Ty Allan Jackson
This week’s Gateway Cities Leader
Cities are shaped by their citizens. From New Bedford to Pittsfield, passionate young leaders are spearheading innovative efforts to reinvent their communities for a new generation. The Gateway Cities Leaders series profiles their work and introduces their ideas, visions, and aspirations to the wider Gateway City world. Is there a young leader in your city that we should spotlight? Please let us know.
What’s the story behind Big Head Books, and how did you transition from seeing your main role as an author to your current to focus on literacy?
Seven years ago, I was in corporate sales and unhappy with what I was doing. One hot summer day, my son opened up a lemonade stand. He made $50, which prompted the question of what to do with the money. I had no idea. I went to Barnes & Noble for a book to help teach my son about finance and entrepreneurship, and there was nothing on the topic for young kids. That’s where I got the idea for my first book, Danny Dollar Millionaire Extraordinaire. I tried to get my book published and reached out to 150 agencies. None of them took it, so I self-published out of necessity.
In the first month, it sold 1,000 copies through family, friends, and social media. The next month, I reached out to Carver Bank, which is the largest black-owned bank in the country. Two weeks later, the CEO called and ordered 1,000 books and asked me to come to New York City and promote literacy. I quit my job that day.
As a new author, I noticed that many authors were promoting their own books, but I couldn’t find anyone promoting the importance of literacy itself. When I learned that two out three of kids who can’t read by the fourth grade end up incarcerated or on welfare, that completely changed my mission.
My partner Eddie Taylor and I founded the Families Uniting through Love of Literacy (F.U.L.L.) program, which promotes literacy to incarcerated parents. Eddie was struck by the statistic that over 70 percent of juveniles that go through system functionally illiterate. To end the cycle of incarceration, we hit from both ends: we go to elementary schools during the day and to incarceration centers or correctional facilities at night. We believe that literacy can end that cycle.
What do participants in the F.U.L.L. program do?
It’s a three-step program that ends with the parent sending home a recording of them reading a story for their children. We meet with 10 participants for three sessions. At first, we talk about the importance of literacy and their value as parents, regardless of incarceration. Then we have team building exercises to make them more comfortable with read-alouds and story time. The third one is show time: we videotape the participants reading my book, “When I Close My Eyes,” which is a story about power of imagination. We package it up as a DVD and send it to their families so they can have mom or dad reading them a picture book whenever they want.
Have you heard back from any of the families?
The majority of people reach out to us with positive feedback. But the numbers are powerful too. After about four years, over 400 participants have gone through the program. The recidivism rate in Massachusetts is between 40 and 60 percent. All of our participants are at an 8 percent recidivism rate.
That’s amazing. Are there any other major accomplishments that stand out to you?
We raised money to give books to all 400 children in a very low income elementary school in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. It was enlightening to see children receiving books for the first time with main characters that look and sound like them. That’s so important. There are very few books featuring people of color in the mainstream literary world, so for these children, reading books where they can see themselves as the main character is like experiencing a new medium.
Two summers ago, the Danny Dollar book was turned into a serial story by the Berkshire Eagle newspaper. Every week, they ran a different chapter on a full page spread. That level of buy in from the community was huge.
How do you see your relationship with the community in Pittsfield?
I’ve had an amazing relationship with city of Pittsfield and its school system. I’ve been to every school in the city. I recently published a book called “You Are Amazing / I Am Amazing,” which is an “affirmation book” book for children. The school superintendent is dubbing 2016 the “You Are Amazing” year based off book. Because of the “Amazing” book, I was named a finalist for “Trendsetter of the Year” by the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce.
I was also recently nominated to co-chair the reading initiative Pittsfield Promise, which aims to get all children reading at grade level by end of third grade. I want everybody, but specifically low-income families, to realize the importance of reading. Other than love, the gift of literacy is the most important thing we can give our children. It’s vital is for the future of the children in our community, state, and country to be more literate.
What challenges have you encountered? How do you work with them?
A major issue is the perception of reading. It’s not marketed the same way that movies, TV, and music are. But a book isn’t just a book. It’s a tool for success and well-being of children. What we have to do is make everyone aware that it’s vital for children to not just read but enjoy reading. Many children read, but they don’t all enjoy it. That joy and love make all the difference.
What’s next for your advocacy work?
We want to expand F.U.L.L.’s reach by creating a program called Full Circle. We’re talking to the private sector about get employment for the parents in our program once they get out. We describe them as parents redeeming themselves in the eyes of their family and community. To do that, they need employment. We’re currently looking for funding, hopefully tied to the state or an independent source so the weight isn’t all on employer.
In December, I’m giving a talk at TEDxAlbany on the lack of diversity in children’s literature. Danny Dollar is also being turned into play at the Colonial Theater, which will be released in September next year. I’m collaborating with them on the development of the play.What are some of your favorite spots in Pittsfield?
I’m a foodie, so I’m very excited about new restaurants like District and Eat on North. Two of my favorites are ones have been around for a while: Flavors and Shiro. I’m also a huge fan of a lot of frozen yogurt — I have my picture on the wall at Ayelada, my favorite frozen yogurt spot in the city. And of course, I take regular trips to the public library.