One day people might walk through a Virginia museum, pause in front of an exhibit and wonder how a 9-year-old girl made a box of crayons feel worthy of display.
She never expected that a moment in class would spark an idea, which would evolve into action, which would lead to strangers across the country talking about identity and race and childhood.
“I was thinking at first it was going to be a small project, that only a few people would know about it at my school,” Bellen Woodard tells me on a recent evening.
Her voice is scratchy from a cold and too many demands on her lately to speak, to tell her story yet again, but she doesn’t let that slow her words. She is eager to talk about what came before these recent whirlwind weeks.
The whole thing, Bellen explains, started in her third-grade classroom in Loudoun County, Va.
“My friends were asking for the ‘skin-color’ crayon,” she says. She knew that meant the peach-colored crayon. She also knew her skin wasn’t the color of peaches. She is the only black girl in her grade.
Bellen went home that day to talk to her mom, Tosha Woodard, about how that question made her feel. Her mother uses the word “uncomfortable.” Bellen describes it as “disincluded.” Both mom and daughter remember their conversation unfolding the same way. Bellen questioned whether there was a better response in that situation than automatically handing over the expected crayon. Her mom offered a good solution.
“Just hand them the brown one instead,” her mom suggested.
Bellen came up with a better one.
“I think I just want to ask them what color they want because it could be any number of beautiful colors,” Bellen said.
So that’s what she did. She started saying those words. She then heard her teacher say them, too. And soon, her entire class was talking about skin color in a way that went beyond peach.
Seeing that shift sparked something in her, her mom says. It made her daughter realize, she says, “If this could happen here, we could make this happen anywhere.”
“I felt it should also be in other schools because everyone else should know that there is more than one skin color,” Bellen says.
From that goal grew the project, “More than Peach.”
Bellen came up with the idea of creating kits that could be donated to classrooms and children who might not be able to afford art supplies. Each kit, she decided, should contain a drawing pad, a personal postcard from her, a standard box of crayons (or colored pencils), and a special box of Crayola’s Multicultural crayons (or colored pencils). In that box of skin-tone hues is the color “peach.” But also there: “apricot,” “burnt sienna” and “mahogany.”
Bellen’s initial hope was to get the multicultural kits into all elementary school classes and middle school art classes in Loudoun County. For the first batch of supplies, she used about $200 she had saved from modeling children’s clothes for Target (yes, that’s why she looks familiar). Her school also hosted a fundraising drive.
Since then, though, she has had to adjust her goal. She has seen donations come in and the demand spread.
“It’s been crazy,” her mom says after clicking through another full inbox. Many messages are from people who found their way to the “More than Peach” website. “They just come all day. From all over the country.”
They come from California and Georgia and other counties in Virginia. They come from parents and teachers and people who just want be a part of what Bellen started.
Bellen is aware that she is standing in the middle of something that is much bigger than her. She knows that the conversations swirling around her aren’t just about crayons.
She is young for a fourth-grader because she skipped a grade, but she speaks at times like an old soul who knows when to drops pearls of wisdom. On a recent morning when a first-grader asked her why her hair was “so crazy,” Bellen considered her large Afro, which has been both a source of compliments and teasing in her life. She then told the girl, “Maybe God wanted it to match my personality, because I’m all over the place.”
When I ask her how she came up with the idea to use the multicultural crayons, she tells me that she first saw them in second grade.
“But I never really thought about them,” she says. “They were just another pack of crayons to me. Now, they are more than just a pack of crayons. Now, they are a kind of change.”
Her mom says that she leaves many conversations with her daughter, the youngest of her five children, in “awe of her intuition and critical thinking.”
“She has this way of just connecting the dots, without being overbearing,” she says. “Just really being considerate and thoughtful.”
At the same time, she says, there is a tendency to describe young black girls as “strong,” and she has already started to see people pin that word to her daughter, a girl who recently cried and climbed into her parent’s bed for cuddles because she couldn’t find her team leotard for her first gymnastics competition. She ended up wearing one that did not match her teammates.
“She can be brave, but strong she is not,” Tosha Woodard says. “That belief that somehow a kid of color is supposed to have some level of strength, that somehow they can withstand more, we have to do away with that. . . . We have to help empower our children so they know they’re already perfect as they are.”
They should know, she says, that they don’t always need to have the answers but that they need to be able to talk about what makes them uncomfortable.
Think for a moment of the millions of peach-colored crayons that have passed for generations between children’s hands as a robotic response to coloring faces. My classmates did it. Your classmates did it.
Bellen’s classmates no longer do it.
“Wow. You are a change maker!!!!” wrote one person on Twitter. “Earlier this year I had a discussion with my first graders when I heard students referring to the peach crayon as ‘skin color.’ ”
“Thank you so much for your courage to speak out so that students of color can be represented authentically when completing art assignments in school,” reads a note to Bellen from Tracy Jackson, the head of counseling services for Loudoun County Public Schools.
Bellen has also received proclamations from the Leesburg mayor and the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. She has been asked to speak in front of her school board, and she has received an invitation from a state delegate to be honored on the House floor.
The most recent acknowledgment of her effort — one that has left her parents feeling “amazed and floored” — came just a few days ago. The Virginia Museum of History & Culture reached out to ask if it could add one of her kits to its collection.
“As part of its mission, the VMHC is committed to collecting, preserving, and sharing Virginia history — including history that is being made today,” curator Karen Sherry said through a spokesperson for the museum. “We were moved by Ms. Woodard’s initiative to foster greater inclusivity and representation for people of color, and would like to add the story of this young activist to our collection.”
When Bellen’s parents told her she was going to be in a museum, it was so far from her expectations that her response was more fourth-grade girl than old soul.
She asked if the museum planned to make her into a wax figure.
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