As a young, shy girl Pam Allyn, the founder of the literacy organisation LitWorld loved reading. Books kept her company and also helped in nurturing a vivid and powerful imagination – she could mutually coexist in different worlds where she was brave and strong, where the magic happened. So, she naturally veered towards the teaching profession from the start of her career. A visit to Kenya and Liberia in 2007 would lead to the inception of LitWorld which believes in empowering children through storytelling.
She says, “In Kenya, I met a girl named Diana who carried a photo of her mother in her pocket and wanted a way to remember her mother’s story. In Liberia, I met a little girl who was entranced by both the read aloud I was doing and also the stories I was helping the children write. She watched me training the teachers and she then did just the same lessons with the children assembled in the play-yard.
When I came back a year later, she was gone from school. She had already, at the age of 10, been pulled out of school so she could help at home. I knew that I had to do something in response to that: the loss of her in the world, missing the chance to read and write meant she missed her chance to have a big life in the big world, and that we all also missed the chance to hear and know and be changed by her story. I never knew her name and I never saw her again. But I will fight for children’s literacy for the rest of my life because of her and because of Diana who became the first girl in our LitClub and is now a mentor in our work. When I came home from that trip, I gathered my friends together around my dining room table and told them these stories of two girls. They asked how they could help. And that is how LitWorld was born.”
Pam, whose organisation works with some of the poorest communities in the world, feels that there is nothing more important than stories because it is something that children have inside of them
Children can create lives of hopes and dreams out of the power of their own stories. Their culture, their language, their grandmothers all contribute to the strength within them. She adds, “I love when I am teaching how they realise that and see it. How powerful that is. It is the one thing no one can ever take away: your own story. And I have worked with children who suffer so much, from poverty, from war and conflict, from natural disasters, where virtually everything is taken from them. But no matter what, your story is something you own and have, and with it, you can learn to read, write and have a voice.”
LitWorld, partners in different countries with local grassroots organisations who are well respected on the ground and who care deeply about their own communities. Pam informs that these community members are the real unsung heroes of social change because each day they are working side by side with the children they love. “We coach them to learn literacy leadership skills and to provide state of the art curriculum and resources that will help them help the children they love the most. It’s a winning combination.”
But, the children themselves are the best ambassadors for LitWorld. They love the feeling that reading, writing, and storytelling brings to them. Pam never had to explain LitWorld to them. They never ask for data or statistics! Stories make them feel they can fly, can transcend, can make a life that is rich with possibility.
She says, “But their lives are extremely challenging. Our work is about listening to children, listening to the people who love them, and asking: what do you need and want literacy for? Then we build worlds around those responses. Our LitClubs reflect the lives of the kids in that we may include in our ‘litkits’ everything from sanitary supplies to subway maps. It’s all what they most need, what it’s going to take to help them feel most free.”
Inequality, of course, hits children hard, mainly because they cannot vote and they don’t have any financial power. So they are extremely vulnerable in society, no one is really listening to what they want and need, and this is especially true in poverty stricken communities.
“The challenge is to make sure people understand how important it is for us to invest in children.”
Pam asserts, “It is staggeringly clear that children in poverty are not getting fair and equal access in schools to quality resources, including books, technology, and healthy food. School can be and should be the great equaliser and yet, here in the United States and around the world, it is not yet the case. The challenge is to make sure people understand how important it is for us to invest in children. Dollars really do count. Also, teacher training, community leadership training; these are costly endeavours but technology is advancing in ways that show us we can train and keep people highly trained and motivated. But investments have to be made into that idea.
One big challenge is that the people who design and create schools and programs are often not consulting with children at all. For example, we really listen when kids say the school is long and boring and they don’t feel truly engaged. We create programming that is asking first: ‘What will engage us’; because we want kids to be ready for college and careers, places where social engagement and motivation matter. Education is a national security issue for every country, an urgent investment. We cannot let politics interfere with this basic human right; a quality education. Every society should have one motto: put children first.”
Pam is very hopeful for the future because since the time she started LitWorld a lot has changed – her out-of-box ideas are increasingly been considered as part of the mainstream. And more and more communities are gearing up to the fact that a good education is extremely crucial to a child’s life.
She concludes, “I want us to impact policy at the government level: where the child’s right to learn is about having access to books she loves in every form, about telling her stories in ways that really get heard. I want to continue to focus on gender equity and literacy learning. The inequity for girls is hard to see. It keeps me awake at night. We’ve got to close that gap. We are already well on our way but there is a lot of work to do. These next five years should be more and more about that. Literacy learning is not just going and sitting in a room copying words, but about how a child, every child, has a voice in the world. This advocacy is the work we are meant to do.”