Book Club Builds Empathy and Community
This year the UVA Women’s Center piloted the Reading in Hues Book Club, which turned out to be a much-needed space for cultivating connection and empathy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the Fall 2020 semester was in full swing, the Engaged Scholarship team at the Women’s Center - like many teams and organizations across Grounds – had to stop and take stock of how we were going to pull off useful and engaging programming that was completely online. I loved participating in the “20/20 Reading Challenge” that the Women’s Center had issued at the start of 2020 and thought that a Zoom book club could be easily pulled off. Thus, the Reading in Hues Book Club (named after the center’s Speaking in Hues podcast) was born. The idea was to highlight and celebrate literature by women of color.
As I prepped for the first meeting, my anxiety started to go into overdrive. What if nobody liked the book we picked? What if it was super awkward and everyone sat in silence? What if nobody showed up at all?
But during that first Thursday night meeting my worries were put to rest. People did indeed show up. And they seemed to like the book, but more amazing to me than that was how they shared with one another. People offered up their thoughts and feelings and personal experiences to the group so willingly and so honestly. I barely needed to do anything by way of formal facilitation – folks invited and made room for different perspectives, they nodded earnestly while others explained why they loved a character, and they laughed with each other over the same quippy bits of dialogue. Despite the fact that we were all meeting one another for the first time, I had the distinct sensation that I was sitting and talking amongst old friends.
I can’t help but look back on this exceedingly difficult school year and marvel at the little community we made.
Before long, the Reading in Hues meetings became the most exciting Zoom meeting on my calendar. They felt so comfortable, so easy, and so real compared to the other zombie-like Zoom meetings I’d been sitting in on for what felt like years. I can’t help but look back on this exceedingly difficult school year and marvel at the little community we made.
Not only were we getting a beautiful and fun reprieve from the monotony and stress of social isolation, but many of us were getting back into a once cherished hobby: reading. We were reading something, not because it was assigned on a syllabus, but because we were exploring our own enjoyment and curiosities. And as we read and shared, I remembered what I love most about reading.
When I read, I find pieces of myself in the voices and stories of people who look, act, think, and live differently from me. Reading reminds me to see others in myself and to see myself in others. It’s my ultimate path toward empathy.
I’m so happy I had the opportunity to be a part of a much-needed program at our school, and I am grateful to have had this outlet for connection in such an isolating time. Thank you to the friends I made who shared their thoughts and feelings so freely – I know that can be very hard. And thank you to the folks who may not have talked so much, but who showed up to every meeting and reminded me that listening is often more important that giving your 2-cents. And thank you to Celeste Ng, Audre Lorde, Gabby Rivera, Nadia Owusu, and Soniah Kamal for putting your stories out into the world. We all have the opportunity to be more compassionate and empathetic for it.