Upper Arlington duo form Harper's Corner Foundation to equip school libraries with books on diversity, inclusion

Alan Froman
ThisWeek group
Harper's Corner Foundation president Julia Hanna (left) and vice president Kat DePizzo, pictured Feb. 1 at the Cover to Cover bookstore in Upper Arlington, cofounded the nonprofit organization to help educate and build awareness around diversity and inclusion through providing elementary school libraries with book sections on the subject matter. Cover To Cover bookstore is partnering with the foundation.

Children open books to discover new worlds and realms of their imagination.

An initiative founded by two Upper Arlington women is designed to help youngsters find themselves in the books they read.

The Harper's Corner Foundation is a nonprofit group that donates books about diversity and inclusion to central Ohio elementary schools.

Upper Arlington resident Julia Hanna initiated the program last summer after the death of George Floyd in Minnesota.

As the white mother of a biracial child, Hanna said, she was concerned about the issues of identity and inclusion her 5-year-old daughter, Harper, might face.

"With the Black Lives Matters protests happening, I started to take a deeper look and think about what I might be able to do to help have a positive impact," she said.

She began to think about the importance of providing elementary-age children with books that reflect a less homogeneous view of the world, Hanna said.

"It's important for a child to see themselves reflected in the books they read," she said.

Inspired by a Facebook post about a person in Boston who had donated books about diversity and inclusion to schools in there, Hanna decided to try something similar.

Last June, she posted her own Facebook message, setting a goal of donating 1,000 books to elementary schools in central Ohio.

Within five days, she had received about $9,000 in donations of money and books.

She also recruited coworker Kat DePizzo to help start what ultimately became the Harper's Corner Foundation.

The overall goal of Harper's Corner, DePizzo said, is to spark conversation, understanding and respect among elementary-age students, teachers and families about topics relating to diversity and inclusion.

"These are difficult conversations to have at any age," she said. "Especially with kids, how do you appropriately address these topics with children? Books can be a great way to do that?"

By the end of 2020, the foundation had raised more than $30,000, earned a $5,000 grant from the national nonprofit Together Rising and partnered with local businesses, including Cover to Cover Children's Bookshop in Upper Arlington.

The bookstore has worked with Harper's Corner to curate a list of about 130 books schools could choose to place in the Harper's Corner section in their building's media center.

Cover to Cover is able to get advance copies and notice of books that publishers are planning to produce.

"It allows us to cultivate a list of the best books for different age levels," Cover to Cover owner Melia Wolf said.

"I don't think it's ever too early to encourage children to think about being more accepting of others and themselves," she said.

Books provide both a window to the world and a mirror for readers young and old, Wolf said.

Harper's Corner is a way to give youngsters access to the window that encourages acceptance of others and the mirror that helps them see themselves, she said.

Since its founding in June 2020, Harper's Corner has donated more than 2,500 books to 23 schools in the Upper Arlington, Bexley, Grandview Heights, Jonathan Alder and Worthington districts and to Dunloe Elementary School in Groveport Madison.

More than 6,000 books are scheduled to be donated to schools in districts that also have signed up for the project, including South-Western, Gahanna, Whitehall, Reynoldsburg and Columbus City Schools, Hanna said.

At least three more districts have expressed an interest in partnering with Harper's Corner, she said.

"It's been really gratifying to see the response from school districts and the community," Hanna said. "This isn't something that we are forcing on any school district. They have to choose to contact us about being part of our effort."

The response from school districts has been quick and overwhelming, she said.

Little or no opposition has been voiced about placing books that address ethnicity and race, LBTGQ+ and gender, Hanna said.

"I think this was the right time when these issues are resonating with people," she said. "People are more open to talking about and thinking about these issues in our country."

The response from school districts is an indication that educators are increasingly interested in introducing the topics to their elementary-age students and families, DePizzo said.

"I'm not sure we would have had the same level of response if we had started this project even a couple of years ago," Hanna said. 

Grandview Heights Schools added about 100 books donated by Harper's Corner in January to the media center at Stevenson Elementary School, chief academic officer Jamie Lusher said.

"For us, it fit right in with the objective we have in our Continuous Improvement Plan to ensure student learning is enhanced through inclusive instruction," she said. "How will students feel included if they don't feel welcome?"

One way to foster that is by offering students access to books that promote diversity, she said.

Stevenson students are able to choose the books themselves, but the titles also are used by teachers for read-aloud sessions and classroom assignments, Lusher said.

When Grandview students returned to a hybrid model after the winter break, one student was able to read a book called "We're So Glad You're Here," she said.

The girl expressed to her parents how excited she was to see a girl in the book "that had hair just like I do," Lusher said.

"It means so much that students can see themselves represented in the books they read," she said. 

Diversity in children's books not only helps children take pride in themselves but also to learn to accept others who might have different backgrounds from theirs, said Carla Wilson, principal at Barrington Elementary School in Upper Arlington.

The partnership with Harper's Corner is a complement to Upper Arlington Schools' commitment to being a district that teaches diversity, inclusiveness and civility, she said.

"What's so great about Harper's Corner is that they have created a list of books that are age-appropriate for the topics, such as race or gender, that are covered in the books," Wilson said.

Barrington families have reacted positively to the school's participation in the Harper's Corner project, Wilson said.

"We really haven't received any negative feedback," she said.

For more information on Harper's Corner Foundation, go to harperscorner.org.

For more on Cover to Cover and the books offered there, go to covertocoverchildrensbooks.com.

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