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How a Book Club Provides Healing

Posted April 17, 2023

Three women stand in front of a bookshelf

Now a Metro State alumna, Renee Oliver started working as an advocacy specialist at Ascension Place while still a student majoring in Social Work. Oliver manages a caseload of ten or fewer residents at Ascension Place, one of the Haven Housing locations that provides sober transitional supportive housing, working with residents to set goals and identify resources to achieve them. Recognizing the trauma and challenges that residents face, Oliver wanted to create a space where they could come together for mutual support, be transported to different dimensions, explore their stories in community, and ultimately, grow and move toward their goals.

Oliver, an avid reader, had an idea: Why not a book club? “I just thought it would be fun”, Oliver shared. “Instead of scrolling on their phones the whole day or night, they can read and feel more productive.” She reached out to Michelle Filkins, Metro State faculty librarian who is well-versed in facilitating book clubs, including the highly popular Dayton's Bluff community book club that is co-facilitated by the Metro State Library and the Dayton’s Bluff branch of Saint Paul Public Library. Filkins embraced Oliver’s idea, citing research that book clubs, when carefully crafted and supported, can contribute to healing from trauma. Faculty colleagues and Institute for Community Engagement and Scholarship (Institute) staff agreed, awarding Filkins a 2022–23 Community-Engaged Scholarship Small Grant to support Oliver’s initiative.

After thoughtful planning to tailor the book club to the interests of residents, Oliver and Filkins launched the new Ascension Place book club in the fall of 2022. Now, they’re on their fourth book—The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab—a selection recommended by one of the residents!

At their first meeting, 15 residents were present. “They were excited,” Oliver said. In transitional housing settings, that number varies over time as residents transition in and out of the shelter. Oliver and Filkins have provided continuity for residents in the club, establishing a strong foundation for them to build relationships with one another, which is vital to building trust.

 “Our residents here want to make friends,” commented Allison Skoglund, program manager of Ascension Place. “That’s kind of what the book club has been able to do for our residents.” Residents with very different personalities now refer to themselves as “book buddies” and these types of relationships can be so healing, Skoglund said. People feel as though they are on a common platform together, enabling them to feel more at ease and to open up.

Oliver, Filkins, and Skoglund witness residents becoming more confident in themselves simply by exchanging their ideas. They're empowered by being seen and valued for who they are as they contribute their insights about the texts. Oliver and Filkins highlighted one resident who takes an abundance of notes in her book journal—so much so that she’s been able to assume the role of drawing other residents into the dialogue, including those who are more inclined to keep to themselves.

In the club, Oliver wants to make sure that no one feels obligated to read books that don’t interest them. This made choosing books the most difficult feat of this whole process. Residents were pleased with the first three books that Oliver recommended: So We Meet Again, by Suzanne Park; The Stars and the Blackness Between Them, by Junauda Petrus; and The Hate You Give, by Angie Thomas. Residents are asked to read a book summary to make sure that the content doesn’t trigger traumatic memories or focus too much on self-help. Filkins shared that they choose not to focus on self-help books because much of what the women are working on is about self-improvement. Residents are able to find resonance and reflect on their own experiences within a multitude of different genres and books.

Oliver was told that book clubs at the housing shelter hadn’t been successful in the past. She is understandably proud of herself for making this one such a success. She is also very proud of the residents. “In the beginning, some residents told me that they haven't even finished a book before … I’m proud that we have been rocking it for this long and I’ll be happy if even three to four members choose to stick around.”

Stemming from their shared love of literature, Oliver and Filkins designed an approach that seems to work: providing residents reflective journals and copies of books for their personal libraries, and using these texts to build new relationships, grow residents’ self-confidence, and promote healing. Both have many ideas for the future of the book club including bringing in authors, reading poetry, and possibly replicating this model at other Haven Housing locations. In the end, their goal remains unchanged, as articulated by Filkins: "I just hope as reading becomes more of their life, it becomes another way of understanding themselves, understanding the world,” an acknowledgement as to how influential books can be.