‘Change Happens When You Believe,’ Says Julius Anthony

YouthBridge is an active partner in and provides support for collaborative community initiatives. As part of our ongoing commitment to youth literacy and its role in developing strong citizens and communities, YouthBridge provided a grant for The Believe Project in partnership with St. Louis Public Schools and St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature.
Julius B. Anthony was elated, and also admittedly nervous, when asked to present his proposal for The Believe Project to the YouthBridge Board of Directors Grant Committee. “They asked some tough questions, including how we thought our project was going to move the needle when so many people have been working to improve early literacy in Black students for a really long time,” says Anthony, President of St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature. “My response was that we need to stop doing more of the same and expecting different results.”

Anthony, a more than 20-year educator, has never been one to do what everyone else does. His idea for STL Black Authors and The Believe Project – to help close the reading proficiency gap for Black students by increasing their engagement with Black children’s literature and Black authors – is a unique approach. “Children are naturally drawn to stories in which they can see themselves, yet only about 12% of children’s books feature Black characters or Black families as the protagonists,” he says. “Our strategy is to encourage a love of reading by introducing Black literature into their lives.”

The motivation is a statistic that has been at a standstill for far too long, he says. “Third grade reading success is the educational marker that determines a child’s progress in school and in life, and about 70% of Black third graders in metro St. Louis failed the state mandated reading assessment in 2017. “That has to change,” says Anthony, adding that the pandemic has set many students even further behind.

Through The Believe Project, Anthony and his organization are creating “home-like” literary spaces in schools and community centers, where preschoolers through third grade students can access more than 1,000 book titles – 80% of which are Black children’s literature. Beyond books on a shelf, the aim is to help the stories come alive through music, dance and plays, along with author visits, giving students the opportunity to hear about the author’s ideation for the book, the message within, and their path to becoming an author. In this way, the project is also helping to elevate Black authors, who are “gods to these kids,” says Anthony. “To them, knowledge is inside books, so the author of that knowledge must be a sort of god.”

A favorite visit for the students, he says, was from Malcolm Mitchell, a former NFL wide receiver who started his writing career after retirement. Mitchell has said that he was not a strong reader, only reading at a middle school level when he started college, but that he grew to love reading and has promoted literacy among youth ever since. He shared his book, “My Very Favorite Book in the Whole Wide World,” about a good kid who hates to read, until he must present his favorite book to the class. Mitchell told the students that his favorite book was actually the one he’d written and that their “best book” was inside of each of them.

The Believe Project is currently in five schools, with a sixth to launch in October. When the principal at Froebel Literacy Academy implored Anthony to bring the project to his school, his heart skipped a beat, he says. “Froebel would be our first location in Saint Louis Public Schools. I grew up in SLPS and it’s been my dream from the beginning to bring Believe there.”

The challenge was funding, or a lack of. That’s when Anthony “took a chance” and reached out to YouthBridge. “Barbara and Sissy listened to me and then went to bat for us,” Anthony says, referring to CEO Barbara Carswell and Director of Grants and Community Initiatives Sissy Swift. “Sissy even met with the principal to see the potential space and discuss the potential impact.” The next step, he says, was an audience with the YouthBridge Board, “which I was told is not typical.”

In the end, the Board gave approval for start-up funding at Froebel, and with the help of a handful of other donors, the seventh Believe Project location will soon be a reality. “I’m so grateful that YouthBridge was willing to ‘go outside of the box’ and believe,” says Anthony. “It’s a dream come true.”

If you would like to donate or have any questions about this organization, please contact Allison McDonald.