Karen Thomson, Founder and Executive Director
In 1997, Karen Thomson sat down with fifteen teen girls. In a book group setting, she began reading and writing poetry with them. She’d chosen books with themes that engaged participants’ cultural identities, providing them with tools for identifying, reflecting upon, and critiquing systemic oppression and interpersonal challenges. For the first time, the girls saw themselves as the protagonists in the stories they were reading. The result was stunning. After weeks of discussing the mirrored experiences in their own lives, girls who believed that they “didn’t like reading” or “weren’t good at writing,” became voracious readers and poetry writers.
"When they read those poems aloud, their body posture was changed, they were so proud of themselves," she recalled." The girls didn't want to leave. They loved the group, and they began to love reading."
Those girls went on to become teachers, social workers, mothers, and writers. And that book group became the model for what is now a non-profit organization serving 700 - 800 struggling and reluctant readers every year, promoting the belief that meaningful, culturally relevant pedagogy can affirm students’ identities, build critical thinking, and ultimately lead to success in academic and work settings.
Karen has been locally and nationally recognized for her work. Selected awards include: The Chicago Writer’s Association Lifetime Achievement Award for 2016; The Impact 100 Greater Chicago Culture Award - 2014; the Alford-Axelson Award for Nonprofit Managerial Excellence - Small Category - 2014; Make it Better Award from Make It Better, the North Shore based foundation and publication for Literature for All of Us Philanthropy Award in the Arts – 2013; the “Remarkable Woman” selection in the Chicago Tribune, featuring Executive Director Karen Thomson –2012; Mayor’s Award for the Arts from the City of Evanston for Karen Thomson’s life-long commitment to serving adults and youth through book groups – 2009; and the Coming Up Taller Award from the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities for outstanding programming for youth in the arts and humanities – 2005.
"Books are food for my soul. They're how I inform my decisions, how I learn about life."
Karen holds a B.A. degree from Wheaton College and a Master of Arts in Teaching English from Northwestern University. She is the mother of four grown children, three grandchildren, and lives with her husband in Evanston, where she writes poetry and reads a poem by Mary Oliver almost every morning.