Activism Defined by Self-Love: “Centering joy” through Project Happyvism

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Discussing race and representation with children can be a difficult and daunting task. The lack of BIPOC in the media can be a great hindrance as well, making it even more challenging to find a way to introduce children to the topic. However, Project Happyvism is here to help! 

On Saturday, March 27, UConn Alumni welcomed Justis Lopez and Ryan Parker, creators of Project Happyvism, and Dr. Melissa-Sue John, a founder of Lauren Simone Publishing House, to open a dialogue about the importance of diversity in children’s literature, and how this literature can be used to start “courageous conversations” about race with children.  

A central theme of the discussion was how centering joy and self-love in activism is an act of resistance in itself. The mission of Happyvism is to “activate and spread Joy throughout Black and Brown communities and beyond by embracing self love.” 

The event began with Jason Irizarry, of the Neag School of Education, discussing his own relationship with reading as a child. He described how his perspective on books shifted from negative to positive, attributing it directly to finally having access to books that told stories like his own. 

“I went from someone who rejected reading to someone who writes books,” Irizarry said.  

Lopez, Parker and John spoke to this as well, providing personal anecdotes as well as research on children’s development to elaborate on the profound impact both exposure to diversity and discussions about race have on children.  

“Children are learning about race whether you talk about it or not,” Parker said. 

Parker went on to dispel several myths about such conversations. There is often the misconception that children are too young to discuss race, or that they will develop racist ideas if they are exposed to the topic. All research the hosts shared disproved these myths, and showed that children greatly benefit from learning about race early in life, whether through discussions, literature or a combination of the two. 

Going beyond the books themselves, Lopez, Parker and John also described the importance of having POC involved in all aspects of children’s literature, particularly as writers and publishers. 

“Representation isn’t just a book that happens to have a Black or Brown boy,” Parker said. 

“Representation isn’t just a book that happens to have a Black or Brown boy,” Parker said. 

A publisher herself, John explained her experience with children’s literature and how her daughters inspired her to diversify the books available to children. She had been frustrated about the lack of representation in the books her daughters could read, which opened her eyes to how she could change the game. “Mom, don’t complain about the problem, be the solution,” John’s daughter said. And with this, the Olivia Lauren book series was born, published through John’s own company. 

John’s publishing company, Lauren Simone Publishing House (named for her daughters), further expanded their reach by collaborating with Lopez and Parker to add even more diverse characters into the world of children’s literature through “Happyvism.” 

“Happyvism” began as a journey of self-reflection into what brings joy to individuals, initially inspired by music. It then evolved into discussing how joy can be used as activism, which Lopez and Parker turned into music itself. Now, in addition to an idea and a song, “Happyvism” has become a book. It even features illustrations by youth artists from Lopez and Parker’s own community. 

After demonstrating the importance of exposing children to diversity in literature, and explaining how to think critically about the media children consume, Lopez and Parker held a read-aloud of “Happyvism,” encouraging the audience to employ their newly-acquired knowledge to examine the book. 

Participants were invited to use what they learned throughout the discussion to write their own poem about what joy means to them. After the allotted time for reflecting and writing, the hosts opened the floor for anyone willing to share their poem. All of the participants employed a unique style when performing their poems, whether they were using spoken word, adding an instrumental track or using an American Sign Language interpretation. Each poem was met with applause and positivity, building a supportive platform for everyone.  

Despite the online platform, Lopez, Parker and John created an incredibly engaging and positive environment. Participants were encouraged to contribute thoughts and ask questions through the chat, which were happily received and answered by all three hosts. Lopez, Parker and John went beyond simply opening the floor to the audience, and actively encouraged participation and discussion.  

This family-friendly environment practiced what it preached, facilitating interactions between parents, educators and children. Project Happyvism shows that opening the dialogue about race and representation can be centered on joy and self-love, making long-lasting impacts on how children learn to accept themselves and others.  

To learn more about Happyvism, click here.

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