History & Legacy
The Story of Literature for All of Us
Karen Thomson is the founder of Literature for All of Us and served as our first Executive Director until 2018. As a professional book group leader, Karen has been making literature come alive through book group discussion since 1981. In 1997, she started Literature for All of Us.
Founding Literature for All of Us was an adventure of the heart. She began with a group of fourteen teen mothers enrolled in a GED program on Chicago south side. Karen introduced these young women to using literature as a means to look inward, to understand themselves better and to create relationships in which it was safe to share these discoveries. Personal resilience was built and interpersonal relationship were made. The impact was profound. Program attendance on Book Group day doubled. The young mothers returned to the nurturing circle of the book group week after week to read books, write poetry, and discuss their struggles and triumphs. The GED program requested more groups and Literature for All of Us came into being.
Karen intuitively created Literature for All of Us model that lives on today: opening each book group meeting with a ritual, reading aloud out from culturally relevant literature, having a facilitated group discussion and writing poetry from their personal reflections.
She has since trained educators, community service providers, and others to replicate this model. She has facilitated women’s literary retreats for girls and teen mothers, and taught literature courses for community colleges. In 2006, Karen traveled to the White House to receive the “Coming Up Taller Award” for excellence in programming from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.
By the time Karen retired as Executive Director in June 2018, Literature for All of Us offered more than 15 book groups across Chicagoland, reaching more than 700 youth and adults each year, including young parents and their children.
Karen has been recognized for her work numerous times, including with the following awards: Lifetime Achievement Award, Chicago Writers’ Association (2015); Inspire Award, Circle Foundation (2012); Mayor’s Award for the Arts, City of Evanston (2009); Harlequin More than Words Award Harlequin (2009); Those Who Make a Difference Award, Family Focus of Evanston (2003); Mercedes Mentor Award, Mercedes-Benz USA (2002); Rosa Williams Women in Ministry Award, Lake Street Church, Evanston, Illinois (2000); Studs Terkel Humanitarian Service Award, Illinois Humanities Council (1999); Nominee, Hartstein Award for Academic Excellence in Teaching, Oakton College (1991).
After a transition period following Karen’s retirement, Sonia Velázquez assumed the role of Executive Director of Literature for All of Us in 2019. Sonia quickly faced the difficult task of steering the organization through the COVID-19 pandemic and the Board’s decision to sunset Literature for All of Us.
In June of 2021, the Board made the difficult decision to halt all programs and let go of all staff except for the Executive Operations Director, Elise Mackevich Salchli, because of the organization’s financial position. From July 2021 through February 2022, Board President Newlin Wollaston formed and guided a Working Group of Board Members, supporters, and former staff members (including Book Group Leaders), to assess the future of Literature for All of Us. Additionally, Newlin secured the pro-bono services of Executive Service Corps, a set of non-profit consultants who conducted a full research and analysis process to help the Board determine options for the future of the organization. In March of 2022, the Board analyzed the findings of Executive Service Corps and the Working Group and voted to close the organization. As the Board considered how to further the mission of Literature for All of Us despite its closure, it determined that Faith Rice, former Book Group Leader and current Teen Services Librarian at the Chicago Public Library, could facilitate a training of Teen Services Librarians at CPL in the Literature for All of Us book-group model. That spark became the inspiration for the donation of remaining funds and many boxes of books, journals, and arts supplies to the Teen Services program in June 2022. That same month, the Board held a small celebration to honor supporters, staff, and participants–and to announce the future of the Literature for All of Us model. The Board also announced that this site would live on through the Community Webs project.
In the Fall of 2022, Faith was able to hire several former Book Group Leaders as freelance trainers using funds from the Literature for All of Us resources at the Chicago Public Library. Faith and her former Literature for All of Us colleagues trained over 50 librarians from across the city in facilitating the organization’s unique trauma-informed book group model and curricula. She also supplied the central library and 26 branch libraries with book group kits, including books, journals, and snacks, as well as hallmarks of the Literature for All of Us book group–table cloths and candles to set a welcoming communal space–spreading the seeds of Literature for All of Us across the city.
A poem in honor of Literature for All of Us, by Karen Thomson
The Room was Too Small
Joy Harjo visits a Literature for All of Us book group at Simpson Academy for Young Women Chicago 2003
The ceilings were low and the tables were low
A classroom once meant for kindergarten children
Now for pregnant girls eleven through thirteen
Eight of them gathered around a low table at one end
The tablecloth and a candle in place and books on hand
And in came the tall native poet queen called Joy
The ceilings came closer as she walked across the room
She sat at the low table and talked
About how she ran away from home when she was sixteen
How she had a baby and how poetry saved her
How life isn’t over just because you have a baby too young
As she talked about her daughter Rainy Dawn
Her words rang as healing bells
Her poems of resistance and love made flesh in her speaking
“I give you back” she read
A chant of “I release you, I release you…”
Her beads and hennaed hands shook now and then and her voice too
But as she opened her heart in rhythmic pulses of words
As she claimed her oneness with the big-bellied little girls
We fell under her spell of love and the room
Became a womb of poetry and hope and not too small at all.