UACED hosts 16th annual Black Belt book drive to promote K-12 literacy

While making lighthearted conversation about classes and clubs, eight Vestavia Hills High School students and their two Advanced Placement U.S. history teachers carried 4,000 books in cardboard boxes into the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development for its 16th annual Books for the Black Belt donation drive.

The drive, which began in January and wrapped up at the end of March, aims to distribute gently used classics and other required texts to K-12 students in the 13 counties that make up Alabama’s Black Belt region.

The UA Center for Economic Development considers its annual book drive to be one of its most impactful yearly events. The center’s mission is to serve as a department for economic outreach, providing resources from The University of Alabama to state and local businesses and communities, particularly those impacted by poverty and low educational resources.

Anna Kutbay, a research assistant at UACED and a senior majoring in economics and political science, said the donation drive is important to her because growing up, she spent most of her time in her school’s library and the public library. So when she started at the center in 2019 and learned about the book drive, she knew she wanted to be involved.

“A lot of these counties, though, their school libraries function as their county or city libraries, and for those libraries to not have the total number of books they need was a problem that I really wanted to address,” Kutbay said.

Kutbay said the center’s goal is to help, not pretend to fix every problem.

“Our office’s mission is not to go into counties, fix every problem, and then leave,” Kutbay said. “Our office’s broad mission is to equip counties with the tools that they need to further their own success. We don’t want to come in and save people. We’re not a savior complex organization. We want to come in, educate, teach, give resources and inspire a path to growth. It’s not trying to rebuild something. It’s not telling people that their spaces are inadequate; it’s giving a helping hand in allowing them to grow from that.”

Courtesy of Jeffrey Kelly

Acknowledging generational problems, giving resources and providing a path forward is something that the Vestavia Hills students discussed in the center’s conference room with the staff members after bringing in the last box.

Daniel Ogden, a research assistant at UACED and a junior majoring in political science, passed out Dr. Seuss hats and gift bags to the students before he and Kutbay began talking to the students about their futures, college, the book donation drive and how Alabama is changing.

The students discussed what it meant for them to be aware of the “bubble” they lived in and how they could use their privilege to help people that needed it through events like the book drive.

One of the AP U.S. history teachers, Amy Maddox, said that while in the class, the students study systemic issues. When looking for a service-learning project for the course, they wanted to find ways to reach out and impact those issues.

Maddox learned about the book drive through the local news and decided to send an email.

“Instead of just emailing me and saying, ‘We’re doing this, get ready,’ she was asking a lot of questions, wanted to be really in the know, wanted her kids to have a fulfilling experience while also making sure she wasn’t burdening us or kind of stepping on toes,” Kutbay said.

Kutbay said the center was grateful for the donation and the students’ presence.

“I know that this has been a lot, but I have really appreciated hearing from you guys and even just learning about your interests in school and what you guys want to do. You guys give me a lot of hope for the future,” Kutbay said. “Your understanding of world issues and wanting to solve them makes me a little less afraid. … You guys make me proud to run this program and work with students.”

Getting the books to the center is only half the work. After receiving books, Kutbay and the other three research assistants who work at the center assess them, sort them by grade level, rebox them and prepare them for distribution.

Before COVID-19, book distribution would take place in spring and included the center’s staff driving to different counties and physically dropping off boxes of books to librarians and superintendents.

In 2020 the book drive was cut short, and the center couldn’t deliver the books until the summer of 2021.

Courtesy of Jeffrey Kelly

After they received more books than expected and were running out of space, they started asking office members who either work or live in the Black Belt to take the books with them.

Kutbay said running out of space was a good problem. At the end of the drive, their total was around 9,500 to 10,000 books/

For those interested in getting involved with Books for the Black Belt next year, Kutbay said donating books helps the center the most.

Planning for the drive usually begins in October, and the book drive would align with many student organizations’ missions, especially those focused on education, education reform or addressing poverty and inequity.

“We’re very willing to do a lot of the leg work if you are the one collecting the books, and even if individual students wanted to get involved, I’d say they could run their own drives. They could just bring us books that they have. Our door is almost always open if people let us know beforehand,” Kutbay said.

Anyone seeking more information about Books for the Black Belt is encouraged to reach out to administrative coordinator Sally Brown at [email protected] or (205) 348-8344.

Questions? Email the culture desk at [email protected].