This month Michigan Humanities spoke to Sonya Bernard-Hollins, a Great Michigan Read and Poetry Out Loud partner, about her ongoing work as a journalist, publisher and founder of the Merze Tate Explorers. The Merze Tate Explorers started in Kalamazoo as an initiative for girls in grades fourth through twelfth to come together and learn about the histories of their communities and beyond. They now host a Boys with Promise chapter, to involve boys in the journey of exploring the histories of black and communities of color locally as well as internationally. This program was named after Dr. Vernie Merze Tate who was an accomplished scholar and world traveler. Sonya first became aware of Dr. Merze Tate’s accomplishments when working on a story about the firsts African Americans of Western Michigan University, her alma mater. Dr. Merze Tate became a life changing inspiration for Sonya. This inspiration led Sonya to create the Merze Tate Explorers in 2008 and to publish a series of coloring books featuring historic firsts of Kalamazoo African American women and men. We invite our community to learn about Sonya’s work below.

Can you tell us about your work producing coloring books featuring the historic firsts of Kalamazoo African American women and men? How did you come across this project?  

In 2019, the Merze Tate Explorers created a Black History Moments series in partnership with Public Media Network. Each Explorer had to research one African American woman in history and create a 2-minute newscast of her with images. The plan was to continue that for 2020 and highlight local women in a coloring book. Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency agreed to print the books for an event in March of 2020 to recognize these women, however, the pandemic hit and the event was cancelled. When we were not able to continue our monthly meetings, we decided to use that time to create mini-documentaries using the Explorers to read a script and enter images and any video footage for 2-minute films. It was a hit. Not only that, a request for a book to highlight African American men first was suggested and that too was created. The young men in our Boys With Promise chapter will narrate the stories of the men for mini-documentaries that will be released in June. 

What are the Merze Tate Explorers?

The Merze Tate Explorers began in 2008 as the Merze Tate Travel Club. The goal was to expose girls in grades fourth through twelfth to people and places in their community and beyond. The young travel writers would also learn about geography and media as they served as journalists to interview people they met. The concept came from a Travel Club created by Merze Tate, a Michigan native and first African American graduate of Oxford University. As a young teacher, Tate worked at the African American school, Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis, Indiana. Tate wanted to expose her students to the world she taught them about in her History class. She sponsored trips for the youth to places such as Washington, D.C., Niagara Falls, and Pennsylvania during the early 1930s. After seeing images of Tate’s Travel Club, I was inspired to start our club with the goal of eventually taking girls around the world. Tate was an international scholar, author, professor, inventor, and world traveler. It is our goal to visit all of the places Tate traveled during her lifetime. So far we have traveled through France, Italy, Japan, and Hawaii. 

What are you most passionate about in working with the all-girls Merze Tate Explorers project?

I am most passionate about helping girls (and now boys through our Boys with Promise chapter) discover their own passion as they prepare for future trades or careers. My desire is to expose youth to the possibilities in life that they never imagined, and connect them with people who can become future mentors and network resources. When a child meets an Oscar-winning costume designer, they can see the possibilities. When a child meets an astronaut, author, corporate vice president, judges, etc., they can see that it is possible; particularly when that person is a person of color.

Can you tell us how the Merze Tate Explorers have been involved in collaborations with our Great Michigan Read and Poetry Out Loud programs?

As the pandemic led to many youth organizations going virtual, the Explorers was no exception. While we could no longer meet at Public Media Network to create our monthly studio shows and programs, we had to think of creative ways to meet people and use our voice. The partnership with Great Michigan Read was one of those opportunities. The Explorers had met other best selling authors such as Margot Lee Shutterly of Hidden Figures, poet and author Nikki Grimes, and others. Dr. Mona’s book, What the Eyes Don’t See, would be the perfect opportunity for our Book Club Explorers to read a book together and meet an author. Again, COVID hit, however, a virtual meeting with Dr. Mona and the Explorers was amazing! The girls not only had a chance to ask her questions, but they were able to make a new role model who became an honorary Explorer!

Katie’s (MH staff member) interests in the Explorers also led her to share with me information on Poetry Out Loud. Even though we were not an official school, we participated as a nonprofit. While the students were used to creating news programs or interviewing authors and poets, they knew little about poetry; the art of it or poets. This program provided our students with an opportunity to use their voice as they found poems that best connected with their own experiences. They learned about poets they had never before learned about in addition to the styles or poems, their rhythms, and the art of public speaking. Twelve Explorers took the challenge and took part in the contest. The winner, Sierra Ward, competed for the State title. While she did not win, it provided exposure to all of our students, to what other schools have done annually. Overall, the students learned they could learn and recite a poem!

What is the Merze Tate Explorers group working on now? What is next for them?

In addition to continuing our travel writing adventures throughout the U.S., the Merze Tate Explorers has a goal to connect with girls on every continent. Our partnership with a girls organization in Tanzania had created a sisterhood and a new way to share their voices. The sisters from America and Africa, are creating a song together that expresses the power of girls. The girls have found a beat, discussed what an empowered girl looks like, and how to best put that to music. The finished product will result in a music video that will include the girls, while on different continents, singing together in English and Swahilli. Our goal was to visit South Africa in 2020, however, we plan to reschedule that for 2022. By that time, the pandemic would be over and we will connect with our sisters from Africa. In addition, the girls are working on a marketing project of items created by the girls in Tanzania. Funds raised will go to provide scholarships to girls on both sides of the world. This partnership will equip them to not only become philanthropists but also learn how to market their business partnership in their communities and beyond. 

Michigan Humanities has been honored with the participation of the Merze Tate Explorers in the Great Michigan Read and Poetry Out Loud programs. These kinds of partnerships bring new life to our programs and build upon our mission to deepen understandings about the diverse communities across our state of Michigan while providing our partners with a voice and spaces in which to further their own vision for the humanities. To learn more about the Merze Tate Explorers visit their website here.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this blog, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or Michigan Humanities.

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