Expand Your Library

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Expand Your Library seeks to inspire and educate young ones through diverse literature, visual materials and immersive workshops. They believe in promoting diversity and inclusivity in all aspects of life, including children’s education, creating allies in the next generation.

Expand Your Library is the 2024 winner of the Welcoming Awards for Change in the organisation category.

Welcoming Cities spoke to Jenae Tien, the founder of Expand Your Library.

Welcoming Cities: Congratulations Jenae! What does an award like this mean to you?

Jenae Tien: The award is really an acknowledgement of the work we have been doing. It makes me feel like Australia is ready to normalise conversations about cultural diversity in the education space, in particular the early learning sector. It’s exciting because it means we’re not only having the conversation, but we’re ready to do the work and integrate that into our lives. This award makes me feel whole, because it’s been an interesting personal journey, as well as a professional journey developing Expand Your Library and the tools and resources that go into it. It’s a full circle moment for me, knowing that the work is making an impact. It began as a painful experience for me.

WC: If you’re okay to talk about that painful experience, can you elaborate?

JT: When my daughter was three, she was exposed to negative comments from another child about her skin. Being African American, I have experienced negative comments around skin tone, discrimination and racism. However, I wasn’t expecting that to happen to my child, especially at such a young age. So, when it happened, the other parent and I were unequipped to take hold of what was actually a big learning opportunity for the girls, and for us. I felt like the conversations were hard and messy. While we tried to work through it, my daughter started to develop negative ideas about herself. She would say things like, ‘Mummy, I don’t like my skin, why am I brown? I want to have white skin, I want to have straight hair.’ It was heartbreaking. I realised then that I needed to do more preventative work and more normalising of these conversations.

I had been doing a lot of research into books and resources that not only exposed children to people that reflected them on the page, but also diversity within other people. I was sharing those books with friends, family and educators. I started a little book club on social media and that was that – we would just share and talk about books. But on reflection I thought if that moment was happening to me and my daughter, is that also happening to other people? I wanted to create something that kids, parents and educators could literally pick up and look at. So, we created the educational tool, Deck of Diversity. From there, it’s expanded into workshops and shows in schools, and collaborations with others to provide the scaffolding kids need.

WC: Can you explain what is in the Deck of Diversity cards?

JT: There are 26 cards, A-Z, plus a few bonus cards with affirmations and ‘how to’ explainers. It’s really a self-empowerment tool to understand self and others. It has words like – Ally, Brave, Inclusion, Diversity, Humility. All of these words may seem too advanced for a five-year-old, but hopefully not when you break down what the words mean. The whole deck is helping your child continue to be a great human being – seeing themself through a positive lens, which will help them be able to see others through a positive lens. At the core of every child, there needs to be a solid foundation of belonging and understanding and love, which will then translate into being a good human being to other people.

WC: What age is best to begin having conversations about race and diversity?

JT: Through my research, I learned that babies as young as three to six months old can identify differences in race, and that really sparked an interest in me, because I’m black and my mum is white. So, I was wondering – what was I experiencing when I was a baby? Then as I continued to research, I leaned that bias begins to play out in children as young as five. So, everything that’s happening from the age of six months to the age of five in terms of the resources they’re exposed to, the experiences they’re having, all tie up into a cute little bundle and by the time they are at kindergarten, those biases begin to play out in terms of how they see themselves and others, the toys they choose to play with, the friends they choose to have. So, I would say, it’s never too early to start or introduce the conversation.

WC: What sort of conversations can parents and educators have with children? What other things can they do?

JT: They can expand their library, quite literally. This means expand the resources and books that you bring into the home. So often, people will tell me that they don’t want their kids to point out someone’s differences – they don’t want them to be rude. But when we shut them down, we’re leaving them to believe their own consciousness. We quite literally have to go in and say, ‘Yes, that person looks different’ and explain why, just like there are different animals and different fruits. Talk about it in a positive way – inclusion is the action. We need to teach and model to our children how to be kind and compassionate – which is what we do when we come into the classroom.

WC: Let’s talk about libraries, especially council-run libraries. How are they doing, and what can they do better?

JT: Libraries are my absolute favourite places and I know that they do an incredible job to be as inclusive as possible. I would encourage anyone who has the power to really look into the overall collection of resources – what can you do better? Bring in a diverse range of people to facilitate programs or community initiatives. We’re doing a wonderful job in Australia of focusing on First Nations initiatives – but there is still a long way to go, and that is very important and vital. I also think there are so many opportunities to build relationships with multicultural communities so they will feel comfortable to help design your programs.

WC: What kinds of challenges have you come across in schools, particularly with fitting into an already established curriculum?

JT: I tell my kids that to every problem, there’s always a solution. However, some of the challenges I come across are from people who tell me they’re already doing enough, they’re doing great. And I wouldn’t disagree, but I will say this is something that is a lifelong commitment – not a ‘one and done’ initiative. The curriculum is well established and we fit right into it aligning with ‘Intercultural Understanding’ and ‘Student Diversity’ in primary school and in the Early Years Learning Framework of ‘Belonging, Being and Becoming – Respect for Diversity’. So, when a program like mine (or a First Nations or another multicultural program) comes to your school, I would say, think of it as an opportunity to enhance what you’re already doing. Allyship should be an everyday thing. And it should be about preventative education, not reactive education.

WC: What’s next for your program? What have you got planned?

JT: Right now, I’m leaning into the connections I’m making with schools. I’d love to go to more regional and remote areas in Queensland because I grew up in regional Queensland, and a lot of the time, they get skipped over for programs and resources. And then I want to take on the rest of Australia. I’d love to continue creating little allies all over Australia because this is our next generation, and we need to be pouring all our knowledge and resources into them – they are the changemakers.

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