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10 essential books on social justice as recommended by 5 Philly nonprofit leaders

The Book Trader in Old City. July 27, 2018 Category: FeaturedLongPeople
There’s a line from John Green’sThe Fault in Our Stars” that goes, “Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.”

That’s the kinda zeal we were looking for when we asked a few social justice advocates this question: If you had the power to get all of Philadelphia to read one great book on social impact or about social justice, what would it be and why?

Here’s what five nonprofit leaders had to say.

Valerie Gay, executive director of Art Sanctuary

Gay reads to me from the preface of her favorite book on the topic:

“This is a book about what it means to be Nobody in twenty-first century America. To be Nobody is to be vulnerable. In the most basic sense, all of us are vulnerable; to be human is to be susceptible, to violence, illness and death. The role of government, however, is to offer forms of protection that enhance our lives and shield our bodies from foreseeable and preventable dangers. Unfortunately, for many citizens — particularly those marked poor, Black, Brown, immigrant, queer or trans — state power has only increased their vulnerability making their lives more rather than less unsafe.”

That’s from native son Marc Lamont Hill’s “Nobody: Causalities of America’s War on the Vulnerable from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond” (2016). If we can eradicate polio and marshal talent to send us to the moon, Gay contends, why can’t we eliminate poverty?

Chad Lassiter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission

Taylor Branch wrote three books, all subtitled “America In the King Years” and published by Simon and Shuster“Parting the Waters” (1988), “Pillar of Fire” (1998) and “At Canaan’s Edge” (2006). Branch follows the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968 and gives the most detailed analysis of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. transforming an oft-sanitized myth into a real man of substance and fragility.

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With over 2,000 pages in the trilogy, it’s a heavy lift, but Lassiter insists that these three books are the blueprint for social activism — and that’s why you should not only read them, but study them. He wants you to channel your inner MLK, find a meaningful cause and then personally commit to changing America. He says: “We all need to read it to borrow strategy from King and begin to see ourselves as social change agents.”

Andy Toy, development and communications director of SEAMAAC and cofounder of the Philadelphia Public Schools Giving Circle

For Toy, the question couldn’t be answered with only one book.

“For inspiration and how things sometimes seem impossible but work out with enough determination and belief, I pick “Make the Impossible Possible: One Man’s Crusade to Inspire Others to Dream Bigger and Achieve the Extraordinary” (2007) by Bill Strickland,” Toy says. “I’ve met Bill and heard his story. His use of arts, food and culture to tap into people’s passion and as engagement and economic development tools is a model I use today.”

Toy is referring to William E. Strickland who founded a ceramics studio in 1968 in strife-torn Pittsburgh in the aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination. By the time he retired this year, that studio had become Manchester Bidwell Corporation, a nationally renown jobs training center and community arts program.

Toy’s second choice is the classic “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (1961) by urbanist Jane Jacobs.

“What I like is her using observations at the ground level to understand what makes places great,” he says. “The diversity and chaos of activity, people and culture are what makes cities interesting, not sterile separations and not highways to get around.”

Darin Toliver, medical social worker and city commissioner of the Mayor’s Commission on African American Males

Around 1996, Toliver was sitting in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania when he first encountered the book he wants you to read: Cornel West’sRace Matters” (1993), published on the one-year anniversary of the Los Angeles riots.

Sadly, 25 later, Toliver says, the best-seller is as relevant as ever.

“One of things that West talked about was the division that exist in society between classes, races and the inability to see past racial and political ideology for the greater good of the country,” he says.

But Toliver also says that West’s theory of the “nihilism” in the Black community is what makes it a compelling read. West contends that nihilism has existed since slavery but as buffers in the Black community break down, nihilism has wreaked havoc, resulting in despair and disparities: Nihilism is “the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaningless, hopelessness and (most important) lovelessness.”

Maud Lyon, president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance

On Lyon’s list are three must-reads. First is “Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Twenty-first Century” (2015) by Nato Thompson, a local author and the artistic director at Philadelphia Contemporary: “It’s about the power of art to inspire innovation, new thinking and transforming our communities for the better,” she says.

Second, because “one of the most troubling issues facing Philadelphia is intergenerational poverty and its long-term consequences for us as a society,” she recommends “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016) by Matthew Desmond as a “must-read: well-researched and humane, explaining the complicated factors that make housing unaffordable.”

Third, Lyon recommends “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010), on racial justice.

Isabel Wilkerson vividly explains what living in the Jim Crow south was like and why millions of African Americans had to leave, and what happened when they moved north,” she says. “Its history that every American and every Philadelphian should know.”

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