Telling stories to start conversations about race issues

A story time held by the nonprofit We Stories.

By Eric Berger, Staff writer

Laura Horwitz moved back to St. Louis from Philadelphia on Aug. 9, 2014, the day a Ferguson police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, a black teenager.

In the riots and other subsequent events, Horwitz, mother of a 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, said she saw a racially segregated city where people of different ethnicities “are not characters in each other lives.”

“It’s hard to understand one another’s realities, let alone tell a shared story of our region’s future,” said Horwitz, 35, who graduated from Ladue Horton Watkins High School and now lives in Clayton.

She did not want her children to grow up without any exposure to other races and cultures. As a parent, when she faces a challenge, she said the first place she looks is the bookshelf.

With that in mind, she and another local woman last year launched We Stories, a nonprofit that aims to create conversations about values such as tolerance and diversity through children’s literature.


The organization sends four age-appropriate books per child to families with children ages newborn to 7 years, along with book recommendations and invitations to story times, neighborhood gatherings and events where families can learn about St. Louis history.

The organization operates from the premise that it is better to expose children to the role race plays in the world rather than shield them from conflicts until they are older. 

“We have some struggles in our community that are pretty deep. We can keep doing the same things but it seems like a new approach could be pretty powerful,” said Horwitz, who had lived on the East Coast after high school.

The founders of We Stories are starting the conversation about race with their children at a young age because children are already thinking about it anyways, they say. 

For example, studies found that children as young as 6 months are able to nonverbally categorize people by race and that children ages 3 to 5 use racial categories “to identify themselves and others and to include or exclude children from activities,” according to “Children are Not Colorblind: How Young Children Learn Race.”

“It feels counterintuitive to the popular beliefs that if we don’t talk about race with kids, they won’t notice it, but the research doesn’t bear that out,” said Horwitz, who is white and Jewish.

She is not shy about saying which group the organization is targeting: white families. 

In talking with friends around the city, she gathered that “lots of folks have been trying to make sense of post-Ferguson St. Louis.”

“They may talk about the issues, but they may not be carrying those conversations into their families, into their conversations with their kids,” said Horwitz, who has a master’s degree in organizational psychology from Columbia University in New York. 

She wanted to engage her children about race through books but noticed that it was more difficult to find books with characters who are not white.

“They are largely not marketed to white families,” said Horwitz. She drew inspiration for We Stories from PJ Library, an organization that sends Jewish children’s books to families around the world each month. 

We Stories recently completed its pilot program with 80 local families who received a “starter library” of four books and participated in events such as a tour of Old North St. Louis, the neighborhood that is home to Crown Candy, and a visit with eighth-grade students in Normandy, a largely black, low-income suburb. 

MaryAnne Smyly Sabin grew up attending the Jewish youth group BBYO with Horwitz and reconnected with her when she moved back to St. Louis. She lives in Olivette, has three children, and doesn’t “want to raise my kids in a bubble.” 

She was among 12 parents who visited Normandy, which lost its academic accreditation in 2014 and was taken over by the state. Smyly Sabin spoke with students who had transferred to other districts and then returned to Normandy, asking about their challenges. She wanted advice “as far as talking to our own children about the world we live in.”

“They wished more parents would engage their children in these types of discussions instead of relying on the media, which they believed represented them in a poor light,” said Smyly Sabin, 34. 

She has also been reading to her children the books she received from We Stories, including “Please, Baby, Please,” by director Spike Lee. The story features an African-American baby doing the usual baby things: making a mess of food and refusing to go to sleep. They have also enjoyed Sesame Street’s “We’re Different, We’re the Same,” which features Elmo and friends teaching kids lessons such as, “Our nose’s are different/ We’re the same / Our noses are the same/They breathe and sniff / and sneeze and whiff.”

Smyly Sabin, who is also involved with the Anti-Defamation League, said she has been encouraged by other parents’ participation in the program.

“You think that people aren’t thinking about” exposing their children to the larger world, she said. “But they are thinking about it.”

Sara Kornfield moved to St. Louis from Philadelphia a year after Horwitz and was disappointed by the racism here and how challenging it was to have ordinary contact with people who aren’t white.

“In Philly, we only walked or took public transportation everywhere,” said Kornfield, who is originally from Baltimore. In St. Louis, “People would say don’t take the (Metrolink) at a certain time. Don’t go to the mall after dark.”

She and her two children, ages 2 and 4, have enjoyed “Last Stop on Market Street,” by Matt de la Peña, which features a child and his grandmother, who are both black, taking a bus ride. The grandmother counters CJs questions about why he doesn’t have an iPod like other children by focusing on the positives around the city.

“The grandmother points out all the wonderful things you can see when you are in a diverse place,” said Kornfield

 At the end of the bus ride, they reach a soup kitchen, where they help serve friends. Kornfield said she has been able to relate challenges other communities face to the Jewish people’s problems throughout history.

“Being Jewish, (the books) have given us more tools to talk about how what happened to other people happened to us, too,” said Kornfield, 34, who lives in University City.

We Stories currently has about 200 families on the waiting list to join the program, according to Horwitz. She founded the organization along with Adelaide Lancaster, who also has a blog, Parenting While White. 

Since moving back to St. Louis two years ago, Horwitz said there hasn’t been a “moment where race and racism haven’t been prominent issue.”

By reading books to her children and connecting with other parents through her organization, she said she has felt like she can counter racism. 

She added, “I felt like I could be part of the solution.”


For more information and to join the We Stories wait list, go to