(REPORT/INTERVIEW) "Reading is FUN-damental" - Twitter partners with Room to Read on World Literacy Day
(HN, September 8, 2010) – Can you read this?
Wehn yuo cnnaot raed, noe hruendd ftory ccrhaetars maen noinhtg. Hlep ptoorme goalbl latceriy: http://t.co/W5UTbuB
Today, September 8th is the 35th anniversary of World Literacy Day. Adopted in 1965, this year’s theme organized by UNESCO (the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) celebrate’s women’s empowerment through literacy and pays tribute to the women and men who work behind the scenes who help others acquire literacy skills.
One in five adults worldwide - 796 million - lack minimum literacy skills (reading and writing); with two-thirds of those being women and girls accounting for more than half of the 67.4 million out-of-school children globally.
Literacy rates are comparatively, a cause for celebration and the world has made progress since 1965 with now close to 4 billion literate people in the world. However, literacy for all – children, youth and adults - is still a goal ahead to achieve.
In 2003, the United Nations proclaimed the ten years until 2012 the “United Nations Literacy Decade”, and has put literacy and education front and center as `Millennium Development Goal Number 2’ to be accomplished by 2015.
A basic education equips children with literacy skills for life and the ability to learn further and grow intellectually. Literate parents are more likely to send children to school and literate people are better able to access continuing, higher education; and jobs. In today’s 21st century, `later literacy’ also means experience and understanding with digital languages and technologies but reading and writing remain the fundamental building blocks for development.
The International Literacy Day global celebrations today focus on the transformation literacy can bring to women’s lives and those in their families, communities and societies and on the people and efforts who help them get there, such as the international organization `Room to Read’.
`Room to Read’ was founded by former Microsoft executive John Wood, with co-Founders Erin Ganju and Dinesh Shrestha. This year the organization celebrated its 10 year anniversary with the opening of its 10,000th library in Nepal; where the effort first began. After a vacation to Nepal in 1999 allowed Wood to witness first-hand the country’s lack of educational resources, he and his co-founders launched a book drive for one school, and turned that one-time act of kindness into the basis of inspiration for a global education movement.
Over the last decade, `Room to Read’ has increased its work exponentially to impact over four million children in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Zambia through its worldwide network of more than 1,000 schools and 10,000 libraries filled with over 7 million children’s books.
The organization works in collaboration with local communities, partner organizations and governments, and has empowered children with increased access to high-quality educational opportunities – including 10,000 girls this year who are attending school on scholarship.
Known also for its innovation in technology and marketing, `Room to Read’ (@roomtoread) became Twitter’s first Corporate Social Responsibility partner last year creating a joint project to create `Fledgling’ wine (@fledgling) - a year-long first-of-its-kind social winemaking project in collaboration with the Napa Valley vineyard Crushpad. The Fledgling wines, a Pinor Noir and a Chardonnay, will benefit `Room to Read's’ literacy programs in India and will launch to the market on September 25.
Additionally, Twitter and `Room to Read’ have teamed up on this International Literacy Day in order to show the world what someone who cannot read see’s, when they look at a page of words. The `Hope 140’ effort will show viewers the scrambled message you see at the beginning of this article, and then unscramble the message to show the true words.
"With the International Literacy Day campaign, we are asking the average Twitter user to experience, just for a minute, the disempowerment that one in five people in this world experience due to illiteracy," said John Wood. "Room to Read' is galvanizing a global movement to solve this critical issue and through Twitter's worldwide platform, we aim to not only raise awareness but to instigate action."
On the `Hope 140’ page you’ll also find ways to buy `Fledgling’ wine, as well as how to donate to Room to Read’s publishing program which has created 433 children's books in 22 local languages and distributes them throughout its library network in Asia and Africa. In honor of International Literacy Day and throughout September, `Room to Read’ will be producing the book "Unjani" or "How Are You," an original South African children's book written in Xhosa and English and a donation will be matched by a Room to Read donor.
Because if you can’t read this “Wehn yuo cnnaot raed, noe hruendd ftory ccrhaetars maen noinhtg. Hlep ptoorme goalbl latceriy: http://t.co/W5UTbuB” – there is still a long way to go to total world literacy.
John: Ten years ago, when I delivered that first load of books to children in Nepal, I had no idea that we’d be at the point we are today – impacting the lives of five million children and on track to double that by 2015. The big lesson for me is to dream big and share that dream with incredibly passionate, qualified and hardworking people to make that dream a reality. That’s what Room to Read is all about – we went from a handful of supporters (mainly friends and family) to a network of thousands around the globe.
Children’s education is an issue that crosses borders and resonates with people in every corner of the world – and it’s incredible that Room to Read is the convergence point as we lead a global movement to provide every child with the ability to attend school and learn to read.
John: Twitter has become a great vehicle to help us engage with our supporters and spread our message and mission to an even wider audience. Room to Read’s Twitter account (@RoomtoRead) already has close to 450,000 followers and with the 315,000 people following me @johnwoodRtR, together we’re reaching almost half a million people around the world on a daily basis – which is outstanding! Many of the our 40+ volunteer chapter network around the world also maintain their own Twitter accounts – so we’re definitely getting the word out there.
Twitter’s unique format enables us as an organization to provide real-time updates and information to supporters – without greatly taxing our resources. We use it to thank our supporters and partners, give shout-outs to other organizations, and just to keep the Room to Read message alive and fresh.
We were also fortunate enough to be chosen by Twitter as their first corporate social innovation partner and because of that we’ve had the opportunity to experiment with creative ways to use the platform. In fact, for International Literacy Day on September 8, we have worked with Twitter to develop a creative way for people to understand the concept of literacy and what it’s like for the 776 million people in the world who still can’t read. At the same time, we’re asking the social network community to help support the publication of a new children’s book for the children of South Africa.
I truly believe that simply by getting the message out across the globe, we’ll rally more and more supporters in our battle against illiteracy – and Twitter is an incredibly platform that allows us to do just that.
Q: R2R has an intense focus on results, talk about how running an efficient and stable business, helps to achieve your goals for reading, literacy and education worldwide?
John: We started Room to Read with some important basic business principles – that we would be efficient, accountable and results-driven. I strongly believe it’s necessary to take the best of the business world and combine it with the best of the NGO world – in fact, I tell our team that we want to run Room to Read with the compassion of Mother Teresa but the focus and tenacity of a blue-chip company.
I don’t believe in the model of an NGO spending up to 40 cents of each dollar on administration and fund-raising. So, we keep our overhead low and run a tight ship. We do creative things, like getting our board members to donate frequent flier miles, and having volunteers in 40+ cities raise about a third of our annual budget. There are many small steps that together add up to create a very efficient organization. So, what you get when you make a donation to Room to Read is a very direct, very tangible result. We tell donors exactly how much it costs to build a school, publish children’s book, establish a library or to support a year of a girls’ education. In the long term, education in the developing world has been proven to be the best ticket out of poverty, so an investment in this area yields amazing long-term benefits.
Q: How does technology play a role in how you conduct business and measure results?
John: It’s incredible how quickly technology evolves and allows us new and creative ways to communicate with our supporters. Using social media has enabled us to have instant access to millions of potential supporters across the globe – we can directly engage with them on a regular basis and develop a real connection more easily share our work across the globe and directly engage with people.
We also actively use technology to develop and track our programs as well. With Salesforce licenses generously donated by the Salesforce.com Foundation since 2007, we have built what we call our Global Solutions Database (GSD) that tracks all of our projects in nine countries as well as our operations in the global office. It’s the Room to Read mega-reference – which is key, because keeping results in key to our organization. Every project established by Room to Read across our nine countries is tracked in the system – we track implementation timeline, number of students and teachers, percentage of community contribution, etc. The information collected helps guide our monitoring and evaluation team’s efforts, so we know if we need to boost our work in certain areas. This information is then also used to provide more detailed information to our donors so that we can directly connect them to the project they’re supporting -- and in doing so, we keep our them excited about our work.
Q: Can you talk about the importance of your local language education programs and books? Why was it important for teaching and learning?
John: When we started building libraries we soon realized that many of the children’s books in our libraries weren’t being used by the children – most of them were in English, which is not the primary language for most of the students. At that point, we decided to develop our Local Language Publishing program, to produce and distribute books in local languages. The books are written by local authors, many of whom attend our writers’ workshops, and are illustrated by local artists. We also publish the books locally, so in addition to providing books for the children, we’re helping to support the local economy.
Many of our books have won prestigious awards – but more importantly, they are incredibly popular and effective tools in teaching children to read. Not only is the language something the children can understand, but the stories and illustrations are culturally relevant and speak to the children’s life experience.
Q: Helping children get the habit...how easy is that? And what have you heard years on, about how this simple act, changes their lives?
John: I believe children have an inherent desire to learn, so if you give them the tools and the right guidance, they can’t wait! With our focus being now more directed on literacy and gender equality in education, we’re developing new programs to teach reading more effectively so that it does become a skill and a habit for millions of children. Our teams in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal are already having great success in the pilot phases of their literacy programs, so we have high expectations to see literacy rates jump dramatically in the next several years.
How does reading change a child’s life? This is probably most dramatically illustrated when you talk about educating girls. No offense to my gender – but it is amply documented that when you educate women you have spillover effects to the next generation which are substantially larger. When you educate a woman, you educate the next generation and all subsequent generations.
There is an increase in health and nutrition for the whole family, higher income levels for the woman and overall improvement in the quality of life for a community. For only $250, you support a girls’ education for one year. I believe that’s the best investment one can make when trying to effect global change.
Q: What's next for R2R and for you?
John: For the organization, Room to Read's long-term goal is to help over ten million children to gain the lifelong gift of education by the year 2015. We’re well on our way to meet this goal – by the end of 2010, we’ll have impacted the lives of over five million children. But we’re also looking to increase the quality of education through improved teacher training and additional materials – we want the educational opportunity to be the best it can be. We’re also looking to expand our Girls’ Education program and provide even more life skill training – girls thrive when they’re allowed to develop self confidence and academic skills – and we want them to go out and conquer the world!
Geographically, we’re looking to add programs in Africa fairly soon and have been researching opportunities in Central America as well. The sad fact is that there is a long list of countries ripe for Room to Read, but we have to be sure we have our resources in place before we take the next leap – but we’ll get there!
As for me, this is it! I want to see to it that Room to Read meets its goal of reaching 10 million children within the next five years. This is the hardest I’ve ever worked, but it’s also the happiest I’ve ever been, and I can’t imagine doing anything else! Every morning, I feel like the luckiest person alive because I get to make a difference in the lives of children