Alum opens children’s bookstore focusing on people of color

When Ashley Valentine was a child, she loved to read but was disappointed that few of the characters in books looked like her.

“Books were kind of a haven for me,” said Valentine, a UWM alumna who just opened her own bookstore and tutoring center, Rooted MKE, focusing the needs of Black, Indigenous and other people of color.

“Now that I think about it, it’s sad. I was such an avid reader and had a love for reading, but I didn’t know there were books with characters who looked like me. I didn’t think people like me were capable of the things I was reading about.”

Valentine, who earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology, teaching certification and master’s degree in exceptional education from UWM, opened the store in March 2022.

Rooted MKE, located in a sunny, colorful space on Vliet Street, across from Milwaukee Public Schools’ central office, is also a tutoring and hands-on learning center.

Teaching in a different way

UWM’s School of Education helped shape her career path, Valentine said. She was a classroom teacher in Milwaukee Public Schools when she was working on her master’s thesis in exceptional education.

She had come to realize that classroom teaching was not her calling. “I felt that the expectations were unrealistic, and the deliverables weren’t really measurable based on where students were performing.”

After consulting with her advisors – Judy Winn, now associate professor emerita, and Liz Drame, professor of teaching and learning – Valentine focused her thesis on developing a literacy program that was community-based rather than school based. “I researched what would reading look like when parents were involved, where parents took the initiative rather than an organization. I got ideas from parents of children with special needs.”

Moving into tutoring

The idea of a bookstore/tutoring center took shape in her mind, but she was too busy juggling teaching and graduate school to pursue it. She left MPS to work for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee overseeing STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs at their 44 sites.

She started tutoring on the side, keeping up connections and relationships with parents and students from when she was teaching.

“I wanted to provide support for students who were significantly behind grade level and not making gains in the classroom.”

She moved to working virtually when the pandemic hit but realized that working with students in person was her passion. She also realized that many Black and brown students didn’t have access to the technology to do virtual learning effectively.

When the pandemic started to wind down, she opened her own tutoring business. “Once the schools opened up, I saw the need was overwhelming. I wanted to provide support for students who were significantly behind grade level and not making gains in the classroom.”

Developing a business plan

Meanwhile, Valentine took the first steps toward that bookstore dream, attending bookstore conferences, looking at the financial numbers and developing a business plan with the help of an advisor from SCORE SE Wisconsin, an organization that provides mentors and advice to entrepreneurs.

The tutoring business rapidly outgrew her small office on 18th and Fond du Lac, so Valentine started looking for a larger space that could accommodate a bookstore as well as tutoring. With the help of her husband, who is in real estate, she found the space on Vliet Street and signed a lease in August 2021.

“I knew the space needed to be fully renovated to be what kids deserve – I didn’t want something that was thrown together. I wanted to make it as kid friendly as possible.”

The bookstore is a key component of Rooted MKE.

“All the titles in the bookstore are written or illustrated or depict BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) characters as protagonists,” Valentine said. “As an educator, I had had trouble finding books that were age appropriate and represented characters of color, so I was always on a hunt to source books for my classroom. It was a passion of mine as an educator. I knew there were many other parents and classroom teachers who wanted to support children in their love of reading.”

Parents praise work

The parents and children who visit the tutoring center have been very excited, Valentine said. “Some parents said they were looking for a resource where their kids could get support from a person who looks like them.”

One parent said she could write an essay about how helpful the tutoring has been for her child:

“You have built his confidence, helped him see his own potential. Created a space where he can learn math and apply it during homework and the classroom. This year I gave him an option for tutoring and he wanted to do it on his own. didn’t force him. I think he loved seeing his progression – even the smallest increase was a celebration. We ended the year with him scoring the highest in his class on the STAR test (a literacy test) and that alone says it all. My son, very shy, has come out his shell, less tears, less grief, and overall happiness. Math is a difficult subject for him but with Ashley and Rooted MKE we can face any challenge.”

These parents told other parents and teachers shared the news. “It’s pretty awesome because a lot of our referrals and growth comes from word of mouth rather than marketing or advertising,” Valentine said.

Children come into the bookstore with their parents and grandchildren and get excited about books featuring, for example, superheroes who are all brown. The adults tell Valentine, “I wish we had something like this when I was growing up.”

“We had a Muslim family come in and the little girl started crying because she’d never seen a book about brown people in a mosque that was celebrating being Muslim.”

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