Room to Read with Heather Simpson
Our non-profit partner, Room to Read, promotes literacy and gender equality by working with local governments and communities across Asia and Africa. Specifically chosen for their mission and their sustained efforts in an area in India where we manufacture our collections, Room to Read provides the life skills -- and a lifelong love of reading! -- necessary to succeed in school and beyond. And their impact has been equal parts enormous and evident: By helping develop literacy skills and a habit of reading among primary school children, and working to support girls as they complete secondary schools, they have continued to see the progress and power created by access to books and a supportive education. To see our current children’s styles that benefit this organization, click here! We also welcome the support of the Room to Read mission by making a donation at checkout. Through support from our community members like you, we have been able to fund the education of over 400 girls since 2016!
Recently, our team spoke with Room to Read's Chief Program Officer, Heather Simpson, to discuss their mission and how the pandemic has impacted their work over the past year. Read our conversation below!
We were hoping to kind of start from a more foundational place, and was wondering if you could just tell us a little bit about the history of Room to Read and the inspiration for the foundation of the organization.
Absolutely! So Room to Read was founded 20 years ago; we were founded with the understanding that education is a basic human right, and not all children are able to access that basic human right. We started our work in parts of Asia and expanded to working in parts of Africa, and now we've worked in 20 countries and counting so far, in many different regions of the world. Programmatically, we started as an organization distributing books and providing scholarships for children to stay in school, and we quickly evolved to focus on strengthening local language publishing systems, supporting education systems, strengthening teacher training literacy, managing libraries, and also developing curriculum for things like life skills and mentoring systems so adolescent girls can stay in school and develop the skills they need to succeed both inside school as well as over the course of their life. We are an implementing organization focused on building evidence for what works and using that evidence to help inspire systems and investors to make sure that the systems are strengthened to support all children, so they develop foundational learning skills of literacy and life skills.
In the 20 years that Room to Read has been around, have you seen any signs of internal progress within different country’s governments or regulations, or how they are approaching this work with you?
Absolutely. So I can take, for example, in Vietnam [which] is the second country where Room to Read started working -- now nearly 20 years ago. In Vietnam right now, the government is scaling up school-based libraries across the whole country -- and this has been a lot of work that Room to Read has been doing to model out how schools can integrate library programs into their own schools, and training teachers on how to manage those libraries. In in a lot of places where Room to Read is working, children simply don't have books at home, and they don't have access to a lot of learning materials -- and a library is one of the ways that children can check books out, take them home, practice reading, and develop that love of reading as well as their skills. And in Vietnam, the government has seen that as they have started integrating libraries into their school system, they're seeing learning gains in their students and they're also seeing a culture of reading developing, and this is advancing their priorities as well. So in a place like Vietnam and Cambodia, we're starting to see those governments take on the lessons that we’re sharing, and scaling them up across all of their schools. That's the type of system reform we’re hoping to inspire all over the place.
What would you say are the top priorities for Room to Read and how do you set about accomplishing your mission?
So our priorities are making sure that everyone is literate in the whole world, and that there's gender equality in the world. These are big! It's a big vision! We seek to transform the lives of millions of children in low income communities -- by focusing, again, on literacy and gender equality through education. And we know that we can't do this alone -- it's not just us helping an individual student learn how to read, or us helping an individual girl stay in school. Through partners like you and chapter networks around the world -- [as well as] partnerships with ministries of education, other investors, and local organizations that are focused on these things -- we know that we can scale these learning opportunities for every child. It's not going to happen overnight; we know we have to work in partnership, and we know we need the resources to do that, and so, I want to really think that the folks that you've inspired to learn more about this topic and invest in this topic -- because it's through those links and those partnerships that individual children are going to secure their own rights and develop that love of learning and become the the future change makers in the world.
We would imagine that there's also probably statistics on what you can achieve by achieving gender equality -- for example, what that also does to help young men or young boys as well, and how that's really a reciprocal goal.
Absolutely, absolutely. Gender inequality is damaging not only for women and girls; it's damaging for every person.
Your website states that $50 can teach a child to read and write for a year, and we were wondering what exactly does that $50 pay for.
So we pool these resources, and in our literacy program, we're focused on helping ministries of education improve their teacher professional development -- so teacher training and teacher coaching. Because in a lot of places in the world, teachers of first and second grade haven’t learned how to teach reading, and they're sort of assuming that because they can read, they can figure out how to teach reading. In fact, with just a bit of support, a bit of coaching for those teachers, [makes it so that] it's not all on their individual shoulders. They can actually learn how to introduce letters and blending sounds and reading stories and really finding library activities -- all of this helps make their job easier. So part of it [is put towards] teacher professional development coaching, [and] as I mentioned earlier, we also focus on developing libraries at schools and helping those schools integrate library into their weekly schedules for children. Then we’re also working to strengthen local language publishing, and working with local publishers and local authors and illustrators to write books and get books into the market in languages that children understand. Those $50 are pooled together with other people's $50, and allow us to do this type of support for literacy.
It brings to mind the My Brilliant Friend series by Elena Ferrante -- it's one of our personal favorites, along with millions of readers around the world, but there's that incredible scene in the book of the characters learning how to read and reading Little Women for the first time -- and just becoming so immersed and engrossed in this fictional world, and it really kind of sets their entire life path. That's kind of the transformative power reading can bring.
That's right, that's right. I remember, as a very young child, listening to my father read to me, and I would lay my my ear against his chest and I'd hear him tell stories -- and I remember, as I was trying to learn how to decode and that sudden feeling [that] almost felt like magic when I finally was able to read the words in the sentence. That's what we're trying to make sure every child in the world has -- that life-changing moment.
Speaking of that, do you have any specific success stories that come to mind of families or girls that have gone through the room to Read program and had that moment?
Absolutely. I think one of the really powerful success stories is Dr. Sanjay Risal in Nepal. He is a doctor now; he was in schools where Room to Read was supporting, years ago, and -- as he talks about it -- the support that Room to Read provided him allowed him to continue staying in school, become a really avid reader, and learn. And now he's a doctor, and he's helping support people who are dealing with COVID-19 right now. It's that kind of example -- of somebody who is saving lives because they were able to change, to stay in school. And on the girls’ education side of things, there are some really powerful examples right now. In India, for example, I think of an adolescent girl named Teejan. She and her parents were separated during lockdown, and she was home with her siblings and older relatives. [They] didn't have any income, but through the skills that she learned, she was able to reach out to local authorities to figure out help and to get rations so that her direct family members were able to get food and her parents were able to to secure what they need. These are really powerful stories of folks who are really leaning into the learning that they're gaining through [Room to Read’s] support.
Since you kind of touched on COVID-19, and we all know that the pandemic has been so devastating for education no matter where you are in the world -- we were wondering what some of the immediate impacts that Room to Read was concerned were?
A year ago almost this week, we started seeing school systems around the world closing down to a scale I have never seen in my life. At the peak, probably about 1.6 billion students were out of school because of COVID-19 related school closures. We knew from other pandemics -- such as ebola in Africa -- [that] the longer students are out of school and out of learning opportunities, the higher the likelihood that many of those students would never return to school. We also knew that the longer students weren’t in a supportive learning environment, they were at higher risk of early marriage, they were higher risk of gender-based violence, they were at a higher risk of child trafficking and child labor. So we were incredibly worried about that. The globe’s children and the globe’s student population -- and we, simply, as a world cannot afford to lose a whole generation of learners. We understand why schools were closing their doors, and needing to keep health and safety [a top priority]. We immediately started committing to try to figure out how we could support learning continuity, even if children aren’t able to physically go to those classrooms. One thing we started doing was getting more of our early grade reading materials up on our digital platform, literacycloud.org, and over the course of this year we've been able to get nearly 1600 books in 23 different languages. We started doing that as soon as we could, knowing that if anyone could access these books for free, they could benefit. At the same time, we knew that most of the children in communities where Room to Read is operating don't have a computer at home, they don't have access to the internet -- so we knew that just uploading digital books alone wasn't going to serve the needs of all the students. So we started looking at a wide range of technologies. Some of them included phone calls: With adolescent girls, we started making phone calls to check in on them [and] to do remote mentoring over the telephone. We started sending direct text messages to parents to give them tips on how to read at home, what activities they could do to keep inspiring their students to continue learning. And then we also found partnerships with local radio broadcasters, local television broadcasters, to broadcast life skills lessons for adolescent girls or read aloud over the radio for all children. And then, hardcopy learning materials is a very powerful technology! We found opportunities for different supply chains to actually get physical books out to students' homes, or workbooks or worksheets so that children could continue learning even if they couldn't physically get to their school or their classrooms.
Can you tell us any top 3 or so goals that you would have for the next 5 years?
We're sharply focused on supporting system-level adoption of literacy and gender equality through education. We are looking to continue to go deep in that book supply chain for beautiful local language books; we're also looking to help inspire more diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as looking to become an example of how to inspire more gender equality across the world. And we're starting to also look at how we can integrate some of our literacy and girls’ education work to advance things such as climate-related issues, where we know that we want to make sure the books we’re producing, as well as the life skills and support we're giving to adolescents, is all being informed by climate-related issues. We're staying razor-focused on literacy and gender equality through education, and through that, wanting to deepen the evidence of how we can scale these solutions. If folks look at literacycloud.org, we’re continuing to work with authors and illustrators from different parts of the world, and we created some new book collections during this past year in lockdowns. One is a nonfiction book collection on climate change that looks at how climate change is showing up in different parts of the world. We also have some books that we've developed with authors and illustrators here in the United States on peace and equality. And then there's another book collection where we are working with authors and illustrators from 10 different countries on COVID-19 related topics; not specifically about the disease, but how children are being impacted or the emotions that they're dealing with. I do encourage folks to take a look at some of those.
We just have one last question: What are some ways that our community could get more involved and support your work!
Well, first I want to thank everyone who is already supporting -- and so I want to thank you and all of your readers. I encourage them to continue engaging in these issues. One concrete thing they can do is become a monthly supporter of Room to Read: They can go to our website at https://www.roomtoread.org/take-action/ and become a monthly supporter. Any level of monthly support makes a difference in a child's life. We also have a really strong chapter network around the world in different communities, so if there's a local chapter of Room to Read, folks can get involved in that. If folks want to join a book club, we have a Room to Read book club -- this is a way to engage as well as to learn a little bit more about what we're doing, [while] sharing books and things like that! And then again, continuing to talk about these issues with friends and families and community members -- it does take all of us working together to make sure children secure their right to education.