NNS Spotlight: Rooted MKE uplifts Black and Brown stories and children

Ashley Valentine, right, rings up a customer at Rooted MKE’s grand opening. (Photo by Sam Woods)

Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut things down, Ashley Valentine loved taking her son to children’s museums and anywhere else he could learn with his hands. They both loved it overall, but Valentine noticed that the staff and attendees were not diverse.

“It didn’t seem like it was accessible to everybody when there’s only four or five other Black families there and you’d do the head nod because it’s just you guys … conforming to what’s around you,” Valentine remembered.

Fast forward a few years and while the COVID-19 pandemic is still with us, Rooted MKE is here to address the gap in BIPOC-centered children’s learning spaces that Valentine noticed years ago.

BIPOC stands for Black, indigenous and people of color.

Now open at 5312 W. Vliet St., Rooted MKE is a bookstore carrying children’s books written by and for BIPOC children as well as a learning center and a space where parents can sign their children up for tutoring and extracurricular learning appropriate to their grade level and learning style.

The pairing of a bookstore with a learning center was important to Valentine, who as a former educator saw a need both for BIPOC representation in learning materials and flexibility in curriculum.

“Kids like more than one thing, so I wanted to offer a full range of things to do,” Valentine said. “If a kid does not have a good relationship with books for whatever reason, there are still things for them to do here.”

Customers like Nathaniel Haack, who came to the bookstore looking for books with BIPOC representation for his 6-year-old, are now seeing the benefit of the combination bookstore and makerspace. A makerspace is a place where people with shared interests gather to work on projects sharing ideas, knowledge and equipment.

“This is a really cool idea and a space that is much needed in Milwaukee,” Haack said. “Having a safe, wholesome space for kids where they can learn and play and be children is invaluable.”

How Rooted MKE came to be

Rooted MKE’s journey began several years ago when Valentine was teaching fourth grade. Like many new teachers, she came into the job attempting to single-handedly revitalize the education system through sheer effort, love and positivity.

Although her efforts resulted in some breakthroughs with students, she became burned out.

“In teaching, you start and are so excited. You think you’re going to make all of these changes,” Valentine said. “If what I was doing and achieving wasn’t getting done after I left, then I was just doing it for me.”

Looking for answers on how to add to education on a systemic level, Valentine went to graduate school to study special education before taking a job as a tutor and briefly returning to the classroom before having her second child.

Together these experiences underscored the need for systems-level changes in education, meaning changes in how the education system is set up and the flexibility built within it to accommodate students deserving specialized education.

But she still had the same problem she had as a teacher: How can one person affect the education system as a whole rather than work to put out localized fires?

The answer was Rooted MKE: a bookstore that had BIPOC-centered children’s books, a makerspace for tactile learners and a tutoring service offering specialized curriculum and reading level-appropriate book recommendations.

The flexibility of having these things all under one roof is that it can benefit young learners with multiple access points to learning.

“Kids like more than one thing, so I wanted to offer a full range of things to do. If a kid doesn’t have a good relationship with books for whatever reason, there are still things for them to do,” Valentine said.

However, Valentine said she is hopeful that parents see her store and tutoring service as appropriate for children at all stages of development, not just ones that are already struggling to keep up.

“Kids who play sports have a coach that advocates for advancing their skills no matter what level they are at,” Valentine said. “The same should be true for tutoring.”

“I want you to come see me when your kid is starting to ask questions or even when they’re on grade level but aren’t being challenged,” she added.

Keeping the momentum going

In the first week after the business’s soft opening in early March, Valentine was nervous about hitting her projections. Though it was a soft opening, Valentine was worried that people would only see her business as just another bookstore, if they noticed it at all.

However, after making sure to post regularly on social media, media attention and a visit from then-Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson during the grand opening, Valentine said she is no longer worried about the possibility of her business stumbling out of the gate. Ever the entrepreneur, her focus has turned to building on her early success.

“I am excited, however, I haven’t gotten the chance to take the excitement in because I am so busy and thinking of next steps,” Valentine said.

As her business gains publicity, Valentine is also aware of the possibility of “mission drift.” This is where a business or organization begins with a clear mission but through small compromises over time slowly drifts away from that mission before abandoning it altogether.

If you ask Arianna Dunston-Hill, a high school sophomore whom Valentine recruited to work at Rooted MKE, the daily existence of the business is testament to its success in uplifting Black and Brown stories and children.

“It means a lot to me personally. In my life I’ve had women entrepreneurs in my family … but to see another Black woman doing this underscores that it’s possible for me as well,” Dunston-Hill said. “When Ashley talks about what she’s doing and how she’s doing it, that is something that really inspires me.”

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