Chelsea Harris is a local author with a national mission. Her first children’s book, Amira, followed a young Syrian immigrant on her first day of school in the United States. Her latest, The Kitchen, is about an African-American girl, her grandmother, hairstyles and race. Both celebrate diversity for a wide audience of kids and parents (and are available primarily through her website) but perhaps most notably, Harris is putting some of the proceeds from book sales to work in the interest of preserving and honoring that diversity.
Ten percent of all sales go to Informed Immigrant, a collective of American citizens seeking to support detainees and families separated at the border. Another 10 percent goes to help fund Leaps and Bounds, a Denver non-profit Harris runs that supports life skills and mentoring for low-income students and students of color. It’s all an extension, Harris says, of being an educator with strong ties to the Denver community. It’s all about service.
Harris recently sat down to talk with us about her books, her career and doing real work in the real world – with real results.
Westword: You grew up in Park Hill. What in your youth there contributed to your career as a writer and an educator?
Chelsea Harris: I come from a family of educators. We lived in Park Hill, but my brother and I attended private schools. I was at Graland Country Day School and my brother was at Colorado Academy, both on academic scholarships. My mother just wanted us to get the best education possible. It was difficult for me, because I was one of very few black students at Graland, and I felt like an outsider at times. That experience really shaped me as an adult. Going to a predominantly white school really made me value diversity. That comes out in my books.
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You recently read from your new book The Kitchen at the Blair-Caldwell Library; talk a little about your roots in that part of town as well. In a perfect world, what would you want to see happen in Five Points and the Welton corridor, to both preserve and support the African-American history traced along those streets?
The Five Points is very special to me. My late grandfather, Norman Harris Sr., was known as the Godfather of the Five Points, and he was one of the very first black business owners in the Points. When he came to Denver in the '50s, he became heavily entrenched in the area. You would often see him standing in front of his building on 25th and Welton, sweeping the sidewalk. He took a lot of pride in it. He was part-owner in Wise Harris Arms, a 22-unit apartment building, as well as Welton Liquors. Before he passed, all the changes that were occurring in the Points really bothered him. He just couldn’t understand why people were selling.
Currently, my brother, Norman T. Harris III, is part of a development group at the Rossonian, along with Chauncey Billups. I think it’s essential that African-American culture be preserved in the Points, and I’m hoping that more young black leaders are able to flourish and get a piece of the pie. I wish we still had the Kapre. I grew up eating there! I’m just hopeful that there can be a good balance. And that the Five Points doesn’t turn into Cherry Creek.
You taught in Montbello for quite some time — first-grade, fifth-grade, seventh-grade language arts. What was it that drew you away from teaching in the classroom?
I’ve been in education for over a decade. I started teaching at Hallett Fundamental Academy in Park Hill, a predominantly African-American school. My very first class was fifth grade. Those kids had such a profound impact on my life. They were my babies, and currently I mentor a number of students from that class. A few years ago, I started feeling a little burned out from the classroom. After getting my master's degree, I wanted to try out something different. So, I went to real estate school and became a broker. I enjoy real estate, but there’s nothing like working with kids. It’s my life purpose. So the kids are what brought me back to education.
Currently, I’m a College Readiness Coach/Culturally Responsive Coach at Denver Public Schools. I’m excited about this new position, and I think I can really do some good. I’ve always considered myself to be a little unorthodox, and I take risks. Teaching is all about building relationships with students.
Your first book, Amira, was published back in 2016 — can you talk about what inspired you to write that book, at that time?
I wrote Amira shortly after the 2016 Presidential Election. I wasn’t teaching at the time, and I felt like the climate in the country was so negative. A friend of mine who taught out in Montbello told me about kids being scared that they would be deported because their parents were immigrants. I mean kids actually came to school the day after the election in real fear. I just wanted to tell a story that celebrated diversity and highlighted the value of empathy. That’s really lacking in our current climate. Amira is a young girl just trying to make friends and have fun like any other kid. She just happens to be Muslim.
What feedback have you gotten on Amira? It seems incredibly timely, not only given the socio-political realities of immigration at this point in American history, but also given your contributions to Informed Immigrant.
Really positive. Parents have told me that they really like that all the characters are from different races. Kids say the book is relatable. I tried to make it very current and talk about things that I know kids are into. I hope Amira can keep the conversation going about the value of diversity and celebrating our differences and just respecting people and their journey. We all have our own unique journey.
And now you have a second book, The Kitchen. What’s the central message there?
The Kitchen is very special to my heart. My grandmother would press my hair in her kitchen every weekend. I think it’s a relatable story not only to little girls with kinky hair, but all girls who just want to be themselves, want to explore their feminine beauty, and try new things with their hair. So, The Kitchen isn’t about putting down natural hair or weaves; it’s just saying that all hair is good hair! And black women should feel empowered to wear their hair how they want.
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You also started a local nonprofit called Leaps and Bounds. How long has that organization been in place, and what has it accomplished during that time?
In the past few years, Leaps and Bounds has been able to have summer camps and take a group of high school students to New York City and Washington, D.C., for a college tour. I’m really proud of the work we’ve done and that we got to take some kids out of town to explore colleges. Beyond that, I have a personal bond with my groups of mentees — my Leapers — and this bond is for life. We’re like family.
So why Informed Immigrants as the focus of your charity work on a national scale? What drew you to that organization?
Their mission really stood out to me: to focus on informing immigrants about their rights and educating people. Before starting the program, they really went out and listened to undocumented people about their concerns and needs. And they're partnered with the Colorado’s People Alliance (COPA), which provides legal aid for immigrants. I really loved that they partnered with someone local, and it’s having a direct impact on my community.