May-June 2021

Book buddies

"By giving out books in disadvantaged areas, two friends are inspiring kids to read—and encouraging pride and purpose"

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Isaac Cudjoe, left, and Kevin Isabelle-Peete run a nonprofit that distributes free books, sometimes through small free libraries, in disadvantaged neighborhoods in the county. Photo by Evan Robinson-Johnson

Isaac Cudjoe was in the fifth grade, an immigrant from Ghana transplanted to Gaithersburg, when he found himself “stuck between two worlds” and trying to fit in with his classmates at South Lake Elementary School. While helping his teacher clean up one day, he asked to borrow a book called The Journal of Ben Uchida, which tells the story of a 12-year-old Japanese American interned in California during World War II.

“I actually ended up keeping that book forever; I still have it to this day,” Cudjoe told me over Zoom in March. “That set me on this course of being curious about other people’s stories, and seeing life from their point of view. Literally my whole life was changed by reading that book and realizing that there was inequity in the world and how marginalized groups suffered.”

Today, Isaac and his close friend Kevin Isabelle-Peete run Brothers With Books, a nonprofit that distributes free new books in the county’s disadvantaged neighborhoods. The COVID-19 pandemic has hampered their efforts, but they’ve still managed to give away more than 20,000 books since they started in 2019, and they aim for 30,000 by year’s end.

They show up at schools and churches, rec centers and parking lots, and they’re working on a plan to build free-standing wooden boxes where youngsters can find books on their own time. They’re trying to inspire readers, particularly Black boys, in the same way that Ben Uchida’s story fired Isaac’s imagination.

Kevin, who is 25 and a teacher at Wheaton Woods Elementary School, described the value of reading this way: “You start seeing yourself in different roles in life, and then ultimately you believe it, you can become what you’ve seen.” Isaac, now 27 and the director of the Center for Social Change at Walden University, an online school for adult learners, added: “I want kids to be brave and bold, I want kids to be honest with their pain. I want them to pick up a book and feel like, OK, so this is real, and seek out that healing and seek out that help.”

In a way, Kevin was an immigrant too—from the Bronx—and even though his mother taught at Longview School near their home in Germantown, he never liked reading growing up. “There was not a single book I ever had that reminded me of me,” he says.

Kevin’s life-altering moment came later than Isaac’s, when he dropped out of Montgomery College and took a temporary job as a teaching assistant in an elementary school. He realized that few of his students had ever encountered a Black male teacher and he began to think, “What if I became that? What if I became somebody that could give a fifth grader a book and inspire them to do better things in life?”

After both had finished college—Kevin at Towson, Isaac at Mount. St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg—the two met through a chat room devoted to sports. When their conversations turned to other topics, like faith, they realized they both attended the Church of the Redeemer in Clarksburg. One week they agreed to drive to services together, and, as Isaac recalls, “We hit it off. It was almost as if we’d known each other for years.”

One day in May of 2017 solidified their bond. While driving together near Isaac’s home, they were stopped by police and detained for more than two hours. There had been some burglaries in the area, they were told, and the two Black men “matched the description” of the suspects.

“It was complete and total racial profiling,” Isaac recalls. “Kevin and I looked at each other and said, this is really happening. This isn’t Houston. This isn’t St. Louis. This is Germantown, Maryland, by a dog park, by single-family homes in suburban America in one of the richest counties in the nation. This is here, this is home. You can imagine the trauma after that.”

That trauma led to more conversations over the next two years. They thought about organizing protests against police practices, but then moved in a different direction. “I believe in the power of protest,” Isaac says, “but I also believe in doing what you can in your community. I believe in working to correct the things that are broken at home.”

While walking with his family in a local park, Isaac had noticed a small free library, where people could pick up and donate books. You don’t see anything like that in poor neighborhoods, he told Kevin, so the two hit on a plan: They would get books from the Maryland Book Bank in Baltimore, which gives them free to nonprofits, and then distribute them secretly in their own community. “Oh, this would be really cool,” Isaac remembers thinking. “Nobody would really know it’s us.”

Their first contact was with Joe Rankin, a former professional football player who teaches at Montgomery Village Middle School. He loved the idea of giving away books but wanted Isaac and Kevin to speak directly to his students. They need to hear from good role models, he told them, “there’s no way you’re keeping this secret.”

Two years later they’re still at it, subsisting on donations and looking for new ways to change lives, one book and one child at a time. They remember depending on free school lunches and wearing used clothes from the Salvation Army, so they’ve recently created a small program that’s allocated $250 scholarships to six public school students. “That’s not a lot of money to some people, but we realized it was a lot of money to us growing up,” Isaac explains.

The “brothers” are not just encouraging reading, they’re encouraging pride and purpose. “I want it to be, when you Google two Black men, Kevin and Isaac, that something positive pops up,” Kevin says. Adds Isaac: “Our goal is to wake up one day and somebody has started Sisters With Books, or Grandparents With Books. Where it’s just contagious.”

Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. Send ideas for future columns to sroberts@gwu.edu.