In honor of Pride Month, the CEI Women’s Business Center sat down with advising client Alli Harper, Owner of OurShelves, to talk about how her business was built to celebrate diverse families and individuals.
What did you do before founding OurShelves?
I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and have lived all over the country before moving to Maine with my family five years ago. My background is in social justice related lawyering, community organizing, and policy and systems change. Whether organizing parents to protect the child care subsidies of 59,000 kids under threat in California, or fighting for marriage equality as the President of the MD ACLU, or organizing with Black churches to vote early in the 2008 election with the Cleveland NAACP in Cleveland, Ohio, I have seen how everyday people sharing our stories and strategically leveraging our power together can advance our journey toward the more just, kind, gentle, fun-loving world we seek.
What’s was your inspiration in starting OurShelves?
My kids have two moms, and it’s been too hard to find high-quality, age-appropriate kids’ books that affirm our two-mom family type as well as all the so many other kinds of awesome kids and families out there. We know — from the research as well as through our intuition and experience — that it’s important both that our kids find themselves and their family type affirmed in the books they read and also that “our shelves” affirm our values of equity, inclusion, social justice, joy and fun by centering all different kinds of kids and families!
We learned that there are millions of families, teachers, librarians, healthcare centers, and others who are seeking high-quality diverse kids’ books but who are having trouble finding them just like us . There are two reasons for this: 1) There are not enough high-quality diverse kids’ books, period, and 2) There actually are more diverse kids’ books than we thought, but all too often they’re much too hard to find.
OurShelves has a dual mission to address both of these problems:
In response to problem #2 of the books being too hard to find, we’ve set up a quarterly diverse kids’ books subscription service. Our Curation Team of experts reviews high-quality diverse kids books. Then we deliver book boxes of the selected books to the doorsteps of the busy families, teachers, librarians, and others seeking them.
In response to problem #1 of there not being enough high-quality diverse kids’ books, period, we advocate. We advocate both by proving how many people want these books (through buying books in ever-growing numbers through our subscription service) and by communicating to publishers who and what types of stories are still missing. Join us in advocating both by joining our subscription service, and in doing so being counted as part of the currently underestimated audience seeking diverse kids’ books, and join us by sharing who and what stories you’re still seeking here.
What do you love most about your entrepreneurial journey so far with OurShelves?
There are many things, but I’ll share three here.
#1. My entrepreneurial journey is a continuation of my social justice community organizing and lawyering work. The mission of OurShelves is to transform bookshelves, which transforms awareness and conversation, which transforms us as individuals and communities. The mission of OurShelves is also to transform the children’s book publishing industry by proving just how many of us there are who want these books!
#2: I love our OurShelves community. Our members, team members, partners, and other supporters are all incredibly passionate about our mission. Our community has shared so much on this journey already from excellent ideas to thoughtful questions to patient grace and understanding to their trust.
#3: As an example of what I love most about this work . . . Last week, I met with the Yarmouth, Maine high school GSA (Gay Straight Alliance). This group of youth leaders conducted a fundraiser in which they raised enough money to purchase high-quality diverse kids’ books to send to their local elementary schools’ library, classrooms, and the town library. They spoke about what it was like to not feel represented in the books they were reading growing up, and here they are now proactively and concretely creating the change they seek in the world. The world will now be a more compassionate, loving, safe, fair, just, fun place because of them.
What were some of the challenges you faced when starting your business?
We birthed our second child close to the same time we birthed OurShelves. In hindsight, that was . . . challenging :). We thought we were just running a light test launch to test things out before our second baby came, but the initial response greatly surpassed expectations, which was wonderful and also . . . challenging :). Thank goodness for our village. We were all taking turns packing boxes, singing to our baby Isaac, playing with our older child Anna, and delivering those packed boxes to the post office. If I’m being honest, that time is a bit of a blur.
What do you think is important for others to learn about LGBTQ+ communities/entrepreneurs?
Discrimination against our community is still widespread.
On a regular cadence, an OurShelves prospective or current member will call to ask if they may receive all of our diverse book selections except those with LGBTQ+ characters. In those conversations, I learn more about what they’re seeking in books for their kids. Often, their family is under-represented in some way just like mine, and they’re seeking more representation for their kids. I explain why I started OurShelves, that I want my kids to feel affirmed in the books they read and that I also want them introduced to the many other kinds of kids and families out there, who’s in my family, and that we don’t send out book boxes that exclude or discriminate against any kind of person or family. I leave each of these conversations with both heartbreak (still and probably always), but also hope that our shared effort to ensure our under-represented kids are affirmed might show that we share something (and actually probably many things) in common. Ultimately, we must all find each other’s shared humanity.
On a broader scale, look at the book bans that attempt to not just send a message about who is worthy of representation in books, but who is worthy, period.
We need to send the opposite message to the world, and to our children. Everyone is worthy of a place on OurShelves, and everyone is worthy. Full stop.
We need your help. Take concrete action. Internalized identity-based bias begins as early as two years old. Repeatedly and age-appropriately affirm with your kids that there are all different kinds of wonderful kids and families out there — from who’s on your bookshelves to who’s in your community.
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