April 22, 2022

Last year, Brittany Britto Garley — who was a higher education reporter for the Houston Chronicle at the time — was becoming restless. So were a few colleagues. She and Jaundréa Clay, editor of the Chronicle’s HouWeAre newsletter, were discussing what they wanted to achieve outside their jobs. Clay brought up wanting to open a bookstore that focused on authors of color, and Britto Garley shared the idea of a blog examining Houston culture.

“We’ve both been very interested in covering marginalized communities, and making sure that their stories have been told,” Britto Garley, who is now an editor at Eater Houston, recalled. “That’s a major passion of mine.”

The journalists settled on the idea to create a sort of pop-up book event. Days earlier, Britto Garley said she read a tweet about the nostalgia surrounding Scholastic Book Fairs. The thought of bringing an event to Houston where people can see themselves in stories, or be inspired by people who look like them — or who don’t look like them — solidified.

“From there, we started brainstorming and it started building from there. And then I looped in my other friend, Brooke Lewis, who had recently gone freelance but did work at the Houston Chronicle. We worked right across from each other and we both love books,” Britto Garley said. “It was on from there.”

The result of all that brainstorming and months of planning culminates this weekend at the BIPOC Book Festival — a two-day event in Houston that bills itself as the first of its kind to focus on Black, Indigenous, and people of color. In addition to engaging readers, the festival organizers aim to educate Houston residents and the surrounding Harris County on the importance of literacy. Its website cites a statistic that one in three Harris County adults are functionally illiterate, meaning they lack basic reading, writing, speaking, language and computer skills needed to work or go to school.

In addition to chipping in their own funds, the trio also received sponsorships from H-E-B, Upworthy, private firms and crowdfunding to make this event happen. We spoke with Britto Garley about what it was like for three journalists to organize a book festival, finding solace in books, and more.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Is there something to be said about a trio of journalists hosting a festival that showcases literature? 

I think it’s all about storytelling. As storytellers, we enjoy great stories and great storytelling from other people. I think we pride ourselves on that and appreciate it in the community, so this is a platform for that. We’re super excited about it.

Thinking of the importance of people of color having their stories told is something that we’ve really worked at in our careers individually, separately, and together. I think a lot of journalists of color experience that. They’ve experienced what it’s like for our stories to not be included in the newspaper or in local publications. Oftentimes, we work double-time to do those things.

I relate to that. 

Yeah! I feel like it’s kind of a natural place, to want to be able to do that in general. What’s not as natural is being an event planner as a journalist and trying to wrangle all these people together under one roof. But that is the concept of BIPOC Book Fest … is having all of these different creatives, storytellers of color, and people within the literary industry or realm, all under one roof — supporting each other, learning from and about each other.

Why was it important to you all to host this in Houston? 

We are always talking about how Houston is the most diverse city in the country. Even in my job as editor of Eater Houston, I think it’s important that we showcase that to the world. It’s been said that our country is essentially going to look like Houston by 2030. That’s a prediction by Kinder Institute here in Houston. And so what better way to amplify and put a spotlight on that diversity and those stories here in Houston?

What surprised you, if anything, about putting this festival together? 

How excited people are has been really awesome and rewarding. It makes me and my partners believe that this is something that Houston has needed. We have book festivals here in Texas and in Houston. Sometimes it’s an African American or Black book festival or it’s a general one, and we did have a Latino one. But to have one that focuses on all communities of color is something a little bit different. It’s also going to teach us or allow us to really lean into what it means to be an ally.

We are starting this as journalists. We are obviously Black women with various cultures of our own, but we are not experts on every single pocket of literature and every single culture. We are also learning throughout this process, which has been another rewarding aspect.

Part of your goal through the BIPOC Book Festival is to educate local residents on the importance of literacy. How did you come to make that part of your mission? 

We were thinking about what would make this festival really purposeful. Aside from making literature and reading fun, what other purpose does it serve? I think we’re trying to show that reading can be engaging — especially when you see yourself in what you’re reading or can identify with the story that’s being told.

We’re trying to host a cultural experience, so there are all of these different panels. There’s poetry reading, a teen summit, a comic book panel, something on banned books. As a part of Eater Houston, I’m organizing a chef panel so we can talk about the legacy of our recipes and cookbooks; a lot of people don’t think about that as something that you write down, and that’s something that you read. It might not be a novel or fiction, but it’s still an important part of literature and what we read.

We’re hoping that showing these different facets and communities within literature, within the realm of books, engages more people. And that’s day one of the festival. Day two, which is the Little BIPOC Book Fest, focuses on children. We’re inviting authors to read and just trying to get kids really excited. What we’ve learned in researching is that Houston has an issue with its literacy rates.

What did you learn about the literacy rate among adults in your area? 

I was shocked by the numbers. And it is a little bit disheartening to learn that your literacy rate can affect how engaged you are politically and how engaged you are with your community. I’m sure some people might feel embarrassed to ask for help, and so we’re really trying to tap into those kinds of things (if) hopefully round two comes next year. We’ve had literacy coaches and people who deal with literacy reach out to us, and so we’re hoping that’s something that we can tackle in the future.

When the pandemic began, it felt like a lot of people found solace in books, in fiction. Did you experience that? 

Oh, yes! Definitely. Brooke and I were trading titles. I was also listening to audiobooks that allowed me to do things around the house. There was a lot of downtime. Like everyone, we were either reading or binging shows indoors. It was tough. But I think that’s what led to this festival.

What does literature provide you with, personally? 

Literature has always provided me with the ability to explore things that I don’t know about, and want to know more about. I think it allows us to travel, it allows us to learn about people. So often with storytelling, it’s almost like psychology: We’re analyzing characters and what the deeper meaning of something is. Maybe that’s also sociology.

I think it gives us a reprieve sometimes from daily life — a nice break. It keeps us thinking. It helps us learn about the world around us.

Do you dream of being an author someday? 

I do.

Oh, my gosh. Me too. We could have a whole separate conversation about that.

I have a few ideas that I want to explore further, but I haven’t really had time. But I do feel so inspired by this experience and how vulnerable many of the writers that we talk to are — to keep trying and put stuff on the page. You always hear that, but I think when you get to be part of a community or bear witness to it, you’re like, “OK, I can do this.”

Organizing this festival has been insane. It’s been another job. I don’t want to speak too soon, but I hope it goes well this weekend. And so I’m like, if I can do this, I can write a book.

Has the experience of organizing this book festival changed your feelings about journalism? 

In some ways, yes. So often we pride ourselves on being journalists, being “objective” and sticking to your job as a reporter. I love my job and I love being a journalist, but I think some of the things that I’m doing now might conflict with the traditional concept of what a journalist is, because I’m organizing something. … I’ve involved the libraries and different entities that have been sources in this whole festival. Luckily, I don’t report in the same way that I used to, and now what I’m focused on is largely food and for a publication that has a little bit different approach to things.

It has made me think differently in terms of probably doing a little bit more than what a traditional journalist would be defined as, or allowed to do. But I think what’s awesome … we’ve used a lot of our journalistic skills. I’ve used coding for the website, I’ve used my graphics skills and my eye for photography and editing in this role. So I’ve used a little bit of everything.

The festival lists a number of participating bookstores and calls for vendors and sponsors. Was it new for you to be on the business side? 

That was an interesting experience because we started off with pouring our own finances into this and also trying to be really careful of not being taken advantage of, not overspending or overpromising and making sure that our dollars are used purposefully. Luckily, we have dealt with an amazing community of people where those concerns have kind of just melted away. Our fiscal sponsor, Nuestra Palabra, has been an amazing mentor; Tony Diaz leads that, and he’s been a mentor of ours. So many of these organizations are grassroots, and they’re literally using their own money and resources to do things, and we kind of found ourselves in the same boat.

It requires a budget and making sure things are paid on time, that you have insurance, that you have money for promotional materials. Most of the graphics and the website, I’ve done myself.

Who are you reading currently, or do you not have time for all that because you’re working on this? 

I would say within the past two months I haven’t had much time to read. The last book I read in full was “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo. She’s so good and I love that she comes from a spoken-word background. I started “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson. I’m into that, and that one has been great to hear about somebody else’s experience that isn’t my own. I’m just learning.

That’s the beauty of books. You’re immersed in someone else’s experience. Do you have a book recommendation for journalists who are starting to dip into works of fiction? 

It’s not fiction, but it was pretty motivating for me to just hear about the writing process: “On Writing” by Stephen King. He’s a prolific writer who’s written tons and tons of books, and you get to hear about his process and how he got to where he is. That one was really cool. I loved “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett.

Oh my God. I loved “The Vanishing Half.”

It’s so good and beautifully written. She kind of travels in time between this family. She can jump back and forth during these different time periods, and she does that so well.

Yeah. I feel like we could talk about fiction and writing and books all day. Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

We are very excited for this festival. We’re trying to not get overly optimistic in some ways, but there has been a tremendous response and amount of support. So we’re so pumped for that.

Are you a journalist with a unique beat? Or did you work on a project or story that you think we should know about? We’d love to chat with you. Please email Amaris Castillo at acastillo@poynter.org and we may feature you on Poynter.org.

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Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a…
Amaris Castillo

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