#38. Geoff Schutte
Geoff is the founder/organizer of the Buffalo Reading Invasion, with the mission of promoting Buffalo’s love of reading through large public action. If you’ve been thinking about picking up a book, or already have a stack next to your bed, then you should grab one and make a plan to attend the kickoff event from 7 – 8pm on Tuesday June 7th over on Bidwell.
Let’s learn about Geoff…
“I grew up in Clarence and went away to college and didn’t really come back to Buffalo until I was in my mid thirties. I lived overseas, out west for a while and downstate. I bounced around a while. I was in Thailand with the Peace Corps, which caused a real shift in my thinking about what where I wanted to be, and what I wanted to do. I thought that I wanted to be in international work, but after living in this little community in Thailand, I realized that being part of the larger world wasn’t what my purpose was, or where I could do my best work. It was clear that being a part of a community for the long haul was really what I wanted. I shifted gears and came back. I knew that I wanted to work in urban education, but Buffalo was fairly dysfunctional in its hiring, so Rochester hired me. I worked there for a couple years in a big middle school in the city that eventually got shut down. Tapestry Charter School was opening up and I was really philosophically aligned with that movement and trying to do some things differently. They hired me and I came back here nine years ago. I’ve been there since, and it’s pretty awesome.”
How did the Buffalo Reading Invasion come to life?
“It was in the Peace Corp that this idea came about. Ideas of starting things and generating new ideas and experiences – trying stuff out that engaged the community. I never really thought that way before. Before that I was doing my own thing, I just had jobs. In the Peace Corp, you are plopped down in a community. There were schools that I worked at, but there was no rhyme or reason to it, and so I had two years of just going and working on building relationships in the community. I just tried a lot of stuff. I started camps and different programs. I found myself in situations that I had never imagined myself in, just trying stuff out. I learned that failing at things was totally OK, and valuable.”
“When I got back here, I was just all about trying new things. Like starting an organization that was about advocating for teachers’ voice and education policy. I did silly things too. When I was in Rochester, some buddies and I who were all big Don Mattingly fans were appalled that he was not in the hall of fame, so we chartered a bus, got about 50 people and went and protested in Cooperstown. There were silly things like that, but it was really just about trying different stuff. I think that’s where I started to feel more confident in getting things like that organized.”
“The Reading Invasion happened after I heard an NPR story about the Seattle literary scene. They had these events where people would go to an old hotel and read. They would serve drinks, hang out and read. It was very much just a place for reading – super simple. After that, I thought that I would love to do that here. It was winter time here, and I was trying to think of indoor spaces. Nothing really came up as the perfect match. After talking to someone about it, it finally occurred to me to just do it outside. It’s not a mind blowing concept and now this is our 5th year. We choose different outdoor spaces around the city and use social media and other simple platforms to get the word out. The first couple years, this was very flash-mob like. I waited until the last week to tell people where it was going to be. We do the Bidwell invasion every year now as the kickoff. It always attracts hundreds of people. It’s an easily walkable space that people can get to. The other events are usually at smaller spaces.”
Do you get a lot of kids at the invasions?
“We do. The folks from Talking Leaves have come to read to kids. Last year, the Tapestry Librarian came and read. A lot of families come, throw down a blanket and have the kids read. I think that is particularly cool to watch happen.”
How often do you have the invasions?
“We usually just do three events in the months of June, July and August. Maybe you can keep an eye out for other places? The Public Library has been interested in hosting one. I also still have this vision in my head of a big hotel lobby. I think that the Pan Am Grill would be a good space at the Hotel at the Lafayette.”
Why is getting people to read important to you?
“I’m an english teacher. At our school we have a sustained silent reading period every day. They do it a lot in elementary schools, but not in high schools. It’s pretty rare. Every day for 20 minutes the school shuts down and everyone reads. It’s such an awesome time. It’s a really important space. People rarely have time now to just sit and quietly read. It feels like a really good use of time to get people together to do that. And more, as a teacher, I think about engaging young people and observing the reading culture that exists here. Buffalo has a pretty strong literary and reading culture. So, creating spaces for younger people to observe that world seemed really worthwhile.”
“One of the neat things that happens is when 7 o’clock hits, people almost immediately stop talking. They just read for an hour, and when 8 o’clock hits, people start talking again. There’s no gun going off in the air, or announcement. It just happens organically.
Do you have goals or a vision for the invasions?
“I really appreciate the organic nature of it. You throw some things up on Facebook, send out some emails. But there’s a part of me that would love to make it draw more attention to youth literacy. We have had invasions in almost every part of the city, but I think that there are some communities that we haven’t reached. I would like to engage some key community leaders more and draw more attention to it. Part of the reason why we implemented the reading period in our school is because a majority of the kids that come in there are a behind in reading skills. And that’s the biggest success indicator – being at an appropriate reading level. I don’t intend for the Buffalo Reading Invasion to change reading in Buffalo, but it does draw attention to it. That is something that I would like to do more of in the future – to have more of these conversations. As an educator, I can see that when kids are read to as young children, it just fundamentally alters their course in a lot of ways.”
“I also feel a little bit of the weight of if I am willing to put myself into situations of organizing and creating things, that I should engage in something that has a little more seriousness. There are some structural things that I would like to play a part in changing. That feels like the big missing piece in the revitalization of Buffalo. In my estimation, it’s the top thing. We can wait until everything else changes and hope that the system gets dragged along with it, but truthfully it needs to take ownership for itself, but we’re very far from that, and from having real conversations about that.”
What would you tell a younger version of yourself?
“It comes back again to failing, like when I was in Thailand. I was constantly in situations where I was failing. Like standing in front of a group of Thai people trying to speak their language. It just washed away the fear that failure was a negative. Those were clearly the best moments for learning. I think that’s also a challenge as a parent too. How do you let your kid fail?”
“The other thing that I would tell myself is that I should have bought a house nine years ago! That was a lesson!”
- Seamus Gallivan, Slow Roll Buffalo, Larkinville, the Good Neighborhood, etc.
- Katie Campos, Buffalo ReformED, Teach for America
- Erin Heaney, Showing Up for Racial Justice, the Clean Air Coalition
- Noah Faulk
- Matt Kaufman
Don’t forget to check out the Buffalo Reading Invasion Facebook page for more information about upcoming invasions. We hope to see you at some of them!