Six new “little libraries” built in Aspen Wednesday are meant to bolster education and conversation around anti-racism work. Roaring Fork Show Up, Aspen Words and Aspen Skiing Co. partnered to create the book drops, supported by a grant from the city of Aspen.
Sájari Simmons is the leader of Roaring Fork Show Up, the community group that formed in support of nationwide Black Lives Matter activism this summer, in response to a number of murders of black people by law enforcement. She said the materials available in the little libraries are a tangible way to move forward in addressing systemic racism. After leading a number of public demonstrations in Aspen this summer, Simmons said the public had been seeking more ways to educate themselves and keep the conversation going.
“I think it's a good opportunity for people to feel like they can take part. I have so many people that are like ‘what’s next?’” Simmons said. “I feel like the whole awareness of how black people are really treated in the world has felt so horrible to really understand, so we need more things that actually make us feel good.”
SkiCo is donating their community reading book, “Between The World And Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates to stock the libraries. Aspen Words will also be providing additional reading of works by black authors. Simmons said the free literature gives people the opportunity to bring themselves up to speed on their own.
“I think self study is the most important. With such an uncomfortable topic there is a lot of embarrassment and a lot of shame,” she said. “We want people to feel supported and safe in this work. And it’s okay if they feel like they are much further back than where they should be.
We want people to feel comfortable in moving forward with where they are and not feeling bad about how behind they might feel like they are. Self-study allows that grace.”
Four locations were set up Wednesday, outside of the Limelight Hotel, in Francis Whitaker park, at the Aspen Meadows and the Centennial employee housing complex. The grant provided by the city covers two more locations that have yet to be determined.
Simmons, a local business owner, has taken the lead of Roaring Fork Show Up after founding the group along with Jenelle Figgins. She said coming to Colorado from Chicago was in part an escape from the harassment she experienced by police in Illinois. The Roaring Fork Show Up page includes further resources and a listserv that provides information on upcoming events and programs. Simmons is working to register the organization as a 501c3 and is designing an anti-racism course, all in her free time.
“When I am doing things like this, I am thinking of how many lives this is saving in my community,” Simmons said.
But it will take the entire community putting in work on their free time to address the systematic racism present in Aspen and the valley.
“In the same way that it is not the responsibility of black people to educate white people on their lived experiences, it’s also our own internal work that is going to be key in us all coming to a different understanding. That allows us to meet each other where we are and grow from there,” Simmons said. “And (the libraries provide) that anonymity to actually do it in comfort and not shy away from it because someone is watching or judging.”
She has also had people approach her who did not feel comfortable attending the gatherings this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic, among other issues. But she said self-educating and small group conversations can still go a long way.
“It only takes one ripple effect to impact the right person that is impacting another larger group of people. Here in the Roaring Fork valley and Aspen especially, it is filled with a community of people who have a large voice. They have a huge platform, they have a huge network,” she said.
She also hears people griping about the demonstrations, asking her when they will end.
“I just want people to understand that awareness is a lifelong thing,” she said.
This summer, in response to the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and George Floyd, ASC President and CEO Mike Kaplan and the Crown family, the company’s managing partners, published a letter outlining ways the company could better address social justice.
“We have thought hard about how we might address these issues, fully aware that we sit among the elite and privileged, and that we are part of an industry well-known for its lack of diversity,” it reads.
Hannah Berman, sustainability and philanthropy manager at Aspen Skiing Co. said the community-wide read is part of the work SkiCo is doing to follow through on their diversity goals.
“One of those facets is helping educate ourselves and the community,” Berman said.
She said the Limelight Hotel jumped at the chance to highlight the little library and feature anti-racism education.
“The Limelight tries to be the community living room, so you better have a bookshelf,” she said.
While the little library ethos involves leaving books as well as taking them, these installations will be more thoroughly curated.
“We really want to make sure they remain full of black-authored books and anti-racism books,” Berman said. “We want folks to keep reading and keep learning throughout the whole year.”
Simmons said the libraries keep the momentum of the summer gatherings going.
“It's just been a collaborative effort that keeps growing organically. I look forward to how this can be sustained in the future,” she said.