The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This series is made possible by a grant from SayItForward.org in support of teen journalists and the series editor, Katina Paron.
At a diner after her fifth grade graduation, Marley Dias pointed out to her parents that none of the characters in the books she reads in school look like her.
Five years later, Dias’s campaign, #1000BlackGirlBooks, has filled school libraries and curriculums with more than 12,000 books that feature Black girls as the main character. And Dias had a featured role in the 2020 Democratic National Convention.
“I was sick of reading about white boys and their dog,” Dias, 15, said in a Zoom interview with Ms. from her home in West Orange, N.J. “When there are characters that look like you, you can feel as though you also could do these same amazing things.”
There’s benefits for non-Black children, too.
“Diverse books allow people who have too little contact with people of color to meet people of color so that myths and stereotypes can be put aside,” said Dana A. Williams, professor of African American literature at Howard University. “Cultural transformation is happening in the U.S. today in ways that just may allow us to live out a more meaningful reality of democracy—Marley knew that years ago.”
Dias’s work fits into a larger movement having an impact on diversity in literature. The University of Wisconsin found that in 2018, 10 percent of characters in children’s books were African American—up from 7.5 percent in 2015.
The book donations to schools come from advocates, readers, librarians, authors and publishers.
“Her rallying cry for books about black girls is revolutionary and transformative,” said Dhonielle Clayton, of We Need Diverse Books and New York Times bestselling author. “Adults talk a lot about what kids and teens need, but when young people organize and use their own voices to speak out, it is the most important thing they can do. The publishing industry has been changed by her words and work, and so have I.”
Dias spoke at the White House’s United State of Women Summit alongside Michelle Obama and Oprah and grabbed headlines on The View and The Today Show. In 2018, she was named one of TIME’s 25 most influential teens. These national stages help her reach her goal of delivering 100,000 books to schools.
During the pandemic lockdown, she’s been holding virtual “read alouds” for children and gaining strength from her activists peers.
“It is also super fun to see teenagers like me going on social media and talking about social issues and injustices that they care about because sometimes you do not have the space in school,” she told Eva Longoria during her DNC interview.
The heart of her campaign—which she credits to her mom, sociologist and president of GrassROOTS Community Foundation Dr. Janice Johnson Dias—comes from inspiring children. In her 2018 book, “Marley Dias Gets it Done and So Can You,” she encourages kids to focus on local problems that need addressing.
“I’ll hopefully be able to inspire a new generation of changemakers,” said Dias. “The most meaningful thing is definitely being able to meet and speak to kids who, say, ‘Your book is the reason I want to do this.’”
Recently the rising junior started a mental health awareness project at her high school and is dipping her toes into journalism. Right before quarantine started in March she got a new dog, a Tennessee treeing brindle and Plott hound mix, named Philly.
“Every great cause needs an advocate, the diverse books initiative is fortunate to have Marley. She’s passionate, curious, informed, and persistent. It doesn’t hurt at all that she’s also right!”’ said Williams.
“Young people can lead us. Marley is the latest in a long line of readers, writers, thinkers and doers who see the need for change and do the work of enacting it.”