Sandra Soto (she/her) is a teacher at heart and believes in the power of education to empower communities and transform society. She loves to build bridges, smash silos, and bring people together. Sandra also loves to learn; she has a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from Boston University and a master’s degree in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In the summer of 2020, she co-founded a nonprofit called Libraries for Liberation, which provides opportunities and resources for individuals and their communities to awaken to the reality of systemic racism and the myth of white supremacy. Sandra is currently living in an intentional community as part of Life Together, an Episcopal Service Corps program in Boston, Massachusetts. She is exploring education outside of a traditional K-12 setting this year as a Youth Development Program Coordinator through her site placement with Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción.
Alisa De Los Santos (she/her) is a facilitator, connector, and educator focused on racial justice in multiple spaces, including the public education system and the Catholic Church. She believes in reflection, dialogue, and action as mechanisms to heal ourselves and our communities. Alisa had the privilege to earn a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from UCLA and a master’s degree in Education Policy and Management from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In 2020, she joined the newly-imagined non-profit Libraries for Liberation, which provides opportunities for people to awaken to the reality of systemic racism and the myth of white supremacy. Alisa is currently working with several public school districts, focusing on racial equity and power sharing in decision-making with families. She is also partnering with the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles to develop strategies for addressing racism in institutions and systems.
Music by: @siryalibeats
Portrait Illustration by: Olivia Lim
Sandra Soto and Alisa De Los Santos
Patrick: Hey, what's going on. It's Dr. Patrick Reyes here with another episode of the Sound of the Genuine and today we have Libraries for Liberation - some of the co-founders and team Sandra Soto and Alisa De Los Santos. And I am so excited for what they are going to share about how they came to put books, written by BIPOC authors, folks in FTE’s broader community, into those little free libraries and making that a mission and an organization. So welcome Sandra and Alisa.
All right Sandra and Alisa, it's so good to see you. About this time last year, we were gathered together for a public event. So thank you for coming on the Sound of the Genuine, sharing a little about your lives.
So I need y'all to take me back. I know we're going to get to what you're up to, about putting books - anti-racist books, authors of color - in little free libraries. We'll get to all of that, but take me back to the beginning. Take me back to when you're a kid. Is it like a love of children's books? Who put books in your hand? Who are your people? Alisa, let's start with you. Where are you from? Who are your people?
Alisa: Who are my people? My family, lots of stories there. I'm from Southern California. I'm from a town called Camarillo, which is in Ventura County. I think the first thing to know about me, that's really important to my like upbringing in all of this work is that I am Latina and white.
My mom is white, my dad is Mexican-American and so grew up in a mixed ethnicity house. And that has always been a part of who I am and who my people are. And my life very much revolved around education, still does as an educator. But my mom really put books in my hand.
She is a retired school administrator. She was a fifth-grade teacher for a number of years and then a vice-principal at an elementary school. She was the authority on the school side and my dad was a Sheriff's deputy, police officer.
So I had a lot of authority figures in my life, but my mom put books in my hand and was a huge proponent of literacy, of stories, of imagining. And my dad really put the concept of storytelling into my life. It was always very important to know who we came from and what we were about as a family. He would always say it's because you're a De Los Santos, right?
This is who we are, and this is what we're about. The idea there was really an understanding of what we came from and who we came from. Ventura County is a very agricultural area. Both my grandfather and grandmothers’ families worked in the fields, and they worked in the fields, and my dad came up from there and they did too.
My grandfather eventually got his teaching credential and became a teacher. There was a lot of storytelling on my dad's side and a lot of reading really focused on education and books on my mom's side. I'm crazy lucky to have them as parents.
Patrick: That's cool. And Sandra, how about you?
Sandra: Yeah, sometimes I forget how we have a lot in common there. I am also a sort of white Latina. My mom is Italian and my dad is Cuban and I grew up also in Southern California. So my mom also was a teacher. So lots in common and some differences as well. I knew I wanted to be a teacher from the time I was seven years old, wanted to be an elementary school teacher and really went, straight through college with that goal.
And as I was applying for the Episcopal Service Corps program, I was thinking about the other thing that I used to say when I was a kid, which was that I wanted to build a city. And that sort of got lost for a lot of years in between and becoming a teacher.
But as I was applying to Life Together, I was reflecting on that and remembering my mom's excitement to thinking I wanted to learn about urban planning or real estate or engineering. My family was also involved in real estate and I think she was excited to have me wanting to go in that direction.
And I was much less interested in those aspects of building a city and didn't really have the language to say “intentional community” but was more interested in how this city, as I said, could exist without cars or money or be solar powered and all of these other aspects of what I was hoping to create rather than the actual buildings.
And in so far as reading goes, I was homeschooled for part of elementary school and I was the one in the corner with the book all the time. And when I did have to go anywhere with anyone, the book came with me and I could still be found in the corner of wherever we were with some book or stack of books. It's been a common thread and one that I've carried along with me all throughout my life so far.
Patrick: So y'all have to tell me about how your communities ...I'm hearing, ‘We're De Los Santos’. This is who we are, this is what we do. Sandra, you're ‘I'm going to build cities.’ What do you do with that as a teenager, as you get like a little bit older, what do you start to imagine as I want to do this? I want to pursue these passions for a living, to study, like where do you go? Where do you both tease out this and who's there to kind of support you in that journey?
Alisa: I, as a teenager was super focused on school, taking honors classes. And my high school was, I would say, a middle of the road type of high school - I'm public schools all the way through. And it was an understanding that I would take all of the courses that were available to me.
That Latino work ethic. And my dad was like, we work hard, we take all the classes, we study. Education is very, very important. It is the only priority actually, as it were, the only thing that's important. You can play sports and do whatever, but you're going to get A's. And there was a lot of pressure involved there but yeah, I think my parents were very much there to support me.
In high school I wanted to be a surgeon. I love science. I love biology. I wanted to be a marine biologist as a kid and then as I got older, it very much became about people to me. Just the importance of connection and people. And when I was in high school, the idea of working in interpersonal relationships, wasn't really something that you hear about - like doctor, lawyer, engineer, those types of things.
So I was like, oh yeah, people…doctor. Okay, excellent. And that was the goal all the way through early college, pre-med work and all of that. And about halfway through that, I realized that I was much more interested in...the way I used to talk about it was healing minds versus bodies, so I changed my major to psychology, but really I think I shifted my general focus away from the nitty gritty biology - if you will - of a person and really into the soul of someone and what makes us who we are and how we relate to one another and where that can be really positive and loving and supportive and where that can be harmful and unsustaining.
In terms of people who were there supporting me, obviously my family. And I found a great group of friends in high school and in college, a bunch of theater nerds, truly deeply theater nerds. I am a theater nerd and there was a level of creativity there, there was a level of really doing it for ourselves, thinking outside the box and understanding that what we imagined for the world, or what we imagined for the stage, was sort of possible, in these grand ways and these small intimate ways. And I learned a lot about making things happen with that group of people. Often outside of the realm of having any sort of power and authority to make things happen and make things happen anyway.
Sandra: Yeah, I really resonate with the ‘making things happen’ piece. When I think about my biggest sort of supporter in all the way childhood growing up through high school, my mom was my person. And she is very much a go after it, you find a problem you need to solve it, whether it's your responsibility or not. You noticed it now it's yours…figure out.
And I think that sort of resourcefulness and just that spirit has been something that I've taken with me and run with. And I think that's what's hard for me about this idea of surrender, which is the theme of my more recent life. So now you see all the problems and you have to do something about them and you also have to like, let go? What's that about? So I don't know. We'll see.
I think both of those things really have stuck with me, both the sort of motivation and drive to be engaged and be community, whatever community that is. And as I've moved around a bunch and been a part of a ton of different working and living and building that community and leaving that community and seeing all of the things happening there and jumping in to understanding them and to listening to everyone and everything that's going on, and then trying to figure out how to make it better and how to be part of it and how those two things are very much linked for me personally. So making it better and being a part of it and also how to just let go and just be present and that being enough as well.
Oh what was your question?
Patrick: Let me ask it this way, Sandra, as you discern away from Southern California…I mean y'all met in the Ed school at Harvard. So when you come out to Cambridge, what's the problem? You know, you have your mom, saying if you identify a problem, you gotta solve it. When you get to the Ed program, what is the problem that you're trying to solve? What are you discerning? What is the thing that you are trying to figure out that has captured imagination to go to one of the worst places on earth?
Sandra: Love Boston. I love Boston and I know you hate it. When I first got to DC, when I first started teaching, I think it goes back a little further than grad school, I think the problem I was trying to solve when I got there, was a different problem than I was trying to solve when I left the Ed school as well, which is great. I think that's growth and that's what we're hoping for you as annoying as it was. But, I started my first year of teaching thinking, this is my piece of the puzzle. I love teaching. I can make change here with my classroom and that's what I'm here to do.
I got there and I saw all of the things I couldn't do, all of the impact I couldn't make. My first year of teaching was in DC the 2016-2017 school year. It was during Trump's election inauguration, and I have pictures of my students from that year on my wall, in front of me right now.
It's one of those things that you just never forget. I had kids coming into class afraid that they were going to be deported - like very much a problem I couldn't solve. And seeing just how many of those there were, and then starting to understand all of the other factors that were impacting my kids' ability to learn in the classroom, gave me the perspective to really say, okay, there's some other things here that were not a part of my teacher education program, in a substantial way. And I really need to think about those factors and go back and say, okay, education - I wanted to be a teacher because I hated school.
I wanted to be a teacher because school wasn't working for me. It wasn't working for the people around me. It wasn't until later that I really grasped somewhat of a systems view of that and put it into a historical context of like why isn't education serving all children? That I started to really say, okay, we need to go back to school, and we need to look at this through a different lens. And realizing the impact of racism on the public education system and how it is embedded in all other systems really was sort of a driving force to get me to the Ed school. The way I would have articulated it as I was applying was from a perspective of how can we make sure that a student's zip code is not impacting their educational outcomes? How do we close opportunity and achievement gaps? And also when I left I think I was in a very different place of how can education be a practice of freedom, right?
Like getting back to true purpose of education and thinking about how schools can play a role in that and also how letting go of the need for schools to do that. And really thinking about education in a broader sense which brought me to both Libraries for Liberation - education in a very grassroots community - we're putting books in little free libraries, anyone can pick them up anytime and we don't have to be in a brick and mortar setting to have education, we see that education is happening everywhere all the time…And to Life Together, my site placement with a community development corporation, which has a youth development program that I'm working in. So it's again, educational oriented work that is not in schools. So I think that's how I came into this and then, where I'm going from here.
Patrick: Alisa, how about you? what was your burning question? I'm hearing education is a practice of freedom. That's huge. I mean, just thinking about education Alisa, how do you get to the Ed school? What are you imagining? How are these problems and potential solutions colliding? How do you get there?
Alisa: After college, I was, as I mentioned, theater nerd. So I decided to give myself two years of working in an arts nonprofit setting. What I learned in college was how to run a theater company because I ran one. I started working at a performing arts center in Los Angeles as a production assistant, which I used to describe as a good grown-up way of babysitting, because you're really babysitting artists on stage.
And pretty quickly there, I started working as a production assistant in their education department. It was very small education department at the time very much focused on student matinees, bringing students from around Los Angeles to the theater to see shows.
I was there for seven years. And I stayed in that education department and working my way up becoming more and more involved. And a very long complicated seven years of work history short, I learned about inequity. I learned about racism and classism and the kind of people who make major political and social decisions in their penthouse at the top of the Wilshire, right? These are the people that I spent time with and I was trying to raise money from them, trying to have a conversation that would inspire them to give large amounts of money to the students, the teachers and the families I was working with. Just being around more money than I had ever been around ever in any context, on one side, and then my actual work was focused on K-12 students, primarily from title one schools, their teachers and families who were in the immediate surrounding area of the stage, who did not come to the stage because the tickets were so exorbitantly priced. A lot of my work was spanning these worlds and understanding how one world thinks that it has absolutely nothing to do with the other world.
And sort of their destiny and family’s destiny, especially families of color are really just not connected in any way that they can occupy the exact same space and be so separate. And so like irrelevant. And of course, I'm speaking about the idea of a wealthy donor, really thinking about the irrelevancy of families, of students.
So a lot of my work focused on families and we had a particular program that was designed to remove the barriers to access to arts and to think collaboratively with families about why one comes to the arts, what kind of art parents wanted their kids to be involved in and how to really get that going in a space where everybody else was paying $75 to $110 per ticket. And how we could make art accessible for free to families. And a lot of conversation around what capital A “art” is and how families that many of our…executive director and things would talk about [how] all of these families don't have any art.
That's not true. That is not true. And so on the other end, changing perceptions of what is art, what families bring to the table. Even though they're low income, “even though” quote-unquote, even though they're families of color, right? All of these things that a lot of the people I was working with really imagined as strikes against people, how we can work to change that perception?
And I would say that I was moderately semi-successful, you know? I learned a lot alongside families and really that was my opportunity to be educated by them through their generosity and their willingness to say like, Hey, this is what we are about.
This is what we want, eat with us, spend time with us, make art with us and discover what you don't know. It was just a major privilege of my life, to be able to spend time. And that was the question I went to school with. Taking my experience on a really personal level and looking at it on a systemic level, what can we do with current systems and structures as they are, i.e. racism class and think about how to turn it all on its head, how it all can be imagined differently?
And at the same time with my personal bent towards people, what do the individual relationships within those systems look like and how can they really change? I think that's how I articulated it in my like, personal statement. But that was what. I came in thinking about.
Patrick: And it's there at the Ed school y'all meet. And is that where the idea for Libraries for Liberation starts to get incubated, you all start thinking about this? Are y'all seeing the ‘education is a practice of freedom’, closing the opportunity gap, the art gap, all these things that y'all are mentioning in your stories? I mean, is this where the energy starts to coalesce? Tell me a little bit about this process, how y’all started working together.
Sandra: So we met at the Ed school in the equity and inclusion fellowship, which was a group of 17 people - a 17 person cohort and we're sort of tasked with figuring out what it meant to be an equity and inclusion fellow and had an experience that, for me, made me think more and more about how whatever organization exists, the internal processes need to match the external ones. So in other words, how we operate within a group trying to accomplish something. If the thing we're trying to accomplish, if it's related to freedom in any sense, it's rooted in right relationship with one another.
That requires a level of trust. It requires a level of communication. It requires a level of a lot of things within the group itself. I think that is what for me comes up over and over again in Libraries for Liberation. How we run Libraries for Liberation, the part that's most impacted by that experience, was really thinking about how the ends don't justify the means. Thinking about how, as Adrienne Maree Brown would say, something about the relationship between the small and the large thinking about how all of the little things we do in those practices have to also reflect all of the values we hold and all of the work that we're trying to bring into the world.
Yeah, Alisa, what do you think?
Alisa: No, that's good! That was a very generous explanation. My involvement in libraries came through Sandra and my friendship with Sandra and we definitely met in the fellowship there at school. I knew I'd found a friend. I think what I really appreciate about Sandra and what really drew me, I think, to being involved in Libraries for Liberation when it was just an idea, was really trusting Sandra and knowing that she is someone who will push the envelope.
For me, I need someone like that who will continue to challenge me, and to think with me and to think, both deeply and broadly and imaginatively with me. Libraries for Liberation didn't start at HGSE [Harvard Graduate School of Education] but the relationships for it did. Yeah, at least this one did.
Sandra: We met in this fellowship and then we took a class in the spring together. And as we transitioned to virtual grad school in March of 2020, we had the opportunity to co-write a memo together.
For me, the co-writing was, maybe not the beginning of the friendship, but definitely solidified it in some important ways. To me really got back to then what Alisa was just saying about the thinking together, the talking about it together, and recognizing that that takes way more time than it would be if we did it on our own, especially when no one is stopping either of us. We’d just keep going and keep going.
Like, how could this be better? How could it be different? What have we not considered? I think that's the energy that I love, and need it. And I think the world needs it. And I think it's one of my favorite things about working with you.
Patrick: Tell me a little bit about how Libraries for Liberation is one expression of the many vocations that both of you live out. Y'all started a thing that could definitely occupy you full time, but you are managing this amongst many priorities and many passions that you have. So talk to me a little bit about that. What is Libraries for Liberation? How big are you? Where are you at? How many volunteers, how many books you've put in these little free libraries, and how does this fit into your broader life and call?
Sandra: Libraries for liberation started in the summer of 2020. our mission is to provide opportunities and resources for individuals and their communities to awaken to the reality of systemic racism and the myth of white supremacy. And we do that, by financially supporting BIPOC owned bookstores by purchasing books that raise awareness of systemic racism and providing those books for free to neighborhoods across the U S through a network of volunteers who distribute them into those little free libraries throughout the country.
So you see those little bird house looking little free libraries and we hope to get anti-racist books into those libraries, and that those books will spark conversations, both with the people who are distributing them and their families as well as the people who pick them up. We've also started our first learning community and have been thinking about different ways we can support these awakenings as consciousness development, both through not just distributing the books, but also supporting the growth through those conversations. We've gone into more than 30 states at this point where we've distributed over 2000 books, and we've been doing a lot of internal work over the past few months, thinking a lot about our own consciousness development stories, our own racial identity development, and how all of those things impact our work and our beliefs about the work that we do and how we want to approach it going forward.
Alisa: And I'll just add, I think one of the major pieces of the puzzle here is that a lot of the recent work we've been doing has been with the small group conversations with what we call learning community. It was a group of 15 people, just readers from across the country who were willing to commit to conversations with us and read books within several themes.
That was all paired with what we were calling a reading break but what really turned into for the leadership team, kind of a break of storytelling, of discovery, of re-solidifying why we're here and what brought us here. To Sandra's point earlier about matching the way you work internally with how you want to be externally in the world, that's a huge part of what we're trying to do with Libraries for Liberation. It takes time. Something I've been learning more and more recently is that this type of deep work really takes, personal internal work and a lot of time to form these relationships based on trust with the others in the leadership team, with the people who are volunteering to distribute books, with the learning community.
It's been a really great journey. Something that we have discovered as we come across different people who want to be involved in Libraries for Liberation, is that the mission, the idea of providing opportunities for awakenings to the reality of systemic racism. Awakening is such an interesting word. The concept really seems to hold true for lots of different people at many different levels. I think that the people we have connected with come into this work, into this reading with some work already done, lots of reading already done, lots of work already done, or really as newcomers and something I've been really interested in is, you know, how to support people who are at different places in their awakening. And that's been a challenge. It's been really exciting also to be in conversation with individuals and with communities through them.
Patrick: So I ask every guest that comes on here the same question. So my question to you both is how much of this work that you're doing in collaboration, because this is one of the cool things about this story is that you all are working together, how much of this change, movement building comes from that sense of passion, your identification of the problem, your own sort of pull into this because you both are engaged in this work in your own communities, apart from each other too, and how much is it in the relationship with each other, with the rest of the Libraries for Liberation crew, maybe it's in your communities, Life Together or working with the archdiocese in LA? How much is it in, yeah, your kind of own spaces?
Sandra: There are so many parts to that question. Thinking about the way I grew up to always see a problem and try to solve it, and then finding one of the biggest problems we have in the world and thinking about this idea of we’re not going to solve it in this generation and we’re not going to solve it individually. And thinking about what that means, for community and the importance of community with one another, wherever that may be, whether it's virtually, us running Libraries for Liberation from three states across the country to hyper locally, like you're doing in other areas of your life, or me moving around, in, in any and all of the ways and how it's something that requires a response with your whole life and your whole being.
I definitely see that coming up in intentional community life. So I think there's, what we were talking about with the fellows, this idea that we could create something within our cohort that then could extend outward. Or the idea that would be a way to create change, I think, is a common thread throughout what we're doing with Libraries for Liberation, is a common thread throughout what intentional community living is all about. Thinking about why I joined Life Together was the idea that we could try to live into a world that doesn't exist yet. This idea that once we see the problem and need to attack it from all the angles, this idea and this language of dismantle, right? The language of disrupt and dismantle, and then sitting there and looking at it and saying, okay, what then? What are we going to do once it's been disrupted and dismantled?
What's the vision? Where are we going from here? And I think that is what intentional community living is about. I think that is what we're all trying to answer in our own ways and in our own contexts and settings. It's a matter of how do you build community? How do you have conflict to end?
How do you actually have conflict? Who knows? How does it all work? How do we live? How do we live together? How do we live together? I mean, I think that's the question. That's what comes up for me. It's the thinking about what Alisa just said about stages of development, right? In terms of entrance of consciousness and awakenings around racism and other systems of oppression. Sort of a matter of transitioning those conversations from, okay, we see the problem once we've identified this as a problem, we see that there are a bunch of different roles people can take, whether that's going an education route or political route, all of these different, all of these different ways people can get involved in different organizations and from all the different sort of spheres of influence. But ultimately it goes beyond the disrupting and dismantling and tearing it all down to what are we trying to build? And I think that's where the urge to join an intentional community came from for me and where I see Libraries for Liberation as building spaces for that conversation to happen.
Alisa: I think the part of the question Patrick, around like who each of us are and how this work really grows from it and how the work we're doing with libraries informs the work we're supporting in other spaces and vice versa. I'm a little different from Sandra.
I haven't had the opportunity to move as much and I really stay in one place. I grew up here. I live here now. I lived in LA for a long time, but that's really not that far. And I was briefly in grad school in Boston and then came back.
So for me, part of who I am really is here and in this space and connected to this geographic location, to this land, to the people I grew up around, and to our very extended family who all live here. I also, connected to who I am, I've always felt like I am in an in-between space, in between having a Latino dad and a white mom and in between two families and two different cultures and upbringings, and now really in-between a lot of understanding of the problem, as it were, of systemic racism. The area that I live in is a purple county. There's definitely a mix. And I feel like I live a lot in the tension in between whatever it is.
And right now there's an interesting tension in my life working with libraries, with such a like-minded group of people within our team, looking at really supporting the awakening of another larger group of people nationwide who are like-minded or who want to be like-minded or who are striving in that direction.
And then juxtaposed with my work with the Catholic church, with my own little parish here, working at a larger level with the archdiocese of Los Angeles, with a group of people who, you know, hear the phrase social justice and immediately think I'm a socialist, right? Which, not a terrible thing, but, you know, and I'm saying like, it's the quick rush to judgment juxtaposed with a group of people who really want to know more about systemic racism and how they can disrupt and dismantle it.
So all of this to say is I live a life of in-between. I always have, I have recently articulated that for myself. I've also lived a life of a fair amount of conflict. I feel like interpersonal conflict is part of my almost every day and it's just who I am and who I have chosen to be at this point, with trying to bridge gaps, trying to live within the tension between two people with diametrically opposed opinions, and really thinking about how instead of fighting against that and really protecting myself in a lot of ways to just realize, this seems to be what you're equipped to do. So let's lean into that a little bit and see what kind of larger conflicts I can jump in the middle of and hopefully help bring some clarity to.
I guess the thing that I'm just reflecting on here at the end of the conversation is that, racism, other systems of oppression, they're so big and so just deeply ingrained in our American culture or global cultures that they feel immovable in so many ways. And there is something really scary and discouraging and awful about that. And there's also something to me that continues to be a call to action, like an every day sort of, I have to function this way, I have to orient my life in this way because those things exist. And there is a sense of purpose there. I would be so happy to say they don't exist and now I have to find a new purpose. That would be excellent. That's the goal. But, yeah, I think there is a sense of inspiration there, of purpose to keep moving forward every day.
Patrick: Well I just want to say thank you to you both for everything that you do. I mean I think the way you go about your work, the how is as important as the what and the why of what you do. And for me so much about vocational discernment or finding meaning and purpose in life is about the daily practice. How do we actually show up for ourselves and for each other day to day? It's inspiring to hear y’all see these macro, humongous, stupid challenges that should not exist in this world and yet they do, and you all are trying to tackle it and tackle it together, which is absolutely inspiring. So thank you so much for sharing your stories and for sharing your journey. Yeah. Grateful for both of y'all’s work both in libraries and in your local spots. It's necessary.
Hey, I just want to say thank you for listening to the Sound of the Genuine and the Libraries for Liberation team. If you've enjoyed this story with Sandra and Alisa and you want to support their work, head on over to librariesforliberation.com. And you can sponsor books. You can put them in your little free library. A hundred percent of what you donate goes into the mission of this organization. So I support it, I love what they're up to. I hope that you do too. Great organization. Great people. I want to thank my team for putting this episode together, Heather Wallace, Elsie Barnhart, Diva Morgan Hicks for putting it out into the world. And of course thank you to @yalibeats for his music.
As always, you can help us and support this podcast by subscribing and sharing this episode with a friend. Thanks again and we'll see you next time on the Sound of the Genuine.