We had the good fortune of connecting with Pranati (Pranoo) Kumar and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Pranati (Pranoo), how did you come up with the idea for your business?
Rohi’s Readery is named after my daughter Rohini Ray Skomra. But the name Rohini has deep roots and ties to someone very close to me, my annama (which means grandmother in Hindi). My annama was a steadfast advocate for children’s rights to education in India especially with the caste system, a fierce protector of her family, and mentee to Freedom Fighter Sarojini Naidu. For those who don’t know Sarojini Naidu was an instrumental figure and activist in women’s emancipation in India and anti-colonial rule, and she was coined the “Nightingale of India” because of her contribution to poetry active literary life. So Rohi really does speak to this idea of activism in the context of critical literacy.
Rohi’s Readery then is a social justice driven children’s bookstore and learning center committed to critical literacy that promotes inclusivity and diversity. It is a space where we honor and uplift the everyday experiences of historically marginalized communities through the pages of a book. Whether they are books that are showing characters in beautiful shades of Black and Brown, those who identify with the LGBTQIA+ community, characters with disabilities and the neurodiverse population, or information that has historically been presented inaccurately, the goal of the Readery is for you to see yourself in the pages of a book or learn about the stories of those you don’t know. Providing opportunities for windows and mirrors for our youngest learners and ultimately a space for building community and accessibility.
Native American author and activist Vine Deloria Jr. once stated,”Every society needs sacred places. A society that cannot remember its past and honor it, is in peril of losing its soul.”
I think of this quote often when thinking about the idea of the Readery. What does a sacred space do for a child. What power does it have for a child to feel seen in their full identity and being.
The idea has been manifesting itself in many ways. Long before the days of beginning my career and journey in education. When my family moved to the US, we encountered many experiences of oppression and racism in the professional and educational space. My parents are incredible, they fought for the American Dream, all while being kept out of it, for me.
And while I many not have realized it then, as I have grown I have been able to reflect on the wrongs of the past and realize that my identity, or lack thereof, was definitely formed by the experience of feeling invisible, attempts to assimilate and simply not seeing myself in the places my family and I considered to be safe- like school. We know that schools were not traditionally built for People of Color and so how could one feel embraced in their being by a place that meant to keep them out. As I got older, and especially in college, I found myself going through some really dark emotional and mental health experiences- depression and suicide- and all while feeling a lack of worth. And I say this because the practice that we place in front of children has a significant impact on their self-worth and the way they treat others. As young as two years old, children use race to reason about people’s behaviors and by 30 months use race to choose playmates. So as I became older I realized more and more that we are not just what we feel in the moment, but instead made up of a collective of experiences that reveal themselves. Becoming an educator saved my life. My families and babies from the South Bronx, to Harlem, Seattle and in between are my heroes. The ability to grow in a community both personally and professionally, while getting to advocate for something I believed was right to children and families- the community based education experience- chipped away at the brokenness I felt as a child and adult. The gift of being an educator gave me the opportunity to talk about the things I wanted for my students, social emotional learning rooted in culturally responsive practice, books on the shelves that reflected our student localities, decolonizing curriculum and getting to write about what we couldn’t find in boxed curriculum written by primarily white authors. So I taught in the Bronx and Harlem for 6 years, founded a 12-1-1 program and PreK curriculum rooted in culturally responsive practice, moved to Seattle and co- founded the first elementary charter in the area, committed to DEIA practice and most recently founded divHERse education consulting, committed to representation and retention of women of Color in ed leadership.
We’ve been talking about many of the issues coming to light recently in the past year for a long time in education. A LONG time. But no one heard our voices. Talking about dismantling the practices that contribute to oppression in the classroom. Changing the libraries and curriculum to honor all communities. And if you work in education, you know that there are MANY hoops, walls, barriers to break down to get something passed. Many statements have been made around anti-racism, but yet, the work doesn’t change. And as an educator it is frustrating and feels all encompassing of emotion. So the Readery came to fruition right after my daughter was born 6 months ago while thinking about how to make change around the system when the system won’t let me. How to share the breadth of beautiful books and learning when challenges arise you also have a space to create community in this. Advocacy and learning together. I have moved from city to city over the years and I as an adult am always yearning for a place to feel authentically myself. In Seattle, it was a place called Estelita’s Library. In Harlem, it was Studio Museum of Harlem. I hope Rohi’s Readery can be that place for the new neighbor in town to the generational community member.
Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
Rohi’s Readery then is a social justice driven children’s bookstore and learning center committed to critical literacy that promotes inclusivity and diversity. It is a space where we honor and uplift the everyday experiences of historically marginalized communities through the pages of a book. Whether they are books that are showing characters in beautiful shades of Black and Brown, those who identify with the LGBTQIA+ community, characters with disabilities and the neurodiverse population, or information that has historically been presented inaccurately, the goal of the Readery is for you to see yourself in the pages of a book or learn about the stories of those you don’t know. Providing opportunities for windows and mirrors for our youngest learners and ultimately a space for building community and accessibility. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) has released its 2019 survey results on diversity in children’s and YA literature. The report breaks down the number of children’s and YA books by and about BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) from the previous year. This year, for the first time, they also counted books by and about Pacific Islanders. In years past, these were counted with the Asian/Asian American count, but this was not an accurate label.
First/Native Nations: 1%
Asian/Asian American: 8.7%
Pacific Islander: 0.05%
Taken together, books about white children, talking bears, trucks, monsters, potatoes, etc. represent nearly three quarters (71%) of children’s and young adult books published in 2019.”
This does not however take into account who is writing these books, who is publishing them, and what the overall book industry landscape looks like- which is primarily white. With that in mind, a majority of the authors and illustrators have been intentionally chosen to highlight people of the Global Majority or People of Color and marginalized communities. If we really want to talk about diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism practice and promote values of belonging we have to think about the roots of what our children are being exposed to at a very early age, from the stores to school libraries.
People can also expect to find free educational programming at the Readery for adults and children, whether through partnerships with non- profits, school and educator relationships, classes hosted by high school students, and Revolutionary Storytime with me or guest readers to name a few. I truly believe that we re co- co-constructors of learning and knowledge and we have an opportunity to cultivate the genius that already lives within our littlest ones. Gholdy Muhammed’s Cultivating Genius is a favorite of mine when thinking about community and student led learning. If people are also interested in partnering around diversifying their library, creating curated revolutionary kits for an event, we are all about accessibility once again.
Overall, people can expect to feel welcomed, empowered and hopefully create connections with a book, a human being, or a physical space of comfort within the store. I hope that children leave loving reading that much more and knowing that they matter and their stories matter. We call our readers Revolutionary Readers because just the simple idea of reading a book can create change. “We read something, we learn something, we share it with the world!”. My hope is that children know literally by just being and sharing your gift of being can be a form of activism. Reading a book about a young Indian boy feeling nervous about starting kindergarten and learning that when you see someone feeling lonely and worried you can reach out and ask them to play. That is a form of activism. You are taking one step toward the quality of treatment of another human being. Even if it just may seem like asking a friend to play!
As an early childhood and elementary school educator, the love of literacy brings me pure joy. The Readery is meant to serve as a space for building that love through experiences and resources. Whether it is through Revolutionary Storytime, sitting in the cozy corner for a read, making your very own book and bookmark in the Bookmaking section, or simply walking into the store and talking about books, all contribute to the development of a supportive literacy community. I also love sharing resources around sight word supports, foundations and habits of great readers, curated diverse reads lists, and phonics support, to name just a few. Overall, Rohi’s Readery is meant to create memories and accessibility for all people. When you feel seen, you feel valued, you feel loved. A book has the power to do that. To resonate with your being. When you can share that with others a common space too, it furthers the human connection and has the power to build empathy and conscious citizens of us all.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I am still very much learning about this city and the community (much of which has been from home since the pandemic) but some places that I have gone to learn more and engage in human connection include: Loggerhead Marine Center, the Hurricane of 1928 Mass African- American Burial Site, We are 1909 co-working space, the Norton Museum of Art, the Mandel Public Library, and Blue Mountain Coffee House. I love spending time at Juno Beach and going for walks in Cypress Creek Natural Area. Most of my time is spent at the Readery or with my family, including my 11 month old (and another baby girl on the way!). That being said, I am so grateful to have met incredible people through partnerships of our free educational programming at Rohi’s Readery. There is opportunity when you take time to sit, read and learn about your surroundings, whether it is learning about the past at a museum or connecting with small business owners, and even sitting with little ones during a storytime.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I wanted to take the time to pay respect and honor to those who came before me who have allowed me to fully embrace this work with unapologetic truth. My ancestors and family members who have been committed to the fair and equitable treatment of human beings. The historically marginalized communities who have been laying the groundwork for activism from the very beginning. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that the work that I am doing is not new, but instead built on the feeling of gratitude and inspiration from those who have had the courage to speak about all things social justice, especially when it pertains to children. Rohi’s Readery will continue to honor, remember and always acknowledge the ancestral resistance through the books we order, the interactions with loving community, and the truths we engage in with our youngest ones.
@Vantrichardson (Van Richardson)