The morning after the 2016 election I found myself driving—bleary-eyed after a restless night—to the English department at Florida Atlantic University to host a book fair.
Weeks earlier, when I had scheduled the event, I overlooked the fact that it was the day after the election, though I could not have predicted the dramatic turn of events and the resulting atmosphere of charged emotion.
At the time, I was the Macmillan Learning sales rep for South Florida, before coming in-house as an editor, and I never felt closer to my virtue as a Macmillan rep than when hosting a book fair. I think that in all of the talk about learning and course objectives, people can forget the tremendous power that books have to simply help us understand one another.
On that particular morning, instructors stumbled in, grabbed a hot cup of coffee and sat with me and the books for a long moment or two, before heading on to the rest of their day. We shared some laughs, and some cries, but above all—despite the confusion we were feeling—we felt connected to all of the humanity I had spread out across the table. The textbooks and the readers, but also the Macmillan trade titles I had brought—George Packer’s The Unwinding, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, the essay collection This I Believe...
While moving slowly in South Florida traffic on the way home, in my mind I began writing my own This I Believe essay. I helped Broward College select This I Believe II for their College Read program, and I had been meaning to write one.
A week or so later, after sharing my essay with a few professors, I was invited by Broward to read my essay and lead a discussion on a documentary, Glen’s Village, they were showing in conjunction with College Read.
After the screening of the documentary, I led an open-forum discussion about the film. In one of the most striking parts of the film, Glen and his community fight to keep his public high school from being closed and demolished due to budget cuts. When they lose the fight to keep the school open, Glen then fights to preserve at least "the culture of the school." I asked the attendees to talk about the culture of their school, Broward College. What is it, what should it be, what role does it play as a part of your community?
We had some really heartfelt discussion. One student said that the school "is like a piece of you, and when you lose the school, a little piece of you dies." A professor said that so many of us as individuals come from broken places, and he saw Broward as a place of healing, and that all of us need to be part of that feeling for ourselves and each other.
I then talked a little about the College Read program, and the idea that everyone reading the same book and sharing their stories can help strengthen their community. I read a selection from This I Believe II—a quote from Edward R. Murrow about why the “This I Believe” project was founded. I asked if his words resonated with them, particularly after the election—lots of nods and yesses.
Then I read my This I Believe essay, and invited students to read their own essays—or to read ones from the book they wanted to share. One student picked "Living with Integrity" by Bob Barrett.
In closing, one of the professors read "The Right to Be Fully American" by Yasir Billoo, from This I Believe II. It opens: "I am an American and like almost everyone here, I am also something else. I was raised to believe that America embraces all people from all faiths, but recently, that long-standing belief--along with both parts of my identity--have come under attack. And as an American Muslim of Pakistani descent, this attack is tearing me apart."
Before reading the essay, she gave a very moving speech to students:
"In light of the recent election, I just hope and pray that we as individuals and we as a community can still hold on to our integrity and our values and to understand that each and every single one of us, regardless of our background, of our heritage, of our religious beliefs, of our height, our weight, our color, our anything, that we all treat each other as human beings. And nobody--nobody--is better than you. Nobody. And nobody on this planet is worse than you. And please always, always remember that. Take that with you in every walk of life."
As an editor, I believe my job is helping build communities. Because that’s exactly what a good book is--textbook or trade--a means for helping us understand one another, heal us from the broken places we’ve been, and reveal to us our enduring, common humanity.
Allen is the Program Manager for College Success & Human Communication at Macmillan Learning. He is an advocate for College Read programs as a way to foster social belonging on campus and in our larger communities. You can read his This I Believe essay, Crying in Baseball, here.