steps of her passion, she found that her project, Brown Books and Paint Brushes, would take her beyond anything she could have ever imagined.

Racquel Coral (RC): Hi Candice! Thank you for sitting down with me! So to start, tell me about yourself your background, how long you’ve been in education. What led you to that field?

Candice Washington (CW): Currently, I’m an early childhood educator at Carole Robertson Center for Learning, but I’m also in charge of the BASES K Grant. Which stands for Bridging Academic and Social-Emotional Success into kindergarten. I partner with different CPS schools in the area, families, and then out of the school, kindergarten families, and help to build a bridge between transitioning into kindergarten on a more social-emotional and academic level. I’m also in charge of different programming. But my passion is working my nonprofit, which is Brown Books and Paint Brushes, where our mission is to educate young children and their families on black culture through art, literacy, and cultural programming.

RC: How did you discover your passion? And how did it lead you to start Brown Books and Paint Brushes?

CW: Brown Books and Paint Brushes and my passion for cultivating social-emotional development through art, literacy, and cultural programming, stems from the fact that children can learn about social justice and civic engagement at young ages. I don’t think a lot of people understand that ages one through five is the height of your social-emotional development. So that is a wonderful time to teach children kindness, how to share, how to get along, and understanding. One of my first jobs was at Bright Horizons, where I had a classroom of thirteen different nationalities of young children between the ages of three and five. During that time, we learned so much about each. We all understood why our hair and skin were different. We celebrated each other cultures and holidays, and it was like second nature to them. I had my Japanese families celebrating Kwanzaa, I was practicing Ramadan with them, and with my Chinese kids, we did Chinese New Year. We ate all kinds of Indian dishes from my Indian family. And we all as a family, as a group, just started to learn about each other. They even understood why Miss Candice didn’t like to get her hair wet (laughs). And it all started from a conversation. If you start having those conversations at that age, they can understand, and that’s why I began Brown Books and Paint Brushes.

IMG_2134.JPGRC: How long have Brown Books and Paint Brushes been in existence?

CW: We are going on our third year in August.

RC: So how do you develop the curriculum for Brown Books and Paint Brushes?

CW: As you know, we focus on art, literacy, and cultural programming, but it’s always centered around a book by an African American illustrator with reliability. Meaning, I do my research to ensure that it is always an African American author and illustrator. The rise in African American books featuring a black child on the front cover was raised by maybe 60 percent, whereas, only twenty percent were written by an African American person. Right now, it is very popular to be black. People are grabbing onto this black culture, and for so many different reasons, and in a way, I love it. But when it comes to children, and when it comes to adults, I like intentional work. So when I take this book, it has to be with reliability. When you see the Coretta Scott King Award books, which are a part of the American Library Association, they are thoroughly vetted to make sure that they develop our black culture. And when you see that stamp, that’s how you know it is a black book, for black children, that reflects black culture. In addition to the fact that it is developmentally appropriate. So when I do create these programs, and it’s always based on a book, there’s always research behind it, the curriculum that I create, and the curriculum that I borrow.

RC: Okay, so talk to me about the early stages of Brown Books and Paint Brushes.

CW: Brown Books and Paint Brushes started as a project. I grew up in Englewood, and there is a tremendous literacy gap in African American neighborhoods. You don’t see books at home, and if by chance you do, they’re not only very limited but lack not age appropriateness. There are no reading spaces. There are no reading nooks. There are no bedtime stories. There’s no place for children to be comfortable to want to read. There’s no literacy movement. And that’s not the case in all black households, but where I come from, that’s what I witnessed. So with Brown Books and Paint Brushes, the first thing was to try it on my children. I took away the video games, and at the time, they were into Sonic. And I said, “What if I give you a Sonic book instead of the game, and then you can play the game on the weekend?” And they loved it. So instead of going to GameStop, they wanted to go to Barnes and Noble. After seeing that, I asked my best friends, who still live in Englewood, if I could do the same thing for their children. And they although they were skeptical, they let me. I would come in and read to them, and over time, I bought a bean bag and a small bookshelf, and it trended. Books became popular. It also helped when I brought the books to life. For example, you love books on ballerinas, let’s go to the ballet, let’s go see kids your age doing what you just read about. Which, in turn, led them to want to know more about Misty Copeland. To take it a step further, I taught them about their race, to empower them. Then I integrated it as a way to learn more about culture through art. And it all just connected.

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RC: So when did you realize you were onto something?

CW: Again, at the time, Brown Books and Paint Brushes was just a project. It was something that I found worked, and I just kept it moving while still loving the results. I was creating a world of understanding. I literally had the whole world in my hand. I had thirteen different nationalities in my hand. What more could I do with that? The school that I was working at featured me in a newsletter talking about my project. And one of the parents got a hold of it and asked why I haven’t made it into a nonprofit. She said that it was too wonderful to stay where it was and offered to do all of the paperwork pro bono. And in less than a month, it became a nonprofit. I knew I was onto something when people started reaching out to me. I knew I was really onto something when people of other races began reaching out to me, saying that they wanted to know where to start this with their children. They wanted their kids to learn more about black culture, the beauty of it. It wasn’t just for black children and black families. Everybody wanted it. I had families saying that they wanted their children to know it and know it from me. And at first, I was solely focused on black children, but after that, I realized that it was for everybody.

RC: That’s amazing! So what would you say has been your most significant and most memorable moment since starting Brown Books and Paint Brushes?

DOTW1.jpgCW: That’s kind of a broad question because it happens almost every day. Anytime I can get a kid excited about a book, it does something. I get so many people saying that kids don’t read anymore. When actually, they read every day. But if you can make it intentional for them, especially with young children, because more than anything they want socialization, you shift them and their future. Another memorable moment was being asked to attend the Obama Summit. Looking in Michelle Obama’s eyes. Like up and close (laughs).

RC: So speaking of the Obama Foundation and Obama summit, I know that you do some work with them. And you also do some work with Chance the Rapper’s organization, Social Works, what are some other collaborations or partnerships that you’ve established? And of those of the partnerships, the collaborations, the recognition? What are you the proudest of?

CW: For the last three years, I’ve won national teaching awards. I won the Janice Hill Award in 2018. It’s a prestigious early childhood award. Out of 30,000 early childhood teachers across the country, only 14 get chosen for this award. And I was selected for it based on my work in early childhood education, civic engagement, and social justice. I also received the Chicago State chapter, Phi Delta Kappa Award, as well as Educator of the Year last year. I have wonderful partnerships with both the Obama Foundation, Social Works, and the University of Chicago. I’m an activist and community leader with the Obama Foundation. The University of Chicago hired me to be the consultant and organizer for the kid’s space at the Silver Room Block Party. I’m also affiliated with the South Side Neighbors for Hope, which is a group of neighbors that live in the Woodlawn, Jackson Park, South Shore, and Hyde Park Communities, who want the Obama Presidential Center there.

RC: So, what does the future hold for Brown Books and Paint Brushes?

CW: I would love to have a cultural center in Hyde Park for kids to learn more about social justice and civic engagement. I want there to be yoga, mindfulness, a movie center for them to come in and have conversations on their level about things that are happening all around them. I had a student tell me that they’re scared that the president was going to make Iran bomb us, and I had to sit down and discuss war crimes with him. And he didn’t know that. So I want this cultural space to be one where we talk about real issues, with real professionals, with real teachers. I want it to be a place filled with all of the black boy joy and black girl magic, on their level, without being told to sit down and be quiet.

RC: How has Brown Books and Paint Brushes changed you? What’s the most surprising thing that you have learned about yourself since founding it?

IMG_2135.JPGCW: When you’re driving with your passion, the rest of the world just becomes lighter. I try to incorporate what I do with everything that I do. I’ve been told that I find kids wherever I go. Because they drive me. I’ll see a kid and make eye contact with them, and before I know it, I’m at a conference or an event with someone’s kid the whole time. If you’re driving through life, you have to drive with your passion. It just makes life easier.

RC: You inspire so many people, who inspires you?

CW: I call them my “friends,” but there is a set of black female writers that are therapy for me. What I’ve learned is that you can’t ask someone to do something for you that you’re not doing. So I’m an avid reader. Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Yaa Gyasi. There’s nothing like reading a book from a black woman, from their perspective. They know everything that you are going through. Reading these books and especially by these authors, they speak from the black experience, but it’s so deeply rooted. It’s like they pull it from the Earth, under the ground, beneath the soil, and they start from there. And that’s where we need to be starting from. With the kids, you have to start from the beginning.

For more information on Brown Books and Paint Brushes, please visit www.brownbooksandpaintbrushes.org.

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