PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Portland is often listed as one of the most literate cities across the U.S. As the home of many esteemed authors and the world’s largest independent bookstore, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the city is full of book lovers.
Within Portland’s flourishing literary community, one group of readers is often forgotten: women of color. Nanea Woods has worked to fill that gap with the social book club Prose for Bros.
“Reading has been a love of mine since I was young,” Woods, who was born and raised in Portland, said. “My mom taught me how to walk by throwing out books for me to reach and go walk to.”
Years later, as a high schooler at St. Mary’s Academy, Woods was the go-to person for book recommendations. Classmates looked to her for her locker-turned-library, and for her summer reading newsletter.
Then, she became a college student.
“If you’re a reader, you kind of lose your love of recreational reading because you’re just doing a lot in college… When I came back from college and started a new job and started adulting, I was like, ‘I haven’t read a book in so long. Where did that go?’ Reading was such a big part of my life,” Woods said.
In January 2018, one of her colleagues motivated her to start her very own book club. What began as an intimate group of just six women has since expanded to include about 500 women who are subscribed to the book club’s newsletter.
All women can join the book club, but founder Woods prioritizes the group’s Black and Brown members. For years, Portland has been one of the whitest cities in the nation. So, identity-based groups like Prose Before Bros present an opportunity for ethnic minorities to find camaraderie with similar people.
“We have so few spaces that are built and designed for women of color, spaces that we get to claim and have agency over and that were designed for us to be the default rather than an afterthought,” Woods said. “There is a community out there. There are people who are Black and Brown women who are seeking community in general, but want to share their interests and their love for books.”
Her efforts to build this community for book lovers of color have increased tenfold in the almost five years since she founded Prose Before Bros. This summer, Woods launched a nonprofit and the first Black book festival on the West Coast: Freadom Festival.
In celebration of Juneteenth, the holiday that marks when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, were officially freed in 1865, Freadom Festival was held on June 18, 2022.
This was Woods’s first time ever organizing an event of this magnitude. After three months of extensive planning with a few book club members, and support from sponsors like Nike and Literary Arts, she made the inaugural Freadom Festival a big hit.
Many Portlanders showed up for the event that featured storytimes for kids, talks with Oregon-based authors, a big book swap, Black-owned food carts and more.
“It was a huge dream come true. I have no idea how I pulled it together, but we did it,” Woods said.
Freadom Festival and Prose Before Bros are just two of her creations that have put the Rose City’s Black and Brown literary community on the map. However, Woods’ impact has expanded beyond Portland.
Women from cities like New York and San Francisco have reached out about wanting to start their own chapter of Prose Before Bros. And, a certain former first lady wants to join in on the fun as well.
“The biggest highlight of my life is Michelle Obama shouting us out and recognizing us,” Woods recalled. “January 2020, we read Becoming and she found us and was like, ‘Hey, this is the coolest book club ever. I want to join.’ Girls in my book club framed that Instagram comment. It will forever be in my mind.”