Dr. Karen A. Stout Shares 2020 Summer Reading List

For 21 years, Achieving the Dream President and CEO Dr. Karen A. Stout has shared her summer reading list with colleagues and students. A sample of her thoughts on her 2020 books follows.

Continuing the Tradition in Unprecedented Times

I usually start my summer reading in early May, finding time to read while traveling to and from college campuses, summer conferences, and during my vacation. However, Summer 2020 was like no other summer for most of us, and without the normal rhythms of travel and vacation, I struggled to focus on reading. In fact, I nearly gave up on my annual reading list. Then, a week at the beach in early August helped me relax and reach the inner peace I needed to ignite my reading flow. This is my 21st annual list.

The 2020 list

The Bell and the Blackbird and Crossing the Unknown Sea by David Whyte 

Early in the COVID-19 isolation period I started pursuing my creative interest in poetry, engaging in some writing and turning back to David Whyte and his book Crossing the Unknown Sea. I first read this book in the early 2000s as a new community college president. Revisiting some of Whyte’s wisdom led me to his collection of poetry in The Bell and the Blackbird. I am especially drawn to a poem titled, Just Beyond Yourself, because I do feel that it is that space—just beyond ourselves—that is calling us and that we must move into for personal and professional growth.


The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein

I picked up this book in New York City in November at the Strand Bookstore (a must stop on a weekend trip to NYC) and was compelled to dig into it in early June, as part of my self-reflection journey to learn more about laws and policies that have reinforced systemic racism in America. In chapter after chapter, Rothstein exposes the racial discriminatory practices of government at all levels that have denied Blacks the opportunity to live in neighborhoods with jobs, good schools, and upward mobility.



Hannah’s War by Jan Eliasberg

I love historical fiction and books that explore women in history. This World War II thriller about a fictional character named Dr. Hannah Weiss brings attention to the life of Austrian physicist Lise Meitner, who discovered nuclear fission. This is a page turner. I started it one rainy morning and finished it over dinner!



Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World by Olga Khazan

This is an odd book about a weird topic. Khazan, a staff writer for the The Atlantic, speaks to the challenges of being different in a society that craves conformity. Her chapter about “tight” and “loose” cultures caused me to think through the benefits and drawbacks each brings and to think about the “tightness” and the “looseness” of the cultures we are building on our campuses to create a sense of belonging for students who are struggling to be seen, heard, and understood.


Together by Dr. Vivek Murthy

Written before the COVID-19 pandemic and highly relevant within it, the former U.S. Surgeon General argues that loneliness is affecting our health, how we perform in the workplace, and why we feel so divided and polarized. The antidote to loneliness? Human connection. Two powerful suggestions that are sticking with me include devoting at least 15 minutes a day connecting with those you care for and increasing volunteerism. I also think about how important being intentional about human connection is to our student success work and issues of student belonging.


You’re Not Listening: What you are Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy


Murphy makes a case that listening is an essential skill that we have pushed aside in teaching and researching communications. Her chapter on listening in the age of big data is especially relevant for our student success work. In our tendency to look at quantitative data points and to focus on social media sentiments to substitute for listening, we miss important cues from our students.  We should borrow some of her thinking about focus groups to help us radically center the student voice, and empathy, in our redesign thinking.

Heartland by Sarah Smarsh

Smarsh’s memoir offers a deep look at the complexity of the intersectionality of race and poverty…in this case, whiteness and poverty. She writes of the struggles with the invisibleness of being white and poor. This quote should hit home for those of us working to redesign our colleges around the student voice: “I started my college career needing something I did not get because the need went unacknowledged on a form that did not ask the right questions.”




Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness by Ingrid Fetell Lee

This was such a light and delightful read around the aesthetics of joy with worksheets and a toolkit to help us design with joy at the center of our work, homes, relationships and life.  It was a perfect COVID read.






The “next to read” list…and growing


Caste by Isabel Wilkerson
The Pulitzer-winning author of The Warmth of Other Suns advances an argument for regarding American racial bias through the lens of caste, thus framing barriers to equality in a new light.

Riches of the Land by James Tankersley
Tankersley makes a case for the urgency of rebuilding the middle class. In Ibram X. Kendi’s review of the book he notes: “Only when Black men, women of all races, and immigrants broke through blockades of oppression did their gains flow out to everyone. Tankersley exposes the real heroes of American prosperity—and why they are the source of our future renewal.”

Tulsa, 1921: Reporting a Massacre by Randy Krehiebl
This book jumped to the top of my “to read” list. Krehiebl is a veteran reporter and Tulsa native and his deeply researched book analyzes local newspaper accounts in an unprecedented effort to gain insight into the minds of contemporary Tulsans. According to a Goodreads review, “he considers how the Tulsa World, the Tulsa Tribune, and other publications contributed to the circumstances that led to the disaster and helped solidify enduring white justifications for it.” It is this year’s common read for Tulsa Community College.

Five Days by Wes Moore
Wes Moore is a friend and former Achieving the Dream Board member. As soon as he released Five Days in March, I placed it on my “to read” list. The book traces the uprisings in Baltimore, MD, my home city, that followed the death of Freddie Grey, told through eight different perspectives.

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