Revolutions often start with armed uprisings or political coups. Sometimes they simmer and assemble more quietly, stitched from the sentences of a book, cast through an impactful image, ignited by accumulation. As executive director and chapter founder of The Free Black Women’s Library-Detroit, and as new institute manager for Mural Arts Philadelphia, Katelyn (Durst) Rivas ’15 MA believes in the power of words, art and community. So much so that she physically powers her library, which has operated from a bicycle.

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Katelyn Rivas

I think change requires personal and communal activities. Books are a great way to educate yourself. One of our key philosophies is education, representation and liberation. Folks can read alone, but they have to make real action in their internal biases and demand real action in our world.

Katelyn (Durst) Rivas ’15 MA

The roots of her interdisciplinary activism and mobile library formed when she combined her undergrad degree in English-writing with art and design and then her master’s in urban studies with community arts. She ended up with a 100-page thesis, Radical Self-Care for Black Women (a literature review) and a poetry chapbook of the same title. “I had all these books and was inspired by being able to pick up book after book written by black women, and I wanted to have other people experience that,” she said. “It grew really fast, especially this last year with people being more concerned with what’s happening. I had a one-year anniversary fundraiser on Juneteenth and got donations and books from all over the country.”

Does it work like a regular library? “I do have a sign-out list, but I haven’t seen a lot of books come back! But that’s OK. It’s better to have the book be out there and have someone be impacted by it. In quarantine I have been giving books away because I’m not sure of a safe way to get them back. It’s almost like a shock response when they find out it’s free. It creates instant joy. It’s a beautiful moment.”

Rivas said she’s seen a surge in new young adult books. “They are such a great landscape to push the boundaries of literature and what it means to be a teenager in a black body or a brown body. And I love seeing younger children seeing themselves represented on a front cover and in illustrations.”

She had a chance to feel empowered herself recently. As the recipient of a 2020 Arts & Culture Leaders of Color Fellowship from Americans for the Arts, she got to virtually meet the head of the Smithsonian Museum, Lonnie Bunch, the first African American to serve in this role. “It helped me think about my ability to impact policy and provide artists with ways to share their work with the public.” That’s what she expects to be doing in Philadelphia with Mural Arts—as well as starting a new chapter of the Free Black Women’s Library.

“The BLM movement is more than a hashtag, it really means something to me,” she said. “More people need to be in this fight. Use your privilege to activate systems to have a more level playing field and more just economy— to create actual equity in all facets. It’s going to take a long time. I’m definitely dedicated to the long work.”

RIVAS’ recommended reading: Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Elizabeth Acavedo, Tracy K. Smith.