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No chardonnay or romance novels here: Fair housing book club tackles life-changing topics

From left, Madelaine Clapp, Nancy Haynes, & Liz Keegan

Can a book club effect change in the community? Are words on the page really enough to change minds? After eight years of a book club designed to do just that, the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan's Liz Keegan, and others, have witnessed the power of intriguing stories, open minds and honest discussions to increase awareness of social justice issues in our community.
"You're never done learning," says Liz Keegan, director of education and outreach at the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan. Hosting a monthly book club that invites staff of the center and community members to explore a variety of topics, Keegan believes in the mantra that supports continuing education. But how can a book club effect change in the community? Are words on the page really enough to change minds? After eight years of a book club designed to do just that, Keegan has witnessed the power of intriguing stories, open minds and honest discussions to increase awareness of social justice issues in West Michigan.
 
Keegan, a 15-year veteran of the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan, looks forward to her monthly meetings at the book club. "We have dark days working in the civil rights movement. This is something that helps us recharge and re-energize," she says. Keegan first formed the group in 2008. Constantly seeking new learning opportunities, Keegan was attending a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) conference at which she participated in an author chat session over a lunch break. These special sessions were designed "to engage community members to think about social justice and housing in a more broad way" by approaching the topic through published literature.
 
Intrigued by the idea, Keegan brought it home to West Michigan and chose "Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age" by Kevin Boyle as her first title for the book club. Described by Keegan as "kind of like reading true crime," "Arc of Justice" explores racism, segregation and inequality in 1920s Detroit. Setting the precedent for choosing books that explore difficult topics and usually relate in some way to fair housing, Keegan quickly interested community members in both Grand Rapids and Holland to join the club.
 
Not limiting themselves by genre or time period, Keegan and her compatriots have read classics like "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee, bestselling fiction like "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett and memoirs like "Stealing Buddha's Dinner" by Bich Minh Nguyen. The group has even read young adult titles like "Esperanza Rising" by Pam Munoz Ryan, a book that explores issues of immigration, racism and classism. "We can make a housing discrimination argument for any book," jokes Keegan.
 
Really, the group chooses titles based on the questions, "Are we talking about systemic barriers? Are we talking about people losing their choice?" says Keegan. With this foundation, the book club is able to explore a breadth of literature that touches diverse populations, allowing group members to facilitate discussions on social justice, civil rights, race and discrimination. The books also help them reach out to community members who might add something to the discussion via their personal experiences.

 
Madelaine Clapp, education and outreach coordinator and program assistant, recalls the month when the group read "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien, a collection of short stories set in the midst of the Vietnam War. Wanting to learn more, a club member invited a friend who had served in the armed forces in Vietnam, and invited him to participate in the discussion. On other occasions, the actual authors of the chosen books have joined in on the club's discussions by phone. Opportunities such as these have allowed the club to delve deeper into each piece of literature.
 
These types of unique experiences have had a profound impact on club member Joannie Bouman, an associate broker at Coldwell Banker Woodland Schmidt, who attends the group in Holland. Participating in the club since 2009, Bouman, a real estate agent, is passionate about the impact literature and discussion has had on her personal and professional life. "I have learned so many valuable lessons about culture and people and respect," says Bouman.
 
She notes that, as a middle-aged white woman living in West Michigan, "I don't know what it's like to have someone not treat me fairly." However, after seven years' education in a club that explores equality and social justice with fellow readers who are professionals in fair housing, law and disability rights, Bouman has a new perspective.
 
"If nothing else, it's just helped me open my ears, open my eyes and close my mouth when I'm working with new clients," she says. Bouman has even received advice for clients with special needs facing discrimination, seeking advice from those with the passion and the expertise for housing equality issues.
 
Reading with the group almost since its inception, Bouman's particular favorites were "One Thousand White Women" by Jim Fergus, a fictional exploration of Ulysses S. Grant's "Brides for Indians" assimilation program, and "South of Broad" by Pat Conroy, a novel depicting friendship, race and class over two decades.
 
With a mix of housing professionals, educators, diversity-related program officials and even some professional writers, the group continues meeting over brown bag lunches to gain the new perspective described by Bouman. Though they start with fair housing, they don't end there. "Your health, your job, your transportation, where you get your food…there's so many things that are heavily influenced by where you live," says Clapp. Looking forward to plenty of titles that will "feed our passion and our interest," says Keegan, the fair housing book club continues to effect change within themselves and their communities. 

To learn more about the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan's book club, you can go here.

Photography by Adam Bird.
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