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Influential Bostonians on influential books

Twelve influential Bostonians describe books that changed how they think about the world around them.

Soo Hong, assistant professor of education, Wellesley College

I’ve Got the Light of Freedom

By Charles Payne

I’ve always gotten immense inspiration and motivation from the powerful narratives that come out of social movements. These movements, however, often seem to be led by charismatic leaders and forceful individuals who were destined for greatness. It wasn’t until I read this book that I came to understand how much movements - such as the Civil Rights movement - can be sustained and led by ordinary men and women. High school students, sharecroppers, and beauticians contributed to the movement by building relationships, reaching out to neighbors, walking neighborhood blocks. Through my work in Boston, I have seen how young people and their families can be powerful forces in shaping change.

Latoyia Edwards, evening anchor,

NECN

Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member

By Sanyika Shakur

Continue reading below

I was a lucky Boston kid. I benefited from the strong Irish, Haitian, Vietnamese, Cape Verdean, and African-American influences in my vibrant Dorchester neighborhood. But there was a dark side to the diversity. Street gangs.

In the 1990s, the violent gangs held us hostage. We lived in fear that bystanders could be murdered in gun crossfire. That’s why I felt like I confronted the bogeyman when I read this book. I followed the author into the underworld of the Crips. He was jumped-in at age 11. At 13, he stomped a man into a coma, earning his nickname Monster, and eventually served many years behind bars. He was candid about the turmoil his family experienced because of him. And just when you thought he couldn’t get more rotten, Shakur finds salvation in a dingy cell.

My worldview changed forever when I accepted that redemption is possible even for a Monster.

Alberto Vasallo III, editor in chief, El Mundo Boston

Daddies & Daughters

By Carmen Renee Berry

When I first found out I was having a daughter and not a son, I have to admit I was devastated (and I have already told this to my daughter, so no big deal when she reads this).

As I later read in this marvelous book, what I went through was nothing new. Many new fathers look forward to having a son - a mini version of themselves. Not only is “Daddies and Daughters’’ a remarkable tribute to the extraordinary and enduring father-daughter relationship, but it has forced me to reflect upon an entirely different world that was, quite honestly, foreign to me.

This book took me on an amazing journey - all the way from birth to the very complex “growing pains’’ of young girls, and finally, to the daily challenges faced by women.

Jason Talbot, cofounder, Artists For Humanity

The Lakota Way of Strength and Courage

By Joseph M. Marshall III

In the Lakota nation, every young man learns to make a bow and arrow. These tools were more than just weapons - they were also symbols of strength and purpose.

The bow, made of ash, and the arrow, created out of willow, are a metaphor for the transformation and resiliency needed to be a powerful person and a powerful contributor to the community or tribe. As a creative person, this book struck me on a basic level about how we as human beings can preserve what is fundamental.

In our consumer society, working with our hands is a lost art, and it’s time to get down to nature and start creating and contributing again. I have Native American lineage and feel a link to that, especially when I whittle down to the basics.

Sylvia Ferrell-Jones, chief executive, YWCA Boston

Nudge: Improving Decisions About, Health, Wealth and Happiness

By Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

I received the book “Nudge’’ when I retired from a board that had made significant changes in the culture and operations of the institution it served.

The book is about the science behind creating change. The authors describe how many of our seemingly independent choices are in fact created for us by hidden systems of “choice architecture.’’ Think of the influence of the placement of items on grocery store shelves, or more important choices like the defaults for employer-sponsored health care or retirement plans. This made me think about “choices’’ we make with respect to many aspects of diversity in our lives.

If the environments in which we function are structured by choice architects - those who decide on the default or normative position - then we must think and act consciously to notice, and then to choose differently.

David C. Howse, executive director, Boston Children’s Chorus

The Power of One

By Bryce Courtenay

I read “The Power of One’’ as a freshman in college and again as an adult. Its central theme - be true to yourself - continues to shape my thinking as a leader and as an African-American male.

The themes of this powerful story are woven through the protagonist Peekay - a young white South African boy who finds out what it means to be different. Peekay finds that in order to survive, he has to find a way to be true to himself and find “the power of one’’ within. For me, this story confirms that we can overcome our greatest challenges when we know who we are as individuals - when we are true to our best selves.

Yvonne Spicer, vice president, National Center for Technological Literacy, Museum of Science

Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America

By Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden

This is one of the most important books I’ve read and one of my favorites because it is filled with the voices of real African-American women. The phrase “shifting’’ refers to a strategy of moving among roles, personalities, and ways of speaking to survive. The topic speaks to the limits and labels that African-American females have had to navigate. Through research based on the African American Women’s Voices Project, the authors traverse the lives of African-American women and how they have altered or masked their identities to fit the norms of society. “Shifting’’ is powerful testimony of how far we still have to go in embracing and understanding diversity. The book also helps fuel my commitment to science, technology, engineering, and math education, which give our children the skills to succeed without having to make the shifts described in this book.

Kim Charlson, director, Perkins Braille & Talking Book Library

The Blind Advantage

By William Henderson

As an adult, Bill Henderson lost his sight to a degenerative eye disease. But he didn’t listen to professionals who told him he could never be a teacher, and that he should go on disability and stay home. He learned to use the strengths of his vision loss to become a more compassionate and sensitive teacher and administrator. His blindness didn’t slow him down, and, in fact, helped him to lead Boston’s well-known O’Hearn Elementary School, a successful inclusion school for students with and without disabilities in Dorchester. Bill prided himself on finding ways that disabled and nondisabled students could assist each other. When he retired in 2009, the school was renamed in his honor. So many preconceived ideas of an individual’s capabilities are based on outdated ideas of what a person who is blind can or cannot do. I too have faced many similar attitudes. What people who are blind need is a chance to demonstrate our capabilities and to meaningfully contribute.

Deborah Jackson, president, Cambridge College

Meditations of the Heart

By Dr. Howard Thurman

This book of essays was a gift from a friend and colleague, and it inspired me to learn more about the life of this great man. Thurman came from humble beginnings, born in the late 1800s and raised by a grandmother who had been a slave. He went on to graduate from Morehouse College, earn a doctorate from Haverford College, serve as a dean at Howard University, and become the first black dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. He studied under Gandhi, was a spiritual adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, and was a founder of the first integrated multicultural church in our country. Thurman’s meditations have offered me peace and tranquility through many of life’s challenging moments. Beyond the beauty of his words, however, is what the writings embody about his spirit and his legacy. He transcended the boundaries of race, ethnicity, and religion in his commitment to an inclusive, just, and peaceful world. His vision is present in my heart each day. It reminds me that we all must play a role in creating such a world.

Elaine Ng, executive director, Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center

The Uses of Haiti

By Paul Farmer

After returning from Haiti last summer, I read a dozen books to begin making sense of the devastation and the hope I witnessed. This book effectively illustrates the powerful and long-lasting impact of policies built around race, class, and colonialist ideology in a country where people are struggling to meet basic needs.

Farmer recounts Haiti’s complex history and examines the role of European nations and the United States with an unrelenting eye. The last chapters, which are devoted to the stories of three Haitians, are a reminder to us all of the strength of the human spirit and the importance of ordinary people transforming themselves, and the world. It changed my view about international intervention and foreign aid for developing nations.

We (as a world) give aid that treats the symptoms that developing nations face but don’t address the root causes of poverty and economic, social, and political instability.

Lee Swislow, executive director, GLAD (Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders)

A Fine Balance

By Rohinton Mistry

It has been over 10 years since I first read this book, but it continues to have an effect on me. Set in India in 1975, this compelling novel describes the often brutal and devastating dynamics affecting the country. The book introduced me to a culture I knew nothing about - and it opened me up to a world of literature by authors from all over the globe.

Since then, I have made it a priority to look for novels set in cultures and countries unfamiliar to me. Novels are not the same as nonfiction, but for me an imaginary world provides an amazing way to broaden my vision, learn so much about the universe I live in, and most of all, show me our common humanity as we all cope with adversity - and experience joy.

Compiled by Cindy Atoji Keene, a Globe correspondent. The reviewers’ comments were edited and condensed.
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