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Petaluma moms curating an education in social justice

Through conversations with fellow mothers and in discussions online, Rebecca Hachmyer and Chrystal Sunshine recognized a longstanding void in social development.

Parents were struggling with how to talk to their children about what was happening in the news, or how to teach them about issues involving race, gender or sexual orientation.

Minorities have historically been left out of mainstream entertainment and literature, Sunshine said, and she wanted her 6-year-old son River to have a different experience, getting exposed to a more diverse representation of the world that was in-sync with her values.

That inspired the two Petaluma residents to create Shift, a monthly subscription service that provides two picture books, a discussion guide, and conversation prompts to make social justice topics more accessible for young families by using language and imagery that children understand.

“We both had our own seed of an idea to want to coalesce children’s literature with a social activism, social justice lens in our community in a way that could also be supported by our lifestyles and be an active vehicle for change,” Sunshine said. “We recognize books as a powerful tool to incite social change.”

Each book box includes a different theme. Since the first shipment went out in November, the subjects have encompassed things like honoring sovereign tribal nations, socioeconomic diversity, recognizing the gender spectrum and knowing when to stand up for something.

The Shift founders undertake a stringent process to select each book and identify the ones that are at the highest caliber, Hachmyer said.

Some of the selections have been staples like “A Chair For My Mother” by Vera B. Williams and “Squanto’s Journey” by Joseph Bruchac, while others have been more atypical.

Shipments have included “They Call Me Mix” by Lourdes Rivas, which is a story about a young transgender person of color, and “A Different Pond” by Bao Phi that captures the social challenges faced by immigrant families.

The guides in each box help breakdown the message of the books into digestible morsels for children based on their age. Some of the notes are attributed with studies, and reference which page touches on a specific topic.

“Our intention is not that it’s time for a lesson and let’s sit down and talk about racism today,” Hachmyer said. “It’s opening up a book and finding those moments where you can tap in in a way that feels right for your particular age, for your particular child and what you feel like they’re ready for.”

The two mothers began working on Shift last August, juggling the project with their professional and educational pursuits, often devoting hours of the night after their children were put to bed.

Hachmyer, who is finishing her doctorate in education at UC Berkeley, has a master’s degree in children’s literature and writes for the Horn Book, a publication devoted to books for children and young adults. Her 5-year-old son Daschel reads many of the Shift books regularly, she said.

“This is a project that I get so much joy from doing,” Hachmyer said. “I could spend all day doing this work because it combines my passions in a way I haven’t found in anything else.”

Sunshine is an artist with a broad background that stretches from sculpting installations to nonprofit work, curating events and publishing magazines that spotlight the queer arts community in San Francisco. In Petaluma, she operates a metalsmith business crafting jewelry, and teaches classes at The Academy of Art University.

Aside from building a brand and marketing, her expertise with Shift has been providing the lens for how to create social change through her own evolution into motherhood, Sunshine said.

In addition to the book box, Shift offers consultations for educators and families to help diversify their bookshelves.

The book box subscriptions are $39 a month, and can be purchased individually after they’ve been sent out. Shift also sells boxes for babies, classrooms, or Hispanic families that want Spanish language options.

So far, nearly 60 families have signed up for the monthly service, and Hachmyer said the feedback has been positive. Some parents even described being overwhelmed by the amount of content provided, she said.

At the moment they’re working on building a Facebook group where parents can discuss how their conversations went and what sort of experiences they had exploring the various themes from each box.

They’ve also started an incentive program for parents or caregivers that took the message and implemented it into their community. Once they show that they’ve read one of the books at an event or started a booth somewhere, they can enter the zip code into the website and Shift will donate 5 percent of its monthly profit to a local organization doing social justice work.

“It’s to incentivize people to not just take these books into their family and into their living room, but say these are tools, and how do we bolster them further out into more families and more communities and more schools,” Sunshine said.

On the business side, Hachmyer and Sunshine are hoping to scale the service into the young adult age group so kids can continue reading in the program as they get older.

But on the mission side, they’d like to enhance the audience for the type of books that explore social justice topics so they can empower authors that come directly from the communities they align with.

“One of our goals is to be a platform so we are getting those books into the hands of more people and we are building a market so more of them will be published and we can really show publishers that this is something folks want,” Hachmyer said.

Shift wants to challenge the notion that kids do want to learn about social justice topics, Sunshine said, and she’s adamant that children are inquisitive enough to handle the kind of complex subjects that will help prepare them for a more equitable future.

“If we want cultural change to happen, we have to prioritize teaching our kids about uncomfortable things,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you’re dismantling the magic of their childhood. Kids understand inequity really well. They understand fairness already. … Without having parents that are willing and able to unpack some of that, we leave them thinking some of that stuff is OK.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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