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Black alumni group's literary grant helps first-time authors

Dionne Benjamin

Dionne M. Benjamin '00 is launching a series of children's books with the help of a literary grant created by the Cornell Black Alumni Association. Photo: provided.

Dionne M. Benjamin '00 envisioned a book series called "City Kids" to encourage children to read and stimulate conversations between parents and children through lessons on topics related to urban living.

"My son was raised in Athens, Georgia, when I was in law school -- it was a small town," says Benjamin, a Washington, D.C., attorney. "When we moved near D.C., he had to adjust to his new surroundings. He was exposed to a lot of things we didn't see in Athens. We'd get on the Metro, and he'd see homeless people, we'd go by the White House and see protesters. He asked so many questions -- I had the answers, but it's hard to explain certain issues to a five-year-old."

"I thought that city kids have a different experience than some others," she says. "With this series, I'm trying to help parents broach some sensitive topics."

The first book in the series, "City Kids: White Chocolate," follows a young boy as he learns about his heritage. It will be published by Amazon in August as an e-book and print-on demand thanks to a literary grant from the Cornell Black Alumni Association (CBAA). Benjamin, a Hotel School alumna, is the first recipient of the grant.

The first book in the series is "City Kids: White Chocolate," which will be published by in August both as an e-book and print-on-demand.

"'White Chocolate' is geared toward certain African-American children who, because of their fair complexion, may experience confusion regarding their race," Benjamin says. Her son, now 10, at one point "didn't understand that he is black -- he said 'I don't look black.' I tried to help him see that he is, and to accept and appreciate his heritage. There's such a diversity of skin tones within the African-American community. We all just fall somewhere on the spectrum."

Benjamin has also prepared a version of the book to help biracial children understand their racial identity. The "City Kids" series also addresses such topics as racial profiling, homosexuality, conception, gangs, hip-hop culture, drugs, alcohol abuse, absent parents, homelessness and urban vernacular.

Detail illustration from

A detail of a Charlie Love illustration for Dionne Benjamin's "City Kids: White Chocolate," a book for children and parents about racial identity.

"I haven't really seen a lot of books on these topics in the marketplace," Benjamin says. "I thought, I could do it -- I love to write, but as a lawyer the writing that I do is really technical. This is more creative."

Her $500 CBAA grant has helped her offset the cost of an illustrator for the first book, she says.

The literary grant will be an annual award of up to $1,000, providing financial support to CBAA alumni members seeking to publish a book -- the costs of which can be an obstacle for first-time authors. The CBAA board developed grant guidelines and began raising funds among member alumni in late 2013.

"The impetus was to offer something back to our membership," says Chimene Liburd'92, CBAA vice president of fundraising. "The hope is that we can [help] our alumni realize their dreams and inspire many others to write the novels, poems or plays that are living inside of them."

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