Positive Change through Books

Behind the Book offers more to students than books, authors and literacy skills. We also provide students with the chance to think critically about issues around them through our Social Justice programs.

“There’s always a way to present a subject that’s controversial or difficult in a way that students can comprehend,“ said Bureen Ruffin, a Program Coordinator for Behind the Book.

“I did a program with high schoolers featuring a novel that dealt with surveillance and identity, featuring a Muslim character. This was in a classroom with immigrants but the teacher and I weren’t sure whether they would be able to understand the complexities of identity.”

However, the students responded deeply to the themes of the novel.

“When they met with the author it was so clear that they weren’t just understanding the story but also resonating with the complicated issues that the character dealt with,” she said. “I think we often underestimate children’s abilities to think critically.”

Bureen Ruffin on left, and Chris Fleming on right.

Given the current political climate, it’s more important than ever that we not let students get discouraged – and empower them instead. Christine Fleming, who’s been a Program Coordinator for Behind the Book for 11 years, sees the influence of the last election on her students.

“In this year’s climate the students seem to be charged to be change agents,” she said.

Chris believes the programs are a success when you see passionate reactions from students. “Either they are outraged, curious about pursuing a cause, or writing to a legislator, writing to city council, being activists, or just practicing good citizenry,” she said.

This year Chris will be working with a 9th-grade class on a non-fiction novel about a pacifist’s plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. She will be taking them on a field trip to the United Nations. “The kids see this peace keeping body that has an armed force. They have armed soldiers that keep the peace,” she said.

The trip is expected to elicit questions about violence and if there’s a justification for violence. “You make them think: Is violence justified? Is bullying violence? When does your liberty begin and mine stop?” she said, “We touch on all these big questions in almost all our programs.”







Overall the Social Justice programs give students an opportunity they otherwise may not have. We work with many at-risk youth who have the talent to succeed but aren’t always given the necessary tools. Behind the Book’s Executive Director Jo Umans works first-hand in the classroom every year.

“We’re working with a lot of kids who see social injustice every day of their lives. And I think it’s our job to teach them that there’s an alternative to standing by and just letting it happen,” she said.

“And I think it’s our job to empower with them with skills to fight back in an educated way that could actually give results. Not to fight, not to scream at each other, but to empower them to make positive changes.”

Listen below to hear Jo’s description of one of her current programs, about a 13-year-old boy who finds an abandoned baby and thinks he can keep her.

We have 26 social justice programs for this year (either completed or upcoming this spring), which is almost 40% of our programs. We plan to continue to increase this number annually so we can provide students with the skills needed to seek social change.

This guest blog is from Brian Bonilla, a senior at Brooklyn College, who delved deep into these topics with all of our Program Coordinators.