Rana Dajani: Reading is a life-long activity!

Rana Dajani is a professor of molecular biology at the Hashemite University of Jordan. She is the founder of the charity We Love Reading which promotes reading for pleasure and reading aloud. Her book Five Scarves is part-biography and part-manifesto for social activism. She has won innumerable awards from UN agencies, governments and NGOs for her work in health, science and education. In the first part of this two-part interview, we asked her about We Love Reading.

What inspired you to create We Love Reading (WLR)?

In 2006, after returning to Jordan from abroad, I was struck by the lack of public libraries and a culture of reading in Jordan. One Saturday morning in February 2006, I carried a bag of children’s books across the road to my local mosque in Amman. I donned a traditional folkloric dress and a silly hat. I spent an hour reading stories to two dozen children who had gathered around. During Friday prayers the following week, the imam advertised the story-time session to the congregation. This time, 50 children showed up. With a small grant from the mosque and some personal savings, I purchased a collection of books for my first library. I read the stories aloud in costume and with puppets. I read three books before offering to lend each child a book to take home. Some of these children had never had a children’s book in their home before. From this inspiring experience and the sparkle in the children’s eyes as I read to them, I determined to share this powerful practice more widely. One by one, I trained other women to do the same. That is how We Love Reading started.

Rana Dajani

From its origin in a single mosque in Jordan, We Love Reading has spread internationally to over 50 countries. How did We Love Reading spread? What has been the impact?

We developed a strategy to spread and scale the movement indirectly through partners. We don’t want to have an office in every country so we piggyback on existing organizations and they implement the programme. That way we can reach more individuals. Ultimately, we will be out of work because the programme is spreading under its own momentum!

Our approach is innovative because it addresses the root cause. Most existing programmes and initiatives provide books to children. Few focus on reading aloud. Motivating children to want to learn is effective because local people with little education can read-aloud to children in their native tongue, and this maintains local culture. As a volunteer-driven programme, it’s low cost and sustainable in the long term. Reading is a life-long activity! WLR is not about delivering services that need support systems. Rather, the goal is co-creating capacity among thousands of local women by enabling them to be creative for themselves. Organizations need hierarchies, but movements need causes, purposes, shared values and common goals to pull together. Reading is the means: the cause is to get young children to realize that they can and should think for themselves. The model is formulated so that each person tailors it to fit their culture and needs. This builds project ownership and sustainability.

We cannot train every single parent to read aloud and show their passion for reading to their children. But we can train one person in each neighbourhood to do so. We don’t yet know the positive effects of this approach on parents. But we believe that the next generation of children will grow up to love to read. They will become the parents of the future, and advocates to change the system from within. WLR creates champions who have the passion and ability to change mindsets; spreads the belief that ‘I can’ amongst the youth of tomorrow. Through creating changemakers and life-long learners among adults and children, we create systemic change at the grassroots early. This  equips them with the tools to solve the existing challenges as well as future ones that we cannot yet imagine.

WLR has trained 7500 WLR ambassadors, reached 500,000 children, and conducted 200,000 read aloud sessions over the past 5 years. We have grants from UNICEF, USAID, DFID and others (amounting to $4 million). We have received the UNESCO International Literacy prize, Library of Congress Best Practices, Jacobs Award for Social Entrepreneurship, UNSTI award, WISE award, Star Award and the award for Best Educational Programme for Refugees. WLR’s headquarters and the majority of our work are in Jordan. Through civic society groups, WLR has spread to Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Syria – in addition to 50 other countries. These are our contact points to scale the programme in these countries. All of the material has been developed in Jordan in Arabic and English. We established partnerships with the Ministries of Social Development and Education in Jordan as well as large local NGOs in Jordan and International NGOs in the region such as Mercy Corps, Save the children NRC, Plan International, UNHCR, IRD. Regional as well as pro-bono service providers eg ARAMEX have been engaged for shipping our books regionally, with Trust Law for legal advice and registration as well as Microsoft.

An independent evaluation of WLR’s work conducted by Integrated (USAID funded), found that 95% of WLR volunteers cultivated a love of reading amongst children. This was evident through child engagement, attendance at reading sessions, inviting friends to sessions, requesting multiple books, and purchasing books. All parents found that the programme had positively impacted upon their children. Moreover, 75% of volunteers found that they witnessed positive change in children’s behaviour and attitudes after attending the sessions. Most stated that children had become less aggressive, more quiet and disciplined, and less shy and fearful. Volunteers also highlighted benefits for themselves, including increased self-confidence, positive attitudes towards reading, increased ability to deal with children, and the ability to help children via psychosocial support.

Research from Brown University, and University of Chicago found that leadership increased by 80%, that children with anxiety and depression improved executive functions, emotional regulation, and pre-literacy function, that children read 34% more and that integrating empathic values into stories increased generosity by nearly 100%.

What are the next steps for this organisation?

WLR has already developed a total management digital solution for training, monitoring and evaluation through the global ambassador network which is based on a virtual platform to connect all WLR ambassadors around the world. We have developed an online training in two languages and plan to expand to 10 more languages. For our next steps, we hope to:

  1. License our program to private schools, NGOs, and community-based organizations. We are looking to partner with organizations who work to improve education, literacy, psychosocial health, and early childhood development. Through this annual license, we will provide training, resources, storybooks, and use of our data management platform for each group to monitor their impact through their read-aloud sessions;
  2. Obtain funding from other groups like companies’ Corporate Social Responsibility departments and government embassies to conduct trainings and create new storybooks;
  3. Sell our books in book stores to individuals and other groups;
  4. The income we would generate from these paths would allow us to implement the program in communities where people cannot afford to pay for the training and materials required to get a reading circle started.

We Love Reading is community-led. What are the benefits of this form of organisation for social programmes?

This approach ensures sustainability and long term impact through adopting Paulo Freire’s pedagogy. It is an exemplar of how aid should be rolled out. This is an opportunity to prove this works at scale. We have already proved it within Jordan, and to a certain extent in areas where it has spread organically.

You’ve said that reading increases empathy and decreases violence. Have you seen positive outcomes amongst young people who have been part of your programmes?

WLR has been implemented in Jordan over the past 10 years by Jordanians and Syrian refugees. Refugee children who had not been to school or used the public library began to ask to go to school. Lending went up five-fold in the local library. International NGOs had flagged that they did not have many children participating in their activities – especially girls. After WLR started their programme, children, especially girls, were attending the read-aloud sessions run by the local refugees in their caravans at every possible time (weekends, evenings). Children were drawing happy faces after attending the reading aloud sessions. Their mental health improved. Social cohesion between Jordanians and Syrian children improved during read aloud sessions. Adult refugees found purpose in their lives through planning the reading aloud sessions, helping them out of depression and connecting them with their inner potential. Asma, a refugee, became a writer and trained others; others found jobs, created their own business and solved local problems. Many have been reading in their neighbourhoods for over five years. The incentive is the credit they receive for supporting their communities. Some have told their relatives in Syria to start the programme there. Despite COVID-19 they are still reading to the children and posting videos online.

The programme has been covered in a large number of mainstream outlets, such as the New York Times, Fletcher Forum and UNCHR, which show the benefits of this approach. We also produced our own report on our work in the Zataari refugee camp in Jordan.

Stay tuned for part two of our interview which will be published next week!