Three Mac friends team up to produce This Land Is, a children’s book designed to build empathy.
BY REBECCA DEJARLAIS ORTIZ ’06 / PHOTO BY DAVID J. TURNER
Last fall, Nana Adom Mills-Robertson ’18 needed honest feedback on a short manuscript. He chose an audience he knew wouldn’t mince words: commuters on public transit.
“I was on the 84 [bus route] one day and approached an older woman, explained what I was doing,” says Mills-Robertson, an economics major from Ghana who was then starting his senior year. “She read the book, and when she got to a pivotal moment, her body language changed—she really leaned in and said, ‘This is powerful.’ That’s when I realized we had something here. I wanted to see what people we didn’t know would say. If I’m approaching a stranger on their commute, they don’t care about my feelings.”
The thing is, caring about one another’s feelings is actually the heart of the message Mills-Robertson was testing. In 2016, after hearing news reports about increased bullying in schools, he wanted to explore how to help kids build empathy. His solution: a book geared toward early-grade readers. But he needed a writer and an illustrator to make it happen.
So Mills-Robertson teamed up with Mac friends whose skillsets in those areas he admired: writer Dubie Toa-Kwapong ’16, who had come to Macalester as a Davis United World College Scholar from Norway, and art major and illustrator Samuel Fleming ’19, who is from Minneapolis. Toa-Kwapong says she was drawn immediately to the empathy-building mission that Mills-Robertson pitched. “It was the aftermath of the  election and Brexit, I was feeling quite helpless and hopeless, and this felt like an effective way to engage and bring an important demographic into the conversation,” she says.
And for all three, being in the Mac community was the right starting point for the project. “The education we receive at Macalester aims to mold engaged citizens, and gives students the space to figure out what that means to them individually,” Toa-Kwapong says. “We get to come of age in an environment where people are passionate about making the world better, in whatever space they occupy. It puts a fire in your belly and keeps it burning, even when things seem grim.”
The plan and plot
As the three reflected on their hopes for the book, their plans expanded to include an accompanying curriculum for educators and parents. Their mission expanded, too: The team set a goal to build empathy among two million children around the United States, planning to assess their progress through book sales, curriculum downloads, and the amount of feedback generated on the book’s website.
Poring over children’s books in Mac’s DeWitt Wallace Library, Toa-Kwapong began developing her story: Amina—an African American girl who lives in Minneapolis with her family—notices that some of her classmates have been treating her and some of her friends poorly because they’re different, bothering a boy who has two moms and pulling off a girl’s hijab at recess. Amina’s math teacher even laughs at her when she says she wants to be an astronaut. This shift makes her feel nervous about going to school. When her music class sings Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” she wonders “if this land was made for people like Khadidja, Lester, Amadou, and me.” Amina’s mother reminds her that she and her friends aren’t alone, sharing stories about civil rights heroes and social justice champions who have gone before them.
Mills-Robertson tested the manuscript that emerged, This Land Is, on bus passengers, but the team knew the story had to resonate with kids as well as adults. Toa-Kwapong, Fleming, and Mills-Robertson brought sample pages and sketches to a Linwood Monroe Arts Plus school fifth-grade class, and the ensuing conversation surprised all three. “The kids’ input was beyond what we could have ever expected,” Fleming says. “They drew connections to topics and themes that were mind-blowing. They told us stories about the roles race plays in their lives. Kids are open to this, the empathy. That was inspiring.”
Highs and lows
With Toa-Kwapong back in Norway working as a columnist for the publication Framtida, the trio turned to the next obstacle: a Kickstarter fundraiser. For most of the campaign, the outlook wasn’t promising. On the final day, well short of the $7,000 goal, the three brainstormed how they could move forward without Kickstarter support. (If a Kickstarter goal isn’t met, pledges are returned to each donor.) Then Mills-Robertson got a notification on his phone that the project had been fully funded. “I’m thinking it’s a glitch, maybe that someone’s messing with me,” he says. But there was no glitch: at the last minute, someone—unknown to the three, outside their networks—had stumbled across their campaign on the Kickstarter website and pledged $2,000 to complete the project.
Planning accelerated. Fleming set a goal to illustrate one page per day over winter break before leaving for a semester in Tokyo, diving into an artistic style he’d never tried before: “Throughout most of my life, everything I’ve drawn in colored pencil was done with the intent of being realistic. This book has few even slight attempts at realism.”
He also chose to render the bullies’ appearances unrecognizable, so young readers wouldn’t recognize any of their own traits. “There is no color, the lines are far less clean, and the expressions are all very exaggerated,” Fleming says. “I wanted there to be no mistake by the readers when deciding how to feel about the bullies.”
One day, he spread out his sketches in the campus center to show Mills-Robertson. That was a watershed moment. “You have this vision, and then you see it laid out in front of you,” Mills-Robertson says. “That was the most powerful thing.”
But progress wasn’t always linear. As Mills-Robertson waded through the self-publishing process during the end of his senior year, production costs exceeded preliminary estimates. He made mistakes. A self-professed “believer in audacious goals,” he realized that getting the books into the hands of two million kids came with its own set of challenges.
The three learned they needed to do more research to tap into how educators understand social and emotional learning. “I was a bit naïve” at the start, Mills-Robertson says. “We had a lot of learning to do. There’s a wide swath of parents and educators who are thinking about this topic, and we’re looking at that work—we want there to be weight behind our curriculum.”
And then there were the critics. For every few people who loved the book, he says, “I’d show it to someone who’d read it and look like they had tasted a lemon. I’d hear things like, ‘You can’t show this to kids,’ and ‘This is a heavy children’s book.’” But the three didn’t want to water down their story’s message, and they pushed forward.
Laying the foundation
Earlier this year, the trio distributed the first batch of This Land Is with the Pajama Program, a national program that provides books and pajamas to at-risk youth. Mills-Robertson registered the project as an LLC, and he’s developing an online curriculum with assistance from open-source resources from the equity-focused organization Teaching Tolerance. The next step: Mills-Robertson, who works full-time as a market development representative at the software company Kipsu, will focus on getting This Land Is into libraries and bookstores (it’s also for sale at thislandbook.com).
Along the way, they’ll keep tracking progress toward their big goal. “Measuring social and emotional skills like empathy is difficult because of the lag in what students learn versus how they demonstrate the skills—but we believe that if children are getting the book and going through the associated materials, then we’re laying the foundation,” Mills-Robertson says. “Building empathy among two million children in the United States is our North Star metric. Now it’s about taking the incremental steps in the right direction.”
October 30 2018Back to top