Rooted MKE: Cultivating Imagination and Diverse Representation in Literature and Learning
Milwaukee entrepreneur Ashley Valentine opened Rooted MKE on Vliet Street in Milwaukee’s Washington Heights neighborhood in March of 2022. The multifunctional space operates as a children’s bookstore and tutoring space. With a focus on diverse representation in the books she carries and on programming for Black and brown audiences, Ashley has built on her own experience as a person of color and an educator to create a space that she hopes will promote a love of learning and a feeling of safety and thriving for children and families. I spoke with Valentine about her journey of evolving into a Milwaukee business owner.
What inspired you to open Rooted MKE?
Ashley: I had the vision when I was a teacher. I was spending a lot of my time supporting kids after school, before school, and on weekends. I tried to stock my classroom library with books that represented the students who I was serving. How could I do a better job of making sure that they felt seen in books and excited about what we were reading? And that brought me a great sense of joy: feeling like I was empowering my kids to want to read and also being responsible with curating books.
I met someone once and they didn't ask me, “What do you do?” Instead, they asked “In an ideal situation, what would you be doing?” My response was, “If I could do anything, I would open a bookstore.” From there, I had a whole conversation with this stranger about what the perfect bookstore for Black and brown kids would look like.
I never let go of that idea. As a new teacher, at first you think you're about to change the world. But over the years, it was like, wait a minute--is this the best place for me to be serving kids in a way that truly empowers them, and doesn't drain me? So I was working through the idea of the bookstore to reconnect with something that I really loved: education.
After I had both of my kids, and when the pandemic was going on, I knew there was no way that I was going to continue teaching in the same way. I asked myself: What does it look like if I don't go back? And how can I still support the community and be able to have more control over all of the things you can't control in the classroom? Can I support kids with literacy in a way that feels good and has proven results from when I was in the classroom? And that was the creation of Rooted MKE.
I'm struck by the role that imagination and creativity has had in your process of creating this business. How does the power of imagination get harnessed for children at Rooted MKE?
Ashley: I had a lot of room to imagine in a safe space. I have to acknowledge the privilege that I have, and being able to take myself out of the everyday woes of life to think about what would life be for me if I could dream as big as I wanted to. Oftentimes, people don't have those opportunities, especially kids. There's so much that you don't control as a kid; you live in a world that's curated for you. Kids are resilient, and kids are amazing. But what happens if kids don't have to be resilient, and they can just be fun, excited, and enthusiastic and have those capacities nurtured? I wanted to create that sort of space.
When I thought about design concepts, I was thinking: calm and exciting, but also clean and minimal, because kids are so stimulated. So how can I create a space that's not overstimulating, and where the book is the focal point?
It is really important to me that the tutors and the people who are supporting the kids are Black and brown. I don't want white people to feel like there's no space for them. But Black and brown kids need to see that there are Black and brown people who teach reading. That their teacher doesn't always have to look like a white woman. I’m being really intentional about that, so that kids and parents can see that education doesn't have to look one way.
Can you speak a little bit more as to why representation is so important in both literature and in the educational setting?
Ashley: When I was in school, I went to MPS and I went to Escuela Fratney. I loved my experience, but there were not a lot of Black students. In a bilingual setting, you assume that it's going to be a lot of Hispanic students, but I noticed that the teachers were also largely Hispanic. My own community looked nothing like who I went to school with. I felt very separate … like I lived two different lives. I was one person at home, and I didn't connect with my neighbors or the kids who were around me because I was doing different things. I was speaking Spanish. I was doing a lot of extracurricular activities that people in my neighborhood may not have had access to. And at school, I'm a Black girl speaking Spanish.
Then I go to middle school, where I was one of two Black girls in the bilingual program. And all of my peers are in the monolingual program. So I really struggled in school with the questions of “Who am I?” and “Who do I identify with?” And books were a safe space for me. I always loved books for giving me a space to kind of feel safe and find myself or who I wanted to be or help to tell a story that I didn't necessarily have the voice for. And when kids come in to Rooted MKE, and they see a book with a Muslim girl with a hijab on, they get so excited, and they can't wait to pick up the book ... they're talking about the book. I've had parents come in and cry because they see a book about kids who go to church and to a mosque. Seeing a mosque highlighted in a positive way—they’ve said things like, “We've never seen this kind of book before.” It definitely makes me feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing.
Why is Rooted MKE needed here and now?
Ashley: I’m from the 53206 zip code. Anytime you hear that zip code, it's talking about prison, poverty, or disparity. It was really important for me to try to strive to make sure this space existed in Milwaukee, because Milwaukee is so segregated. There’s a lot of racial tension, and the statistics that you read about what Milwaukee is for Black and brown families are sad. I'm intentionally having kids in this space where the data says that this is not a great place to raise Black children. So how can I bring positivity to that in a way that feels like something that I can control--something that is within the realm of me contributing without having to be a warrior? Rooted MKE felt like the answer.
We know the educational disparities between Black and brown youth and white youth. There has to be another option for families outside of what school can provide. Kids are not performing well, for lots of different reasons. Being able to offer an alternative solution that's community-centered instead of school-centered is powerful for parents and families. Because there has to be more than one way to address the needs of a student. It’s about creating a circle of support around kids, adding another resource for families.
Are there opportunities for families to access Rooted MKE programs at a discounted rate?
Ashley: For tutoring, we offer a sliding scale if someone expresses that they can’t afford the rates. We also have opportunities for families to come and learn some of the strategies and watch tutoring while it's taking place with their student so that they can apply some of those strategies at home and reinforce those strategies. And, if one-on-one tutoring is beyond what they can do, kids can come in for homework help.
Have there been any individuals on your journey who you can cite as being inspirational and/or instrumental in you following this dream?
Ashley: My grad school advisor, Judy Wynn, has been extremely instrumental to me. When I was getting my master's in reading and special education, I realized that I didn't want to be a teacher. It was insane to be going to school to be a teacher, and say, “I don't want to do this.” After she got over the initial shock, she started asking me all the tough questions and made me think about, well, what am I going to do? And at that time, the bookstore wasn't even a thought, but it was like, I have all of these skills in teaching kids how to read--how can I use them outside of the school? Judy started challenging me to think about “What does reading look like in the community?” My thesis work was around literacy in the community for Black and brown students with learning disabilities: What are parents doing? What resources do they need? And that kind of helped me do a lot of the groundwork of figuring out what community-based literary support would look like.
Tell us more about Judy, and anyone else who is particularly important within your support network.
Ashley: Judy is amazing. She still helps today. If I have a hard time--if I can't move a kid as quickly as I want, I'll call her. She comes in, she'll sit with a kid like, “Hey, try these strategies.” When I'm bringing on new tutors, Judy is there to help train and bring them up to speed with what research-based strategies work and how to tell what a kid needs. She still has a lot of colleagues who run education departments in Chicago and across the country. She's always keeping them up to date with what's going on--and they're cheering me on. It’s awesome to know that I have this network of educators in the background; I'm not doing it alone.
Venus Williams of Alice’s Garden--I absolutely love her. The year before I decided to do this, I was meeting with Venus two times a week in the gardens, having conversations about what the store could look like, what kind of support I needed, how to make sure the community was aware of what I was doing, and kind of staying true to the mission and the vision.
Truman of Funky Fresh Spring Rolls. There have been a couple of times, that I was just crying, like, “I don't know what I'm doing.” I called Truman and talked to him about all of the woes of first year business. And he's like, “Actually, what you're doing, most people are not doing in the first year, you're doing an awesome job. You've got a team, it's not just you. Focus on one thing and dedicate all of your time and energy to that. And once that's good, pivot and worry about the next piece.” Truman is a huge help on days where I feel really low. I just call him and wait for him to tell me what to do. Then I do what he says!
For entrepreneurial things, I rely a lot on Cetonia Weston with Niche bookstore. She is essentially doing what I'm doing except her books are adult books. We bounce ideas off of each other and other Black and brown bookstore owners in the Midwest. There’s a lot of relying on communities and being intentional about looking out for the community. The women at La Revo Books—they are also so supportive. They are doing really similar work, but all their work is focused on Latinx books. It feels really good to me to build communities with people of color. We’re on the same journey. It's important to be building alongside people who are trying to do the same thing. And it makes it feel more in reach when I see a Black or brown person doing it.
What lesson have you learned since launching?
Ashley: People owe you nothing. Yes, you want people to support, yes, you want people to feel connected to what you’re doing—but it’s your job to make the community feel this sense of connection. I know peoples’ kids are struggling to read—but what have I done to gain the trust of these people? How am I getting out in front of people to let them know what services are available? I never want to be so entrenched in the business that I forget that I should be out in the community with people. Otherwise, I am doing the same thing as schools. I have to stay in community.
What’s next for Rooted MKE?
Ashley: In the next six months, I would like to launch a book subscription, where kids get one or two books a month and can read them in community, either virtually or in the store. Also, expanding the homework help. For me, that has to be part of my mission. If I am saying I’m doing this for community—I need to be mindful of that and create supports and a system that allows people to access this thing that has historically been for people with means and privilege. So the homework help, having people be able to access that tool on a consistent basis is important.
If you were the leader of Arts and Culture in Milwaukee, for just a few minutes—what policy would you advance?
Ashley: I would create some sort of voucher for kids to get private academic support outside of school regularly, instead of putting more support into systems. It doesn’t make sense to not empower families to be able to reallocate some of their resources and get private support for their kids. And I would get parents money to build private libraries in their home.
I’m a huge advocate for Black and brown kids getting and owning brand-new books that belong to them, and having those in their home on a consistent basis. When you own a new book, that was intended just for you—that changes the idea of how you’re valued.
All images courtesy Rooted MKE.