United States (Detroit)
In this storybook sisterhood, a diverse range of phenomenal women mirror characters from books to inspire girls to read for fun.
“Reading, especially fiction, makes us more empathetic.” – Shanel Adams
There’s nothing like meeting a phenomenal woman to inspire a pre-teen girl. That’s why, after realising how much reading had transformed her life, in 2014 the ebullient and energetic Shanel Adams created Progressionista – a nonprofit organisation that introduces Detroit’s pre-teen girls to leisure reading through interactive monthly book club meetings. The twist? The “storybook sisterhood” is attended by a diverse range of women professionals who mirror characters from the fiction reads.
“Reading, especially fiction, makes us more empathetic,” Shanel explains. “If you’re reading a novel about a girl in Africa, about a village that you don’t know about, and her story, now you know all about that. Now your cultural competency is enhanced.”
‘Progressionistas’ engage girls aged eight to 12 by sharing intimate stories about their careers and relating it to the group’s next book. Every meeting includes interactive activities that further entice participants to read over the coming months – all with a mission to build a sisterhood centred on books and female empowerment.
A woman who progresses in life from reading
We asked Shanel what sparked the idea: “After returning home to Detroit after college, I noticed I never saw young girls in my family reading as much as I did as a child. I frequented the local library a lot the first year I moved back, and noticed I never saw the children there reading either,” she explains.
“One day, I saw the library was advertising for book clubs to meet there. I thought to myself, ‘I should do a book club for young girls.’ I remembered a course I took in college where the professor had different women come and speak. I realised there was a pattern of women living out their dreams who had a love for reading. I wanted to create something that showed girls this – and Progressionsita was born!”
Shanel is a firm believer that books help us discover ourselves. “When I was a child, I grew up in a full house. I was one of six children and I remember always being kind of like the more reserved one and I loved to read. I would always be in my room reading. I just saw how imaginative you could be as a writer and how creative you could be.”
Progressionistas are women professionals from all walks of life and professions. They have included a chef, a park ranger, a dentist. a bus driver and over 70 more dynamic women professionals. The chosen books are all highly recommended fiction and pre-teen girl approved. “The aim is to equally combat illiteracy and restore the joy of reading by directly connecting reading to self discovery.”
When Shanel started Progressionista, her biggest fear was that girls would not be interested in the programme and in the reading involved. “My biggest joy will always be girls showing up and building a sisterhood around reading, exploration and discovering their dreams. It is so beautiful to witness.”
To this day, the biggest challenge has been the COVID-19 pandemic. “All of our libraries shut down and, like all of us, our girls’ lives had completely shifted overnight. But we were able to develop Progressionista Home, an experience where girls get a monthly box at their doorstep with all of their Progressionsita surprises and we have been able to produce video interviews of our Progressionistas! The best part is all of the women who are featured this year are what we call essential women: women’s whose jobs or businesses has helped us during the pandemic.”
For example, the video introducing a nurse called Taylor was accompanied by a box with everything girls need to fall in love with nursing while reading their way to their dreams.
Shanel’s long term plan is for teachers, librarians and moms to be able to bring the beauty of Progressionista to their community and homes. “My hope is that Progressionista has the opportunity to reach communities all around the world.” She also sees the pandemic as a gift because it showed how Progressionista can live in the comfort of girls’ homes. “This means that when all goes back to normal, we can possibly keep our Progressionista Home program going – and can reach more girls!”
Her biggest dream is to see children, especially in Detroit, not be afraid to be authentic. “I want more kids, especially in the Detroit neighbourhoods, to be inspired to be themselves, because that’s how you keep growing and that’s how you feel good about yourself. And that’s how you share your love with other people. And that’s the only way our community is gonna get stronger”.
Shanel adds: “Whether it is Oprah Winfrey or our favourite teacher, we have all been inspired by women who have discovered themselves through reading. It is our hope to give girls that same power by transforming them into Progressionistas.”
AtlasAction: Progressionista currently serves girls in Detroit and Chicago through an “amazing partnership”. If you are a woman and you would like to volunteer for the next programme year, you can sign up at progressionista.org.
Read more ► Progressionista was mapped by artist Marcus Lyon in his Human Atlas: 5 stories from Detroit
Shanel Adams, Founder
This project has been selected as part of CultureFutures, a new storytelling project that maps creative and cultural projects with a social mission – and the artists, collectives and entrepreneurs behind them.
Atlas of the Future is excited to join forces with Goldsmiths Institute of Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship and the British Council Creative Economy.