Kelli Mason: “Map your own life”

My deep hope with Ripple Reads is that it will become a movement that will empower this young generation of children to be the generation that dismantles racism and other forms of social injustice once and for all. Our elders were fighting this fight in the 60s and we’re fighting for many of the same […]

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My deep hope with Ripple Reads is that it will become a movement that will empower this young generation of children to be the generation that dismantles racism and other forms of social injustice once and for all. Our elders were fighting this fight in the 60s and we’re fighting for many of the same basic dignities today. My hope and belief is that if Ripple Reads can reach every family in this country, or even 1 in 10 families, our children will not be fighting the same fight when they’re adults.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelli Mason. Kelli Mason is the founder of Ripple Reads, a monthly book club that helps families have meaningful, age-appropriate conversations about justice and race. This timely startup is the brainchild of Mason who identified the need to have these discussions, especially as the anti-racist movement continues to gain powerful momentum.

In addition to Ripple Reads, Mason is a partner at Notley, a social impact firm, where she focuses on creating and supporting innovative ideas to advance racial justice. Mason previously led people operations at two startups, ran a national workplace inclusion consulting firm, and practiced corporate law. She is a graduate of Rice University, cum laude, and Stanford Law School. Mason currently lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and their two young children.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Growing up the daughter of a Black mother and a white father, I was often acutely aware of race, despite my parents insisting that race didn’t matter and that it is what’s inside that counts.

That “colorblind” approach made sense to an entire generation of parents, but as a kid, I had more questions. If race doesn’t matter and it’s what’s inside that counts, then why did my dad’s side of the family live in manicured, leafy neighborhoods, while my mom’s side of the family mostly resided in poor, cramped conditions? With no one to help me understand the history of race and racism in our country, I was left to create my own stories to make sense of the glaring disparities I saw. If it’s what’s inside that counts, I wondered, maybe white people just had better insides. Luckily, I learned more about systemic structures of inequality in college — things like real estate redlining, over-policing, and underfunded schools. I began to recognize disparate racial outcomes as the result of a structure that made it harder for Black people to access credit, economic opportunity, and quality education.

While I’m glad I eventually educated myself on the causes, effects, and solutions to systemic inequality, I became a parent and faced my next challenge: how to educate my children to get there sooner. What can I do to empower them to recognize and properly respond to racism? What can I do to help raise the generation that will finally dismantle racism, once and for all? This long journey of grappling with race and racism from childhood to motherhood is what led me to create Ripple Reads, a book club to help get kids educated, excited, and empowered to stand up for racial justice.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

The most interesting thing that has happened is that a lot of potential corporate sponsors have initially declined to support Ripple Reads because they view it as something primarily targeted at white families. They want to donate, they tell us, to causes that will help Black people. As a Black woman, I find myself torn between laughing and crying at this response! While I love and personally support charities that provide direct support to Black communities, these programs are really just addressing the symptoms of racial injustice. Through Ripple Reads, we are hoping to address the root causes of racial injustice — ignorance, apathy, fear — and build a generation that will no longer have to grapple with the symptoms of racial inequality.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

We originally planned to send out a new kit every month! Very soon after committing to that goal, we figured out just how difficult that would be for a ragtag team of passionate part-timers! Luckily, our early members were understanding when we finally built up the courage to explain that they’d now be receiving a kit every other month instead of every month. What we learned from that was that this is a marathon, not a sprint. We are so emotionally invested in Ripple Reads’ success, but we also need to pace ourselves so that we can be in this work for the long haul.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Ripple Reads is making a significant social impact by getting the youngest generation educated, excited, and empowered to stand up for racial justice. I’ve worked to advance racial justice my entire career, but it was only when the idea for Ripple Reads started forming in my mind did I realize that so many of our efforts are merely band-aids meant to address the symptoms of racial injustice. With Ripple Reads, we think we have something close to a cure to ignorance, apathy, and fear many people, beginning in childhood, have around the subject of race.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

With her permission, I’m sharing this email we received from a teacher who signed up for Ripple Reads as a member and then shared the October/November kit with her school community:

I wanted to take a moment to write to you about the latest edition of Ripple Reads. As a parent, I am of course excited to receive curated resources on a regular basis that I can use to start conversations about race with my young kiddos and to practice my own ability to have these conversations. As an educator, I find these resources to be invaluable in facilitating conversations among staff and students about how to incorporate racial justice into our curriculum. I was able to use the latest Ripple Reads edition to do just that!

This is the fifth year of existence of our School Equity Team, and we are at a point where we want to implement bigger actions as a school as we concurrently continue the self-work of antiracist learning. At our last meeting, we began to discuss our first major action, which is systematically ensuring we are teaching required social studies standards through an equity lens. A sample 2nd-grade standard we examined together read, “Explain that the United States government is founded on the belief of equal rights for its citizens. Examples: People have the right to own property and the right of free speech.” The 2nd grade teachers expressed that they struggled to figure out how to teach the fact that while the country was founded on these beliefs, they were not applied equally to all people. As a group of K-8 teachers, we were in agreement that it should be done this way but were unable to come up with specific resources to help support the teaching of this standard through an equity lens.

Enter this month’s Ripple Reads! As soon as I opened the package I realized this book would be great to address this standard and to have a conversation about rights with students — perfect for our 2nd grade team. I brought the workbook and Equality’s Call to school today and shared it with them, and they agreed that it fits perfectly. They plan to use the text and the supporting materials as part of their current unit as well as to help explain why we have Election Day off of school. Thanks for your efforts and vision for this project. I’m so excited to see what the next issue brings!

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Yes! First, talk to your kids about race! You might not have all the answers, but when you avoid the conversation, you leave them on their own to make sense of the racial inequality all around them. Second, be a role model. Your kids aren’t just listening to your words, they’re also learning from your actions. If you tell them everyone deserves to be treated fairly, but you don’t speak up when a relative makes a racist remark, your words won’t make much difference. Finally, talk to your parent friends about racism and how you’ll prevent or respond to it. Just like parents talk to each other about when kids should get cell phones or what extracurriculars they should get involved in, we should be talking to each other about the things we’re hearing from our kids when it comes to race, and banding together as adults to teach and model racial justice for our kids.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is the ability to set a clear, compelling vision of the future and inspire as well as empower others to chase after that vision with you. I think with most early nonprofit endeavors, where you can’t lead people with high salaries or great benefits, you will find the most success if you’re able to demonstrate that leadership quality and get people excited about the mission and empowered to bring their skills to bear on achieving it.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Ripple Reads! My deep hope with Ripple Reads is that it will become a movement that will empower this young generation of children to be the generation that dismantles racism and other forms of social injustice once and for all. Our elders were fighting this fight in the 60s and we’re fighting for many of the same basic dignities today. My hope and belief is that if Ripple Reads can reach every family in this country, or even 1 in 10 families, our children will not be fighting the same fight when they’re adults.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Elizabeth Gilbert has a great long quote about making mistakes both personally and professionally that ends with: “Map your own life.” I read it at a pivotal time in my life when I was considering leaving the practice of law and starting my first company. I had gone to Stanford Law School and was working at one of Silicon Valley’s most respected law firms, had my own office, and basically living my parent’s dream for me. But I realized I wanted more out of life. That quote helped me work up the nerve to get off the path I had followed and to map my own life. I’m so glad I did!

Here is the quote in its entirety:

“Let’s just anticipate that we (all of us) will disappoint ourselves somehow in the decade to come. Go ahead and let it happen. Let somebody else be a better mother than you for one afternoon. Let somebody else go to art school. Let somebody else have a happy marriage, while you foolishly pick the wrong guy. (Hell, I’ve done it; it’s survivable.) While you’re at it, take the wrong job. Move to the wrong city. Lose your temper in front of the boss, quit training for that marathon, wolf down a truckload of cupcakes the day after you start your diet. Blow it all catastrophically, in fact, and then start over with good cheer. This is what we all must learn to do, for this is how maps get charted — by taking wrong turns that lead to surprising passageways that open into spectacularly unexpected new worlds. So just march on.

Fall flat on your face if you must, but please, for the sake of us all, do not stop. Map your own life.”

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Oprah! She has done so much, with so much grace and conviction, to advance social justice. I would love to get her insight, bask in her presence, and get her to add Ripple Reads to her favorite things list 🙂

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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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