Small Grant Powers Meaningful Impact
Philanthropist Cherry Banks' gift supports multicultural books that make young children feel included
February 28, 2019
By Kristin Dizon
Lyla, Challenger Elementary first grader, enjoys the new books
In the scheme of things, a $400 grant is small. But sometimes, like a pebble’s ripple effect through water, its impact can be mighty.
That’s what Seattle Foundation philanthropist Cherry Banks experienced when she gave a grant to a teacher at Challenger Elementary school in Everett. First grade teacher Nardos Habtemicael was finishing a master’s in education and was taking a class with Banks, a professor in the School of Educational Studies at the University of Washington Bothell.
Students in the class on effectively using multicultural literature were asked to assess their school libraries to see what kids were asking for and checking out, then to write a proposal to fill those needs. Habtemicael came up with a plan to increase the collection of multicultural picture books that show and reflect diverse characters and experiences.
It was supposed to be just a classroom exercise, but Habtemicael mentioned to Banks that she wanted to follow through and implement her proposal. So, Banks went beyond the usual teacher-student interaction and used her Seattle Foundation Community Philanthropy Fund to support adding 22 multicultural books to Challenger’s library.
Reflecting Kids’ Lives Through Books
Challenger Elementary is very diverse, with students of many races, ethnicities and languages, as well as a large number of low-income families and kids with learning disabilities.
“We have a high population of Spanish speaking students, a large population of Ukrainian and Russian students, and then we have African American and Asian American students,” said Habtemicael, who works to make her classroom a safe and welcoming place.
Philanthropist and retired education professor Cherry Banks plans to focus her giving on teachers
(photo credit: Marc Studer, University of Washington Bothell)
She collaborated with the school librarian to find the gaps in their collection, which included a lack of books reflecting gender, disability, culture and Asian and Latinx characters. Habtemicael purchased the books and created a dedicated shelf in the library. Then each teacher brought their kids to learn about the new books.
Positive response from the students was immediate, with many seeing themselves reflected in the words and pictures. “They would say, ‘That girl looks like me or she has a hijab like me,’” Habtemicael said. The teachers encouraged kids to talk about diverse cultures and experiences and to ask questions.
“If we want our students to believe in education and believe that they can be what they want to be, then we need to show them that they can,” she said.
‘We All Have Our Own Story’
The daughter of Eritrean parents who fled armed conflict in East Africa, Habtemicael can relate to feeling different or like the other. Bussed to white majority schools in North Seattle from age 11, she learned at an early age that many people weren’t aware of other cultures and she often felt expectations to answer for her race or ethnicity. “We don’t all have the same story and it’s important to know that we all have our own story,” she said.
Nationally, Banks has seen the entire field of multicultural education grow by leaps and bounds. What once was considered an emerging niche in education curriculum is now fully embedded in the field.
Teacher Nardos Habtemicael expanded the collection of multicultural books in her school library
“The whole concept of minority has been flipped and it’s no longer what we think it is. Students of color make up the majority in many school districts,” said Banks, who with her professor husband, Dr. James Banks, authored a well-regarded handbook on multicultural education.
Seeding More Impact
Although she retired in June 2018, Banks wants to stay engaged by combining her education expertise with her philanthropy through Seattle Foundation.
She plans to make more grants to support teachers, who often dig into their own wallets for supplies. “Teachers are dedicated, intelligent and hard working. I’m not sure that we fully appreciate them,” she said.
Banks is impressed with how Habtemicael took her grant and created positive ripples. “It can mean all the world to a child. It means that the people you hopefully look up to can see you. And, it can be tremendously positive for teachers to talk about something and hold up a book for their students with pictures and subjects that look like them.”
Habtemicael has ordered a second wave of books for the library with support from her school. And, with the principal’s backing, she gave a presentation to the Mukilteo School Board and is now expanding her effort to other schools in the district to aid them in diversifying their library materials.
That one $400 grant is blossoming into so much more.
Looking to increase your own impact? Learn about our education fund and explore becoming a Seattle Foundation philanthropist.
Children and youth,
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders,
Women and girls,
People with disabilities,