I met Leo Aquino for the first time at a Manny’s Cafe in Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy), Brooklyn, where we both live. Although we hadn’t yet met, I recognized them through the plate-glass windows as I neared the restaurant. They were seated at a hardwood table, completely engrossed in a book, wearing a white t-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘DECOLONIZE YOUR BOOKSHELF’ in black block letters. As I pushed open the door and caught their eye, their face broke into a wide smile.
I had gotten in touch with Aquino, who identifies as queer, a few weeks earlier to hear about their book club, a space they created by and for women of color in Brooklyn. At the time, the Bed-Stuy Book Club had only met a few times, but it had already become a safe and empowering space for women of color to talk about life and literature.
“I’m a pretty voracious reader, and I had made a New Year’s resolution not to read any books written by white people,” Aquino said. “Even articles. If I open a news article, I’ll open who [the author] is, and if it’s a white man, I’m like, swipe left. It was an effort for me to just decolonize my brain.”
A few months later, they began a very intentional media cleanse, as they could already sense a palpable difference in how the media and literature in their life were affecting their consciousness. They felt more in control of what they were consuming, less angry at the world. This translated into a desire to find like-minded women to share the experience with. So they started a book club.
The tear-off flyers Aquino posted around the neighborhood received a flood of responses. Texts and calls from strangers flowed in. It seemed that they weren’t the only one looking for a supportive community of women to read with. Three weeks after the first flyer was posted, the book club kicked off with Halsey Street by Naima Coster, a novel set in Bed-Stuy that follows its protagonist, Penelope, as they explore their identity as a black Dominican-American woman who comes to terms with the impact gentrification has had on their neighborhood.
“The conversations there were a lot about family,” they recounted, “a lot about not feeling like you belong within your family structure.”
All of the books read at the Book Club are by women of color. Aquino and their collaborators (they often co-host with other local community organizers and activists) choose two books and let the community decide which book wins out by way of an Instagram poll. The book choices offer a wide variety of stories; Aquino recognizes that women of color come from diverse backgrounds and heritages that can inform and empower one another. The books they read can be gravely serious. In June they read Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, a collection of essays compiled by Roxane Gay. Other choices have been lighthearted. July’s book was We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, by comedian Samantha Irby. They’ve also read Whereas, a book of poems by Lakota poet Layli Long Soldier and When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, by Patrisse Cullors and Asha Bandele. Each time the conversation is different, but it’s always intimate, open, and vulnerable.
“It’s pretty candid. We start out talking about the book, then all of a sudden people are bringing up stuff from their personal life and sharing,” Aquino told me in a later conversation. “No matter who comes, whether it’s a regular or [someone new] it always goes in that direction.”
They find that these conversations are made easier because of a shared experience of culture and bias. Not having to explain these things is refreshing, and being in the Bed-Stuy Book Club allows their and others to be “sharing that experience rather than explaining it.” This safe space creates the opportunity for women to be vulnerable and to talk about real life issues. There’s a strength that the book club is tapping into, and it’s very powerful.
Aquino is Filipino-American. They moved to the United States at 13 and grew up in various cities around the country. In 2015, they moved to New York City after completing a degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in fashion design. They worked for a short stint at Tilit, a company that designs and produces modern workwear. It was the same propensity for questioning the status quo that led to their fateful New Year’s resolution and the creation of the Bed-Stuy Book Club and to begin questioning how we define success in the modern western world, especially in a family of immigrants. It also led their to eventually leave Tilit last fall.
“I’m understanding,” they mused, “that my parents and my grandparents pushed me to have this work ethic under an assumption that they were going to be unsafe financially because the financial security that’s promised to white people was not promised to them.” They endeavor to be mindful of the messaging they consume, and that doesn’t just come down to the books and articles they read. It’s in all aspects of the media, a ceaseless questioning so that they are able to make their life choices as informed as possible.
Aquino was raised Catholic and was an active participant in the local youth organizations. But instead of responding to the doctrines offered to their, they found themself asking questions.
“I remember the exact moment that I decided to leave the church,” they smiled. The youth organization had asked them to give a talk, and handed them an outline, “about finding God in the family structure. One of the points was that women can be the breadwinner of the family, but [the] husband is still the head of the household because that’s his place.” At that moment, they knew they had to find another framework to belong to.
These days they are creating their own community, one book at a time. The Bed-Stuy Book Club is now almost a year old and has evolved significantly since its inception.
“It’s not your mom’s book club,” they laughed, “It’s very fun.”
And it’s so much more than just fun. Aquino has made it a point to highlight locally owned businesses from day one, but more recently they are also partnering with other organizers and local booksellers. Some of their collaborators include author Patricia Martin, founder of The Glam Femme*inist, and Danialie F., creator of Girl Emboldened. Together they’re launching new initiatives, hosting book giveaways, starting a WOC writer’s group (sign up here), and generally using their collective platforms to amplify neighborhood voices.
Aquino recognizes that the more community support the project has, the stronger it will be. Over the past year, they have increasingly reached out to attendees for support and guidance. The wisdom of many is greater than the wisdom of one. Plenty of compelling book ideas have come from Bed-Stuy Book Club regulars who have topics on their mind that Kaye wouldn’t otherwise be aware of. Basically, if you’re a woman of color living in Brooklyn, and you have a topic on your mind, Kaye wants to hear from you and to make your suggestions happen.
Throughout my conversations with Aquino, it’s been clear that this wellspring is only just beginning to flow. They have an abundance of energy and ideas, and being naturally curious and questioning is a great way to start a movement. In its first year, the Bed-Stuy Book Club has made small persistent waves in our neighborhood. I can’t wait to see where the tide takes it next.