Mary Ann Key Book Club: Fostering Conversation and Change

An ongoing partnership between Myron Medcalf, Hennepin County Library, and Friends opens conversations and leads us forward

The Start of Something New

In March 2021, following the community’s desire for action after the uprising in Minneapolis, Star Tribune columnist Myron Medcalf announced an exciting new project: an anti-racist book club for all Minnesotans in partnership with the Hennepin County Library and Friends of the Hennepin County Library. “Our goal,” Myron wrote in his introduction to the club, “is to cultivate a community of people who want to read, learn, talk and respond in collective acts against racism, while centering the experiences of marginalized communities.” As a long-standing space for both reading and community building, the Hennepin County Library was the natural setting for such a project.

“I understand the performative nature of book clubs and the potential to provide space for dialogue that does not lead to real change,” Myron continued in his article. “But I also believe reading can set the stage for meaningful and productive conversations.”

~Myron Medcalf

After announcing their first selection, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, the book club coordinators began to plan programming and local events around the book. Since then, two community panel events, an author event, dozens of book club discussions, and countless personal conversations have opened honest dialogue while also ensuring the voices of those directly affected by racism and discrimination remained at the fore.

Uplifting Voices and Changing Minds

The book club began by reading Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste—an immense compendium of research that spans centuries to shed light on the “dehumanization of the other” through three caste systems in history: the Indian caste system, the Nazi caste system, and the American caste system.

Tom, a community member who participated in the Caste discussion and was strongly impacted by the book, relates how much Wilkerson’s work affected how he thought about his own experience. “It really makes the reader stop, look back, and reflect on their own life and what they’ve been told. The origins of Nazism were related to the American experience and the linkage there…I think most Americans hadn’t heard that side of the story. That wasn’t taught in our history.”

Hearing from others and their perspectives broadens my understanding of the complexities of my white privilege that I had not been open to seeing...

~Ruth, Mary Ann Key Book Club participant 

The second book club read, Cathy Park Hong’s autobiographical book Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, explores the author’s experience as a Korean American and how it affects her art, her relationship to the English language, her mental health, and nearly every other facet to her life. In honest and moving essays, she widens her scope to the experience of Asian Americans in history and in the present day.

Like Tom, Ruth, another book club participant, underwent a similar self-reflection while participating in the discussions for Minor Feelings. “Hearing from others and their perspectives broadens my understanding of the complexities of my white privilege that I had not been open to seeing. In particular with Minor Feelings, I understood so much more. Having raised two Asian American children to adulthood, I still hadn't been able to ‘see’ it until being in that place of truly listening. I am grateful for that—how the learning continues to expand my understanding of the larger world we all live in.” 

A Safe Space to Speak

For many participants, the book club events were a chance to hear from those directly harmed by racism and those whose experiences differed greatly from theirs. But for others, the discussions were an opportunity to connect with others whose experiences matched their own. Nancy Lee Falkum (White Earth/Chippewa), who grew up in a reservation community, shared how it wasn’t until much later that she realized just how divided her small town really was. She recalls attempts to discuss this division that would end as quickly as they had begun.

[In] some of the smaller book groups you don’t necessarily always say your true feelings because you’re with your friends and you know how they feel about certain topics. But this group was large enough that you could see a real discussion between people from so many different walks of life—even just among the panel.

~Nancy Lee Falkum (White Earth/Chippewa), Mary Ann Key Book Club participant 

Used to sensitive conversations being stifled, Nancy was impressed with more than 900 people who attended the first Mary Ann Key Book Club event. “I was amazed that there were that many people who were interested in the topic and wanted to learn more. There aren’t many forums where you can do that and where you can feel comfortable. [In] some of the smaller book groups you don’t necessarily always say your true feelings because you’re with your friends and you know how they feel about certain topics. But this group was large enough that you could see a real discussion between people from so many different walks of life—even just among the panel.” Since attending that event, Nancy has urged many people she knows to sign up.

Mary Ann Key: Spring 2022

The Mary Ann Key Book Club—and the community building, sharing, and learning that it fosters—would not be possible without the generosity, vision, and trust of our donors. In 2022, Friends of HCL is working to raise a record-breaking $2.2 million for the library to support the library’s collection along with innovative and vital programs like this.

With this support, the Mary Ann Key Book Club is planning to build its momentum in 2022, starting with its third book! This spring we’re reading An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People. Chosen to illuminate our country’s history from an Indigenous perspective and encourage discussion between generations, this book will spark vital conversations and moments of learning in the months to come. To learn more about the book, the author, and the slate of events this spring, visit the library’s page dedicated to the book club