“When are we going to read a story that has a Black person in it? How come we only read stories about Martin Luther King Jr. in February? Weren’t there other people who did stuff? How come stories all read the same? How come a BIPOC character [is always being] saved by someone else?”
These are but a few of the questions former Milwaukee public school teacher Ashley Valentine got from her students of color during her time in the classroom. Determined to address the narrative and representational disparity in children’s literature, Valentine is now the proud owner of Rooted MKE, a brand new BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) bookstore, tutoring center, and maker’s space.
The store, which opened its doors on March 10, is located at 5312 W. Vliet St. in Milwaukee. In addition to selling books that are written by, illustrated by, and tell stories of people of color, Rooted MKE also offers tutoring services and opportunities for literary exploration. Students can access one-on-one and small group academic support from early education to grade 12.
Growing up, books were always important to Valentine’s senses of independence and fun. “I remember experiences of going to the library and getting new books. That was a really big deal to me because as a kid, not a lot belongs to you,” she explained. “You live in a house, and you have siblings, and you share everything and nothing is really yours, so for me, books were something that I felt like were mine and something that I had ownership over.”
Aside from her own love for books, Valentine’s career as an educator also heavily influenced her vision for Rooted. Valentine found her own teaching inclinations stifled by the fact that the classroom environment is not conducive to one-on-one time with each student. “Trying to teach [my] last semester, [I felt] very much like this is not where I should be doing this, [I had] ideas, [and wanted] to do things that were more non-traditional and more tailored to students,” she said. “I felt disconnected, like I could have a greater impact outside of what this system looks like, so it was time for me to leave.”
Valentine recognizes that critical reading skills are crucial to youth being able to enjoy a more diverse selection of books. “From being a teacher, I know that many students who come into the classroom are not equipped with the foundational skills that make them proficient readers and allow them to fully understand and think on a more complex level about what they’re reading,” she said. “So I knew that tutoring, and at a basic level, offering literary tutoring, was going to be really important because I can’t say, ‘Here come, I have [these books] for you but you don’t have the keys to unlock the doors to all the possibilities of what it looks like to think greater than what your circumstance is or what you see every day in front of you.”
Valentine has nurtured the dream to open Rooted MKE since at least 2015. With a notebook full of ideas, Valentine slowly built her vision over the years, even attending a book-selling conference in 2018 and planning everything down to product placement. “It was a lot of pre-planning, kind of dreaming in a notebook. And then when I saw the space that I wasn’t even planning to open a bookstore in, I was kind of seeing all the things that I had written in the notebook and all the things that I wanted for a bookstore in that space,” she said.
While Rooted’s innovative learning model might leave some skeptical, Valentine trusts its mission. “People who value what I’m trying to offer will find the place and come here. So I don’t have to operate out of a space of scarcity or feeling like I’m never going to get customers because the customers who are supposed to be here are going to be here,” she explained. “There’s not going to be any shortage of people who need the services I am offering and feel like they want to be in a space where their voice will be amplified and have the opportunity to share in a similar experience with other people.”
The bookstore’s name pays homage to the city that has shaped Valentine. “I feel like being Black in Milwaukee is complicated because you either appreciate it and love your city or you’re here and you hate it and you want to get out of here […] I recognize that and I’m proud of being from Milwaukee and living in Milwaukee and Milwaukee is a part of my roots. Whether that’s a positive experience for someone or a place of struggle or you long to be somewhere else, Milwaukee is still where you’re rooted,” she explained.
“[I also] think about a plant. Kids need nurturing, kids need to be exposed to a wide range of experiences and that helps to build whoever they’re going to be,” she continued. “So I thought of kids and the bookstore being a place of grounding for them and a place where they can be free to be who they are and explore who they are and explore different stories or different perspectives of different ways of being a Black person.”
And while the store has received a very warm welcome from the community, with customers coming from Racine and Chicago during their first open weekend, Valentine is determined to focus on the quality of Rooted’s services before considering opportunities for growth. “I want to make sure that the kids that we do have coming in are excelling academically and feeling good about who they are and what they offer in the classroom and how they’re represented in the classroom and that they can bring their best selves every day,” she said.
Rooted MKE’s grand opening event will take place this Saturday, March 19 at 9 am. The Hmong Chamber of Commerce will facilitate the official ribbon cutting with remarks from Mayor Cavalier Johnson and County Executive David Crowley. Children and their families will have the opportunity to enjoy hands-on activities and listen to Rooted’s first brand ambassador, Chloe of Chase My Creations, read one of her favorite books.