‘Representation is vital because if you never see someone who looks like you, your own imagination can’t fathom the possibilities of who you can become.’
Rooted MKE isn’t just a bookstore. Since opening its doors back in March, it’s the only Black and woman-owned BIPOC children’s bookshop in Wisconsin’s largest city–bringing diversity to bookshelves and priceless life lessons to the kids who visit them.
Cherita Booker, UpNorthNews Reporter: How do you describe yourself?
Ashley Valentine, Founder of Rooted MKE: I grew up in the 53206 zip code and attended Milwaukee Public School for all of my pre-collegiate academic years. I’m a wife and mother of two vibrant and busy children, a four year old and an eighteen month old. I always knew I wanted to one-day own a bookstore.
After teaching many amazing Special Education students with Milwaukee Public Schools, attending graduate school at UW-Milwaukee, and leading STEM programming for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, I decided to finally take the leap and pursue my dream.
Cherita: How did books shape your identity?
As a child who appreciated reading independently, I didn’t see myself in the books I read. I was instead drawn to the traits of the characters, themes and story plots. I personally struggled with my identity and sense of belonging. I left my community to go to school with students who didn’t look like me, learning primarily about a culture that was not my own.
Cherita: What inspired you to open a BIPOC children’s bookstore?
While I loved my experience as an MPS educator, that was a difficult time in my life. I found the role of advancing students who were significantly behind grade level, on top of all of the other roles that teachers play, unrealistic [to accomplish]. I went from enthused and eager to spinning my wheels and feeling defeated, overworked, and low.
Cherita: And that’s when and why you got the ball rolling and open your bookstore?
Planning the bookstore was a place I found peace. I planned the ideal work scenario for four years, not knowing that the bookstore would ever become a real thing because it gave me refuge and grounded me. Planning the bookstore is what kept me motivated to continue when I didn’t feel mentally capable of continuing the work.
Cherita: How did you come up with the name Rooted MKE?
Rooted MKE is rooted in my desire to serve BIPOC families of Milwaukee in a setting outside of the traditional classroom environment. Learning can and does happen all around us in the community. I wanted to be a resource and long-term community staple.
Cherita: How has BIPOC representation in books changed since you opened your store?
BIPOC characters, authors, and books are currently a trend within the bookselling market. We are at the point where white authors are writing BIPOC characters and narratives. To me, this makes it clear that there is demand in the market for greater diversity in storytelling. What is important is that the voices of BIPOC authors, storytellers and illustrators are amplified and that we are telling our own stories.
Cherita: Why is this so important?
If you never see someone who looks like you, your own imagination can’t fathom the possibilities of who you can become, what you can do, and how truly valuable you are. I am a firm believer that if you don’t see people who look like you doing something, you subconsciously begin to wire your brain to believe that certain types of people do specific things. We all need fresh images of what it looks like to be Black so that we break down stigmas and stereotypes.
Cherita: What has the community response been like?
I am still working on building trust, relationships and community. I don’t know that all of Milwaukee knows who I am, what Rooted MKE does, and how valuable we are to the city. To be honest, some days I don’t feel supported by my community. What I am trying to do is build a brand, and a business is a marathon.
Cherita: Besides books, what else do you offer at your shop?
[We have] author read-alouds and art classes, as well as academic tutoring in reading, writing, math, spanish, science, and special education.
Cherita: What are your plans for the future?
Step one for me is to become profitable. One of these days I would like to be able to pay myself a livable salary. I would like to open a location closer to the North side of Milwaukee. I would like to build more strategic relationships with schools to offer book fairs and in school author events. I would also like to purchase a book mobile to go out to communities and get BIPOC books into the hands of youth.
Cherita: Can you explain why BIPOC books aren’t just for BIPOC people?
BIPOC books are equally important for BIPOC and white youth. Everyone needs to see BIPOC characters who are happy, child-like, joyous, curious, sad, in love, deeply loved, with a supportive family, struggling, thriving, growing, and changing. A safe space to experience this in a widely accessible way is through the pages of a book.
Cherita: What part of your business are you most proud of?
Our tutoring program. It’s beautiful to meet parents who have been looking for a Black tutor for their children. I’ve seen parents moved to tears because their child has never experienced a Black teacher and they are in awe. It’s fulfilling to support them.
Visit Ashley’s store, Rooted MKE, at 5312 W. Vliet St. Wednesday through Saturday. Tutoring and arts programming are available by appointment and pre-registration only. If you can’t make it to the store, click here to shop online. Gift cards are also available for the perfect holiday gift!
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