How I Built a Community From an Idea I Found on a T-Shirt

The founder of Well-Read Black Girl on what it takes to start a movement of book lovers and still have a full-time job.

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For my 31st birthday, my partner planned a bunch of tiny surprises for me. One of them was a custom-designed T-shirt. It was chocolate brown, and it had a logo on it that said "Well-Read Black Girl." Right in the middle was an emblem with my birthdate and a couple of my favorite authors, including Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Alice Walker. Between him and me, it was an inside joke. I read a lot and I always had a book with me in bed; the idea was that I was the well-read black girl.

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Every time I wore this shirt to the gym or running errands, I would constantly have people coming up to me, asking me questions and starting conversations. "Oh, what are you reading?" "Where'd you get your shirt?" It would lead to these wonderful discussions about who our favorite author was and what books inspired us.

The following spring, I decided to host a book club with a couple of my good friends. But first, I started the Well-Read Black Girl Instagram account; I wanted a place to have a larger conversation beyond the organic ones my T-shirt had started. When creating the Instagram account, I was inspired by archival photos from the Black Arts movement, a literary movement that included novelists and poets like Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, and Rosa Guy. Their photos have always asserted a sense of pride and collective empowerment. My hope was to share their sense of optimism online. I also shared quotes from authors like Jamaica Kincaid, Zora Neale Hurston, and Zadie Smith. I was surprised by the incredible response, online and off. Readers were hungry for book suggestions and inspiration from writers.

Around the time I started the Instagram account, I ended up meeting author Naomi Jackson at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn. I told her about the idea I had for the book club. I mentioned how moved I was by her novel The Star Side of Bird Hill, which is about two Brooklyn-born sisters who are sent to live with their grandmother in Barbados. Then I asked if she would join us for the first club meeting.

I was nervous about approaching Naomi, but in my experience, the worst thing a person can say is no. And a lot of the time, if you value your work, people will say yes. I believe that when you feel afraid or nervous to do something, that's probably an inkling that you should do it.

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Naomi was gracious, and she agreed to host our first meeting. We had a small gathering at a bar in Brooklyn. Naomi read from the book and answered our questions about her creative process. She told us how she came to write such a rich story about black girlhood, homesickness, and displacement. We listened to her story of being a young black girl in search of love and acceptance in a foreign land — how that can feel both alien and familiar — and saw ourselves on the page. Jackson noted that the best gift you can give another writer is the gift of intelligent attention. We strive for that attention and commitment in every book-club experience.

Between Naomi's and my partner's support, I decided to go full throttle in making Well-Read Black Girl a virtual community. Sometimes it takes another person to tap you on the shoulder and help you realize your potential: It wasn't just me reading under the covers anymore. Other people wanted to connect over these books.

***

Well-Read Black Girl isn't the first time I've sought out a close-knit group; I've always served as a supporter and advocate of different communities. In high school, I was a cheerleader and was elected Student Government Association president. I was also subconsciously seeking the sense of community and empowerment I had felt in college at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., and a space where black women's individuality and resistance to conformity is embraced. With Well-Read Black Girl, I was seeking a place to have conversations and make connections beyond my workday routine, to leave room for the unexpected to happen.

I contemplated volunteering or engaging with people online in some way. I started a blog called "I Hate My Nine to Five." At the time, I worked as an arts administrator at a theater, but I had a lot of friends who worked in finance or at law firms who had these horrendous experiences. I wanted to see if I could find a space to share these funny stories. I ended up going to meme conferences and trying to connect with people through social media. The idea didn't pan out, but it was a valuable learning experience.

It goes beyond reading books together — we're talking about our lives.

One thing that I took away from it was how important it is to understand the language of the communities you want to be a part of. By engaging on Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr, you can easily find other people who are just as passionate. Now, with a background in strategy, I do public outreach for startups as my day job.

My primary focus with Well-Read Black Girl is novels by black women. The reason it's had such great success is that we're all connecting around our support of these authors' works. While discussing these books, we also ask ourselves, "How can we challenge stereotypes? How can we really expand our narratives?" It goes beyond reading books together — we're talking about our lives. The organization exemplifies the need for black women to uplift, support, and nurture one another.

***

Well-Read Black Girl is a side hustle for me. I still have a full-time job that I'm very dedicated to, and it can be challenging to manage my time. I've learned to make time for myself by meditating and practicing yoga, but I also find support by sharing my story with others. The more open and candid you are with your life, the more people will resonate with that authenticity and that vulnerability. I tell people all the time, "Disclaimer: There may be errors in this message because I am a human." And I think it's really important for people to realize that behind every business, every idea, there is a real person.

After Naomi hosted our first meeting, we gradually grew, from a group of eight, to having 100 followers, to 600. Now we have more than 36,000. Beyond the Instagram and book club, I started a newsletter to share book recommendations and essays I've read online by women of color who inspire me. The newsletters resemble a text I might send to a friend — "This made me laugh" or "This made me cry."

We've hosted literary events and panels with several authors including Jacqueline Woodson, Tayari Jones, Rebecca Carroll, and Roxane Gay. This September, I hosted my first literary festival. We had over 500 attendees — the event completely sold out. We welcomed Naomi Jackson back as our keynote speaker, and award-winning author Marita Golden led a writing workshop. Other writers including Ashley C. Ford, Jenna Wortham, Kaitlyn Greenidge, and Morgan Jerkins also spoke. These are all women who have played a role in growing the vision of the organization and through their support have become true friends. It feels amazing to have their insight and encouragement, and it makes me want to do that for other people.

I never anticipated that Well-Read Black Girl would grow to be this significant. This whole movement has grown organically out of my mantra to always be authentic. I want the people in my community to feel uplifted by others and empowered to pursue their goals. I want them to feel inspired to be positive examples in the world. I think books really encourage that: they allow people to have perspective and be kind to one another.

Glory Edim is the founder of Well-Read Black Girl. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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