Moving America Forward

Feed Your Soul With These Books About Social Change

November 11, 2016
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Feed Your Soul With These Books About Social Change
We polled both NationSwell staffers and council members to come up with this must-read list of some of the most change-driven books of our time.

As a community focused on solutions, we at NationSwell always have our ears pricked up for inspiring books, those titles that leave you invigorated as you flip to the last page. In search of the best reads, we polled our staff and members of the NationSwell Council to share 23 favorites — from classic works of fiction to recently released memoirs — on their bookshelves.

1. “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Hallie Steiner, NationSwell social media manager, says this novel about Nigerian immigrants trying to make it in America “created a powerful empathy and solidarity with people who were different from me.” The experience of fiction, she adds, “gradually woke me up from my own whiteness and American privilege.”

2. “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander

Margaret Curtis, council operations coordinator says, “This classic — even though it was written only six years ago — explores mass incarceration of black men in America as a means of racial oppression.”

3. “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood

Jaime Buerger, interim managing editor, says, “I read this as an 18-year-old college freshman, and I consider it my first exposure to the plight of women’s civil rights the world over. It’s speculative fiction, but the debates it continues to spark is a testament to its enduring power and a call to action against totalitarian regimes.”

4. “Believer: My Forty Years in Politics” by David Axelrod

Enlivened by the charm and candor of one the greatest strategists in recent American history, this memoir by a NationSwell featured speaker makes the point that politics is about building talented teams, not following a single hero.

5. “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Greg Behrman, NationSwell founder and CEO, recommends this 152-page letter to Coates’s son, reflecting on what it means to come of age as a black male in America.

6. “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” by Matthew Desmond

Council member Molly Day recommends this “eye-opening read on evictions in America, how they destabilize families and communities, and the private market rules that incentivize and support exploitation of poor families,” as explained by a Harvard sociologist who lived in the Milwaukee apartment and trailer park he documents.

7. “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League” by Jeff Hobbs

Adam Coretz, council manager, recommends this biography of a high-achieving kid who rises from poverty to finish a Yale degree, only to fall into drug-dealing after graduation.

8. “Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics” by bell hooks

Product and project manager Danielle Ma recommends this compact, 120-page primer on the true meaning of feminism: not as an anti-male crusade, but as a broad movement against sexism, racism, homophobia and class divisions.

9. “Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet” by Tim Jackson

Video producer Sybile Penhirin recommends this polemic by a British professor who argues that the developed world’s throwaway consumerism is at odds with environmental sustainability, wealth inequality and our long-term economic survival.

10. “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging” by Sebastian Junger

Council Member H.R. McMaster recommends this short meditation on how the tribal values of loyalty and belonging have largely disappeared, except in times of war or disaster. Calling it “a perfect topic for NationSwell members,” could that communal focus solve our modern ailments?

11. “But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present as if It Were the Past” by Chuck Klosterman

Council member Zac Hill says this series of thought experiments is “absolutely vital for being able to frame the ‘fundamental challenges of our world’ against the proper context of our ability to understand and perceive reality.” In other words, do we truly understand our own time well enough to improve it?

12. “Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike” by Phil Knight

Council member Andy Parker recommends this “inspirational and fascinating” memoir of how the world’s largest athletic apparel company got its start in one 24-year-old’s wild (and widely derided) idea to import sneakers from Japan.

13. “A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Kelsey Overby, partnerships manager, applauds this critical look at the “charity industry” and call to action to become more effective altruists.

14. “Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx” by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

Council operations coordinator Margaret Curtis recommends this journalistic touchstone, for which LeBlanc spent a decade of interviewing one extended family, resulting in “one of the most powerful nonfiction books about the realities of low-income families in New York City.”

15. “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield” by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Kate Dinota, council community director, says this nonfiction tale of an all-female unit that accompanied male soldiers in Afghanistan “is an incredible story of bravery and the importance of integrating female leaders into all aspects of our society.”

16. “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race” by Beverly Daniel Tatum

Council manager Jacquelyn Soleimani recommends this study of the role race plays in children’s nascent identity, a popular book among social justice advocates from her days with Teach for America.

17. “The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way” by Amanda Ripley

Founder and CEO Greg Behrman recommends this globe-spanning journey into how other countries get more out of their education systems, written by council member Amanda Ripley.

18. “Blindness” by Jose Saramago

Staff writer Chris Peak couldn’t put down this strange fable of a contagious blindness terrorizing an unnamed city as an illustration of society’s fragility and the heroic acts of decency that prop it up.

19. “The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America” by Russell Shorto

Council member Bradley Michelson  loved this history of Dutch tolerance of early Manhattanites. “They saw, from the beginning, why Manhattan has drawn people from a vast variety of backgrounds onto a tiny piece of land. This migration and the world events surrounding it shaped the American Dream and the careers and businesses in our country for centuries thereafter.”

20. “Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries” by Peter Sims

Leslie Leggett, council community director, recommends this jaunt into “how change happens: not by great leaps, but by little bets.”

21. “Animal Liberation” by Peter Singer

“Eloquently and unequivocally argued, this book changed the way I viewed my relationship with my environment,” says council community director Leslie Leggett, adding that reading it led her to convert to vegetarianism.

22. “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson

Christina Guevara, Bay Area council director, says this NationSwell featured speaker’s account of defending an accused murderer on Alabama’s death row is “an incredibly eye-opening look into our criminal justice system. While the topic is heavy and heart-breaking, Bryan shares a message of hope and a path forward. Beautifully written by a beautiful soul!”

23. “Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem” by Paul Tough

Founder and CEO Greg Behrman recommends this profile of Harlem Children’s Zone’s visionary creator, whose nonprofit works to sever the link between neighborhood poverty and kids’ academic success.

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