Tanya Marie Lee is the founder of A Room Of Your Own book club, offering teen girls living in poverty a safe space to find their voice, see their potential, and discuss issues they might face — with monthly meet-ups that include the author of the book they’re reading. Inspired by the sanctuary the library provided during her own traumatic childhood, Tanya launched the program in 2017 and has served over 600 students in Toronto so far. With no stable sources of funding, she relies on donations to continue her work. We asked Tanya to share her story.
When you think of a library, what is the first thing you think of? Books? Librarians? How about a sanctuary? What about a home away from home? How about a road to recovery? When I think of a library, these are the indomitable words that come to my mind.
My name is Tanya Marie Lee and I am the founder of “A Room Of Your Own Plus+” (AROYO) book club for teen girls living in poverty. Hosted in the Lillian H. Smith Public Library in Toronto, our primary focus is on giving young women a space for self-exploration, access to anti-oppression information, and a voice in society, while supporting their mental health and wellness. Girls from 13 to 18 years of age, from all backgrounds, races, ethnicities, religions, abilities and sexual orientations, meet monthly for a discussion — with the author in attendance. We create safe spaces to encourage these young women to express their curiosity, ambitions, hopes, fears, needs, concerns, and frustrations.
How did I know a book club could offer so much? Libraries and books have always been a lifeline for me. Growing up in a very abusive household, my life was filled with conflict and trauma.
“I felt that abuse and struggle was just a way of life for me. No matter how much I prayed to God, the abuse never stopped — that is, until the moment I entered a library.”
I was physically, emotionally and spiritually abused. I was sexually abused by numerous people in my life, as a young child and into my teen years. I felt as if I couldn’t catch a break. Not only was I abused, but I witnessed abuse when my mother physically and verbally abused in front of me. I wasn’t valued at home for being a girl child either. I had no self-esteem and no sense of my potential. I felt lost, isolated and forgotten.
At school, I was bullied. As a mixed-raced girl, racism was ever present. I felt that abuse and struggle was just a way of life for me. No matter how much I prayed to God, the abuse never stopped — that is, until the moment I entered a library. The library was like heaven on earth for me. The library was a place of salvation, my lifeline. Books were my sustenance. When I walked into a library, I was no longer someone’s prey. I was me, Tanya Marie Lee. I was whole. I could be anything, or anyone, the moment I picked up a book and started reading. I wasn’t a victim or a survivor when I was reading a book. In books, I found everything I needed to survive, and eventually triumph.
Unfortunately, as a result of the abuse I endured, I now also live with an invisible disability. I live with PTSD and Bipolar II Disorder. When you look at me there are many things you do not see. You do not see my past nor what is happening to me in the present moment — both the good and the struggles. My identities include being an empowered, mixed-raced, Jewish woman who is a Life Skills Coach and a parent to an LGBTQ+ child. This rings true for young marginalized women as well. The layers of their identities are often unknown or dismissed.
I started “A Room Of Your Own” book clubs for girls in high priority areas (low income neighbourhoods) of Toronto, because I wanted to help them see their potential and shine brightly despite their struggles. This is the driving force that propels me to do this amazing work. It’s devastating to think it might come to an end.
Each month, A Room of Your Own needs about $2000 to pay for books for all of the girls, their lunch, and the travel expenses of authors. With your donation, this program can continue providing at-risk teen girls a safe space.