A book is a powerful portal. It’s a passport to another place and time. A momentary escape from reality. An intimate invitation into an author’s thoughts, perspectives and life stories. And when those stories are captured by authors whose life experiences resonate with the reader, books become a bridge between what’s expected and what’s possible.
That’s why Buffalo’s Jillian Hanesworth is on a quest to pepper Buffalo’s East Side with little free libraries full of books penned by diverse local writers. No fees, no applications, no identification needed—just a desire to read.
As a kid growing up east of Main herself, Hanesworth read everything she could get her hands on. When she ran out of reading material, she wrote her own songs, poems and books.
“I’ve always loved reading,” she says. “I was that kid that you’d find in the library, skipping class with a book, tuning everyone out. That’s where I learned about the world. Buffalo is so siloed and segregated—you can be on one side and never leave. My world view could’ve been limited but reading expanded that.”
All of that reading and writing helped pave a path for Hanesworth as a creative spirit, community activist, teacher, mentor and constant doer. She is a social justice spoken-word artist who was appointed Buffalo’s first Poet Laureate last year, a two-year term during which she’s charged with “inspiring Buffalo in verse.”
She’s also a teaching artist at Ujima Theatre, where she leads poetry workshops with teens, and serves as the Director of Leadership Development for Open Buffalo, an organization whose mission is to advance racial, economic and ecological justice.
As Poet Laureate, she wanted to leave a legacy that was more long-lasting than fleeting readings and workshops. For a long time Hanesworth had noticed that literary resources are not only scarce in low-income neighborhoods, but they also lack stories by and for people of color.
“Books aren’t always priorities when you’re living life; if you’re trying to put food on the table, you’re not worrying about buying books,” she says. “But it’s important for us to see that the world is bigger than what’s around us.
“Literacy is important in general. Kids need to know how to read more than what’s on Facebook; they need reading to navigate life. Beyond that, the education that Black and brown kids get is often very biased. That’s how we learn about ourselves in schools. History starts the story with us in chains—not with the kings and queens and scholars we were before that. Instead, let’s let Black and brown kids read books by people who look at them without the bias that exists in the schools and courts and most intuitions.”
Potential volumes for the libraries include Hanesworth’s books of poetry, a children’s book full of affirmations called “You Go, Girl” by Buffalo’s own Kara Oliver-Perez and titles by authors represented by Oliver-Perez’s Native Pens Collaborative Publishing company.
Hanesworth made the library project a community affair. She started a GoFundMe to crowdsource the capital needed to build the libraries and fill them with books. It’s important, she said, to support local authors by paying them for their work. The KeyBank Follows Your Lead program heard of the project and chipped in as well.
The library boxes are being made at The Foundry, a community-based incubator for artisans and entrepreneurs located in the Masten District. She’s working with neighborhood block clubs to find spots for the libraries where they’ll be visible and accessible.
The plan is to install 10 libraries by the spring at locations throughout the East Side, including the African American Heritage Corridor, outside of the King Urban Life Center on Genesee Street and on Thatcher Street (where Hanesworth grew up), then expand the literary footprint from there.
“We’ll build as many as we can as long as I can continue to get funding and partners,” said Hanesworth. “The plan is to grow into historically excluded neighborhoods like the West Side and Riverside—areas with higher crime, lower education and lower resources.”