Reading Between the Lines: A Q&A with Austin Community College District
Julia Alvarez, author of In the Time of the Butterflies, gave a reading at Austin's Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center as part of Austin Community College District's Big Read program. Pictured from left to right: Rosa Davila, Julia Alvarez, and Omar Davila. Photo by Maria Clara Garcia
For its second Big Read program, Austin Community College District (ACC) in Austin, Texas, embraced the newest addition to The Big Read Library, Julia Alvarez?s In the Time of the Butterflies. Set in the Dominican Republic in the mid-twentieth century, Alvarez?s novel tells the story of three sisters who became icons of freedom and women?s rights when they were assassinated in the autumn of 1960 for their role in the underground movement against Rafael Leonidas Trujillo?s regime. We spoke with Lyman Grant, Dean of Arts & Humanities at ACC, about her experiences with The Big Read.
NEA: In the Time of the Butterflies is the newest addition to The Big Read library. Why did you choose it?
LYMAN GRANT: One of the goals of Austin Community College (ACC) is to create programming that serves our region. The central Texas region is experiencing a significant shift in demographics. For instance, ACC has recently experienced a great growth in the number of students of Hispanic heritage. Currently 25% of our students are of Hispanic heritage. The previous year we had selected Sun, Stone, and Shadows, and had had great success on all fronts, and we had formed partnerships that we wanted to foster. One lesson we learned with the previous book was that we could reach beginning readers with associated children?s books. Ms. Alvarez writes for all ages. With In the Time of the Butterflies, we could program other books by Ms. Alvarez for children and young adults. Lastly, the themes of In the Time of the Butterflies---especially the theme of courageous commitment to political rights---was appealing to us.
NEA: You were fortunate to have Julia Alvarez join you for a reading on November 17th. What did this experience bring to your Big Read program?
GRANT: Ms. Alvarez is charismatic and sensitive human being. We were quite honored by her visit. First, her visit created anticipation among many people in Austin. I remember standing at our table at the Texas Book Festival, talking with people about The Big Read, the book, and the programming. When I mentioned that Julia Alvarez was coming to town to discuss the book, eyes lit up. This was especially true of young women for whom Ms. Alvarez?s books had been deeply meaningful. By the time of her visit, anticipation had grown so great that we filled the auditorium at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center. I am both happy and sad to report that we went beyond capacity and had to turn people away. Then, of course, there are many personal moments that are important but immeasurable---one of our students was able to interview Ms Alvarez for our literary journal, young women at The Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders met and talked with her, and then there was the long line of fans that waited patiently to talk with Ms. Alvarez and get a book or two signed.
NEA: What has been the biggest surprise from your experience with The Big Read?
GRANT: Oh, my, I don?t know. On the one hand, with only two years experience with The Big Read, I have already grown to expect the unexpected and that the days will be filled with little miracles. But here are three: the dioramas that children at Woolridge Elementary School created after reading one of Ms. Alvarez?s children?s books; the look of surprise and wonder on a young girl?s face as we gave her a book she had won in a carnival game at the Halloween Celebration at the Camacho Recreational Center; and the story our program manager, Charlotte Gullick, told about moments of self-reflection by a group of women inmates as they discussed the book.
NEA: Partnerships are an important part of carrying out a Big Read project and you have a number of them, from the Pro Arts Collective to the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, and the City of Austin itself. How have these partnerships worked to support this year?s Big Read?
GRANT: We learned this last year, and the lesson has only gotten greater---we could not do what we do without partnerships. Getting books into the hands of lapsed and reluctant readers is the goal. To accomplish this goal, we need all the help we can get. Luckily, there are many, many people across our city who are dedicated to similar goals. I think our secret has been that we approach all partnerships with respect for the organizations? goals and creativity. We tell them about The Big Read and ask them, ?How can we support you? because, first, they are probably more creative that we are, and second, they have networks that we don?t have. So the Mayor of Austin kicked off a reading for us because of a partnership. We support work in Woolridge Elementary Schools, Del Valle High School, Hutto middle schools, the LBJ Arts and Sciences Academy---all of these programs came to us through our partners. One partnership I want to particularly praise is our bookstore. For two years we have worked with Resistencia Bookstore, a small bookstore founded by poet Raul Salinas that supports arts and cultural programs for often neglected populations. These guys are heroes, taking literacy issues to the people every day.
NEA: Any last words?
GRANT: I am answering these questions for you, but the real praise for the success of this year?s Big Read in Austin goes to Charlotte Gullick and Rosa Davila and Kathryn Benson. Charlotte and Rosa are faculty at Austin Community College and the program managers for The Big Read. Kathryn is our administrative assistant. We spoke of partnerships---Charlotte, Rosa, Kathryn nurture and develop these partnerships all year long so that we can have six weeks of celebration. Teamwork and partnerships all in service to literacy and literary reading!
Austin Community College District?s Big Read continues through December 1st. Visit its website for a calendar of upcoming events. And for more information on Julia Alvarez?s In the Time of the Butterflies, visit The Big Read website.