For Prisoners, Reading Is So Much More Than a Pastime — It’s a Way to Change Their Lives

Twice a week, volunteers climb down the steep steps to the basement of Brooklyn’s Freebird Books. Once inside, they’re greeted by hundreds of books, stacks of brown paper bags and piles of letters. Before long, each book will be in the hands of an inmate somewhere in the U.S.
The cramped bookstore basement serves as the headquarters of NYC Books Through Bars, a volunteer-run group that sends books to incarcerated people in 40 states (the remaining states are either covered by similar programs or barred from receiving packages). In any given week the organization, which has been around for 21 years, receives hundreds of book requests: a Scrabble dictionary, a beginner’s guide to playing the guitar, a science-fiction novel — the list goes on. Each year, they ship somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 volumes to federal and state prisons.
The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other developed country, with 10.6 million cycling in and out of the criminal justice system each year. Often, these prisons have libraries that are understocked and outdated. Others might not have a library at all, or at least not one that’s accessible to all inmates. New York’s infamous Rikers Island, for example, runs its library from a single cart. With roughly 8,000 inmates spread out among the complex’s 10 jails, getting your hands on even one book can feel like finding a treasure.
NYC Books Through Bars believes education is a fundamental right. It’s also one of the strongest tools to reduce recidivism — a 2013 study by the Rand Corporation found that educational intervention can lower a formerly incarcerated person’s chances of reoffending by about 40 percent.

A volunteer handles the mail. Besides fielding book requests, the organization also receives thank-you notes and hand-drawn cards.

But over the past decade prisons have cut back on educational programs, and inmates have been excluded from receiving Pell Grants, the financial-aid program for low-income college students, since the 1990s — all of which makes accessing educational support behind bars a challenge.
“In some instances, receiving a book is the beginning of an education,” says Daniel Schaffer, a collective member who’s been volunteering with NYC Books Through Bars for more than 16 years.
Instead of shipping donated books to a central prison library, the organization mails the titles directly to the inmates who request them, a novelty among programs offering similar services.
“Sending the books to the individuals adds to the strength of the project,” says Schaffer, adding that because some prisoners might not have families that visit, write or mail packages, NYC Books Through Bars might be the only contact they have with the outside world.
Schaffer stresses that a mailed book doesn’t reach just one person — inside a prison’s walls, books are passed around and shared.  
Prisoners learn about the organization largely through word of mouth. And when one person hears about the books program, it’s just a matter of time before letters start arriving, Schaffer says. Sometimes they ask that a specific title be sent; other people are happy to receive anything from a particular genre. Among the most requested are dictionaries.
Because the books and packing materials are donated by the community, and Freebird lets the organization use its basement space for free, the program costs very little to operate. There are no paid employees, either. The only expense is postage, which is collected mostly through fundraising events. Even then, the organization cuts down on shipping costs by bundling four books in a package, at a rate of between $2.75 and $4.31 to ship.
Every Sunday and Monday, 10 to 20 volunteers collect, wrap and ship off the books. By the end of a three-hour shift, hundreds of brown parcels are stacked, ready to make their way to correctional facilities across the country.
Volunteers come from a range of backgrounds — students, librarians, archivists and editors among them — and not all hold the same beliefs about the current state of the criminal justice system. Some consider themselves abolitionists, while others promote reform. Still, everyone shows up for the same reason: to have an immediate effect on people on the inside.
“The thing that links everyone together, ultimately, is that we think the people who are in prison at least deserve to be treated as [humans],” Schaffer says.
“If, in an evening, I can do 20 or 30 or 40 books then that’s the number of individuals who are directly impacted,” he adds.
As requests for titles flood in to NYC Books Through Bars, so do the thank-yous. Letters, pop-up cards, drawings and other artwork from inmates line the shelves of the Freebird Books basement and get posted on Facebook. For the volunteers, the handmade tokens are a friendly reminder of the work they do.
Says Schaffer, “It helps to keep in mind that what you’re doing actually does impact people.”

Samsung NEXT Innovation Challenge

It can be hard enough to start a business — but what if you also want that business to create positive change in the world? Samsung NEXT and NationSwell teamed up for the Samsung NEXT Innovation Challenge, to reward innovators focused on bridging the opportunity gap across education, workforce development, and economic empowerment.
The five finalists were comprised of a diverse group of entrepreneurs from all parts of the country, each building businesses geared toward achieving positive social impact. All five presented their innovations at an awards ceremony in New York City, where one company, Literator, was announced the winner.

Here’s a look at the issues these five young innovators chose to tackle, and how they hope to make a difference.

The winner, Michelle Ching, set out to solve a major problem in education: literacy. As a second-grade teacher, she saw that her students were struggling with learning to read — but it was hard to track their progress and identify where they were getting stuck. Her app, Literator, helps teachers track their students’ reading proficiency in real time across the school year, and lets them know what kind of help each student needs. “Literacy is one of the things that is the biggest blocker for student success, so for us, it was a no-brainer that literacy would be the big systems-change work that we wanted to tackle first,” says Ching. “But it’s turned into a bigger vision beyond that.”

Brian Hill, CEO and founder of Edovo, wants to create a new model of education in correctional facilities while also helping incarcerated people stay in touch with their loved ones. By providing incarcerated people with secure tablets, Edovo helps them gain access to education and also communicate with loved ones on the outside. These tools can provide the skills and support that allow people to integrate back into the community when they’re released, and that in turn can reduce recidivism, says Hill. “If we’re not helping people, if we’re just opening the door and saying ‘Go home,’ we run the risk of very rapidly destroying any gains we make in [criminal justice reform],” Hill says. “It’s about helping people learn and develop and make choices.”

Fonta Gilliam founded Sou Sou as a way to modernize the informal credit clubs adopted by many cultures around the world. In Ghana, a sou-sou is a practice in which a group pools their money, allowing one member to use the full amount each month. Gilliam said she became aware of this and similar practices while working as a diplomat in the foreign service across Africa and Asia. Gilliam built an app that allows people to easily track and organize their pooled funds, while also linking up with banks to earn credit on the money. “There are so many communities abroad, even immigrant communities in the U.S., that are using these informal lending circles to save money amongst themselves, rotate money and fund their goals,” says Gilliam. “So I thought to myself, this is a system that’s working, what if we modernized it with tech?”
Preston Silverman said he realized that many high school students “check out” of the college track early because they assume they will not be able to afford to go — even if they might be eligible for scholarships after graduating from high school. His startup, RaiseMe, helps high school students access financial aid before they apply to college. “We focus on the financial aid part of the equation because we see that’s the biggest barrier for students and families, but ultimately we want to help all students discover and realize their college ambitions,” says Silverman. With RaiseMe, students can “follow” colleges they’re interested in and earn “micro-scholarships” from those colleges for a variety of achievements throughout high school, such as getting good grades, participating in extracurricular activities and playing sports. If they end up matriculating, they can collect the scholarship.
Like Michelle Ching, Heejae Lim wants to use technology to improve education — but while Literator is a tool for teachers, Lim’s company TalkingPoints is intended to help immigrant parents better support their children in school. As a Korean immigrant, Lim noticed that students whose parents spoke English communicated easily with teachers and became involved in the education process, while those whose parents didn’t speak English struggled to be involved. Her app allows teachers to message parents directly and automatically translates messages in English into over 20 languages. When parents reply in their home language, their response is translated into English for the teacher. “Most of the resources right now are going to school environments and teachers, which is also really important,” Lim says. “But we can also unlock the power of parents and families to be able to improve student performance.”

Article produced in partnership with Samsung NEXT, Samsung’s innovation group that works with entrepreneurs to build, grow, and scale great ideas. NationSwell has partnered with Samsung NEXT to find and elevate some of the most promising innovators working to close the opportunity gap in America. Click here to meet the finalists.

It’s About Taking Action, Not Just Cutting a Check

When Kate James joined Pearson in 2014 as its chief of corporate affairs and global marketing, the international education publisher was going through some changes. One such move included a shift from what James calls “arm’s-length philanthropy,” whereby a corporation simply cuts a check to an outside nonprofit, to taking a more active role in developing change-driven solutions.

In the second installment of our series “10 Leaders on Business for Good,” NationSwell founder and CEO Greg Behrman talked with James about how Pearson is altering the landscape of public-private partnerships for the better and what other companies can learn from those efforts.

You’ve worked at both philanthropic foundations and big corporations. What can a socially focused company do to enact change that might be harder for a nonprofit to do?

The journey that Pearson has been on, and continues to be on, is figuring out how to move from most of our social-impact work being done by a foundation at arm’s length to really embracing the opportunity for social innovation. To more bluntly answer your question: the private-sector dollar is super-important, especially given the scale of the challenges that the world is facing. Also, a large company can more easily convene other powerful players behind a cause while harnessing its campaign capabilities. Corporations can put their brand into play and leverage their commercial influence to reach more people in need. Pearson isn’t just coming at a problem with a check; instead we’re saying, ‘Hey, we can bring a lot more to it with our R&D capabilities.’

As the chief communications executive, Kate James helps lead Pearson’s social-impact initiatives.

What projects is Pearson working on currently that you’re particularly excited about?

Right now we’re focused on three big initiatives. One that we are certainly most proud of is Project Literacy, which is no big surprise for an education company. When we conducted our initial research into the issue, we were struck by the fact that there are 757 million people around the world that lack basic literacy skills. And so Pearson seized the opportunity to create a coalition that’s working to close the literacy gap. We’ve attracted more than 100 diverse partners, from Microsoft to USAID, who all realize education is a fundamental part of any solution, from reducing child mortality rates to enabling someone suffering from AIDS to wholly understand their disease.

Pearson has also launched an internal incubator for employees to develop their entrepreneurial skills. They’re given the time to really think about ideas that can reach communities that otherwise Pearson’s products and services wouldn’t be reaching. For example, we’ve seen proposals for really smart ways to utilize the power of virtual reality and another that examines the refugee challenges in Germany and how to meet them.

And then there’s our work in Jordan with Save the Children on a program called Every Child Learning. Our partnership plays to our R&D strengths; we’re piloting a digital learning solution to deliver education to Syrian refugees and host community children in Jordan, with an eye toward adapting and scaling these in other emergency situations. Because these kids are often moving from place to place, we believe a mobile education platform is part of the solution.

How has Pearson’s focus on researching and developing solutions for social good changed the working environment for employees?

By constantly innovating and trying new things, we’re working to align our social-impact work with our own business goals and objectives. When you get that alignment, it’s amazing how much more resolve employees have and how much more engaged they are. When you’re focused on the double bottom line, then the work is sustainable and that means companies will be much more involved in philanthropic efforts and for a longer period of time. That’s what we have at Pearson that was missing before: a deeper level of connection between a foundation’s work and a corporation’s commercial strategy.

What’s the best career advice you’ve been given?

I started my career at GlaxoSmithKline, and the head of corporate affairs then was a wonderful lady. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but she made a lot of effort to talk to the young women graduates who were coming into GSK, and she became a phenomenal role model. She showed us how you could navigate a career path right to the very top. What really stuck with me is the importance of and the responsibility to really spend time with young women often. Some of our sparkiest young employees are women and, from the get-go, they can see that there are no limits to what they can accomplish. As the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other. I think that’s a pretty important mantra for all women in senior positions to take pretty seriously.

This Exciting Program Moves Struggling Students to the Head of the Class

The statistics are troubling. Only about 16 percent of students in Harlem pass the New York State English Language Arts exam. And just 31 percent of children across New York City pass it. But one group is changing that.
The Reading Team, a Harlem-based literacy organization, is working to make children who are at high risk of reading failure active and excited learners. And it’s finding success: In 2015, 80 percent of Reading Team children passed the New York State English Language Arts exam.
How are they doing it? By making literacy relevant to every activity. Watch the video above to see how the organization uses computer coding, chess, and more to support the children’s success in school and in life.

For Kids That Struggle with Reading, Digital Literacy Programs Show Promise

Can an electronic device actually improve literacy skills?
Schools with high percentages of low-income students are seeing promising gains in reading ability and enthusiasm since they’ve introduced tablet reading programs in about 30 schools in Brevard County, Fla.
Mackenzie Ryan of Florida Today writes about Christopher Jamian-Fleck, a student at Emma Jewel Charter Academy, who earned his own tablet computer last year and became an ebookworm with the help of a reading program called MyON.
While home sick, Jamian-Fleck began exploring the program’s library of 20,000 books and learned to read with the help of a program that highlights each word as it is read. (Other features that can assist kids with dyslexia or those that simply need extra help include the ability to increase font size or listen to the book read aloud.) The eight-year-old zoomed ahead from struggling with literacy to reading above grade level.
His grandmother Marcy Fleck says, “He wasn’t a reader before this, and now he’s enjoying it so much. He finds out things he never knew he was interested in. And he can go at his own pace.”
In fact, Christopher wouldn’t be able to check out books from his school without the tablet program because it doesn’t have a library. The charter school couldn’t afford to build one, so it used funding from the United Way to pay for MyON and Kindle e-readers for kids. Many of the families in the school don’t have Internet access or computers, so the e-readers make it possible for them to read e-books.
The program appears to be working even at schools with well-stocked libraries; Ryan writes that one principal noticed check outs of old-fashioned books at the school library increased once the digital program sparked the kids’ interest in reading.
Teresa Wright, who directs Brevard’s Early Childhood and Title I programs is working to secure funding to allow more low-income schools to get the program and the tablets it requires. “We’re hoping that students will have access before the holidays,” she says. “Reading is like a sport, the more you practice the better you get.”
MORE: Can Texting Help Improve Childhood Literacy?

This Little Girl Loves Books. Like Really, Really Loves Books

Once in a blue moon, an extraordinary person comes along to remind us of the importance of books. Today, this honor belongs to a third-grader from Cleveland, who passionately shared her love of literature to local station WKYC Channel 3.
Eight-year-old Madison Reid was promoting the city’s newest Little Free Library, which is a box full of books where anyone can check out a book in exchange for another. With a flair for the dramatic (and a cheeky wink to someone off camera), Madison declares, “The world needs books! What would the world be like without books? They fuel our mind like cars and gas! The cars can’t go without gas, our brains can’t go without books. The world needs books. We need books.”
To Madison, a world without books is like a bucket without water, a brain without knowledge, or a file cabinet without papers. She adds, “It would break my heart if one book was lost, just a page, just a word, just a letter, was gone. I would be heartbroken! What would the world do without books?!”
FieryAntidote, a commenter on Jezebel, points out that Madison is not only pretty, cute, and smart, she’s clearly getting a whole lot of intellectual stimulation at home. “Let’s hear it for parents who read with their kids and give them access to a library.”
WATCH: Watch Neil deGrasse Tyson Give a First Grader Terrific Advice About Saving the Earth
Another commenter adds, “Madison is one of my former students! This makes my heart so happy to see this. I see lots of comments about how her parents must be doing the right thing; her Mom is a single parent, so it’s a feminist AND urban education win!” According to WKYC, Madison’s mom, Tracy, is a steward for one of the area’s five Little Free Libraries.
To no one’s surprise, Madison’s passionate speech has gone viral and gave some welcomed publicity to the Little Free Library movement (there are reportedly 10,000 Little Free Libraries all over the world). Co-founder Todd Bol laughs to WKYC, “She’s a way better spokesperson than I am.”
Clearly, the world needs more book lovers like Madison.
DON’T MISS: This is Why Libraries Matter: Ferguson

For Kids Afraid of Broccoli, This Center Helps Squash Their Fear

You’ve heard about the importance of literacy for reading, for finances (“financial literacy”), and maybe even for math — aka, numeracy — but what about food literacy?
The Food Literacy Center, a nonprofit in Sacramento, Calif., is inspiring kids to become knowledgeable about food in the hopes that they’ll develop life long healthy eating habits.
It opened its doors three years ago, offering classes on cooking and all-around vegetable know-how to children and has become so popular that now, dozens of volunteers work alongside its four full-time employees — reaching 2,400 kids at public libraries, after-school programs and other nonprofits. It specializes in reaching low-income kids and those who qualify for free and reduced lunch. These families often can’t afford fresh produce, leaving their kids inexperienced in everything from carrots to kohlrabi.
At the Food Literacy Center, they learn such facts as how to distinguish fruits — including the frequently misidentified bell pepper — and why whole fruits are better for them than juices and jellies.
The founder of the center, Amber Stott, tells the Sacramento Bee, “Because kids’ eating habits haven’t been firmly formed yet, we have a great opportunity to create healthy eaters, to help these kids become food adventurers and build habits that will last a lifetime.”
The effect of fruit and veggie literacy often extends to the kids’ parents. Evonne Fisher, the mother of a seven-year-old participating in the program, says that before her daughter’s food lessons, neither of them were culinary adventurers. “Before Food Literacy, if I was scared of how a certain food looked, I wouldn’t try it,” she says. “But this has really opened me up. I never would have tried a persimmon before, and now? I love them.”
MORE: This Innovative Idea Brings Produce Directly to Low-Income Neighborhoods

Can Texting Help Improve Childhood Literacy?

Parents often have the best intentions to work with their young kids on the alphabet, rhyming words, and other literacy skills. But with the rush to make dinner and get the kids to bed, it can be difficult to carry through on those intentions.
In an effort to provide assistance, Stanford University researchers have developed a program that sends texts providing literacy-development tips to parents of preschoolers, and now, a new study shows that participating in the program improved the kids test scores. At a cost of less than $1 per parent, it’s an affordable intervention that catches parents at moments during the day when they just might find five minutes to squeeze in reading a book with their kids.
The researchers implemented a pilot program, called READY4K!, during the 2013-2014 school year at 31 San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) preschools. These facilities that have long collaborated with Stanford as a sort of learning lab — testing the latest education techniques that the researchers develop. Of the 440 families with four-year-olds that participated in the program, half were sent literacy activity and fact texts three times a week such as, “By saying beginning word sounds, like ‘ttt’ in taco & tomato, you’re preparing your child 4 K,” or “Let your child hold the book. Ask what it is about. Follow the words with your finger as you read,” according to Motoko Rich of the New York Times. The other half received texts with school announcements and other placebo messages.
The results? Parents who received the literacy prompts spent more time engaged in reading-related activities with their kids than those in the control group did. Plus, their kids achieved higher scores on literacy tests than did kids in the control group, and that group of parents engaged with teachers more, too.
Susanna Loeb, the director of Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, tells May Wong of, “The barrier to some of these positive parenting practices isn’t knowledge or desire, but it’s the crazy, busy lives. It’s difficult to have the time or focus to make all these choices as parents, and we’re helping parents do what they know they should do and what they want to do.” She also notes, “We know that changing parental behaviors has proven to be very difficult, so to get these positive effects from our texting program was very exciting.”
What might be even more exciting is the fact that this technique works for low-income and minority families, whose children often enter kindergarten with a significant vocabulary gap compared to higher-income peers.
“Parents really are the first teacher that a student has and are the most important teacher at that [early] age,” Loeb tells Wong. “They don’t have to do it the way teachers do it; they just have to work things in with their daily life.”
MORE: A Training Program That Improves Preschoolers’ Attention Spans

How A Bike and Some Books Are Helping the Homeless

Back in 2011, Portland, Oregon’s Laura Moulton won a grant to fund a book bicycle that would serve as a mobile lending library to the city’s homeless population. From it, Street Books, a tricycle carting a chest full of books to lend, was born.
Unfortunately, the grant money only lasted for three months, but Moulton knew she couldn’t quit.
“At the end of that first summer I arrived late for one of the last shifts and Keith, a regular patron, was waiting for me with his book,” she tells Rebecca Koffman of The Oregonian. “I realized this wasn’t a service that could be suspended because an art project had come to an end.”
So Moulton founded a nonprofit to keep Street Books pedaling — purchasing books and funding three librarians who cover three-hour shifts, three days a week at locations accessible to many homeless people.
Street Books doesn’t fuss if a book isn’t returned (though most are). “We decided to operate the library on the assumption that people living outside have more pressing concerns than returning a library book, and that every time a return came in, it would be cause for celebration,” Moulton writes on the nonprofit’s website.
Moulton says that the book bike attracts all kinds of people, and that it’s often the catalyst for someone to start a conversation with a homeless person instead of avoiding eye contact. When people approach to find out about what Street Books is, “one of our patrons will be there,” she says, “ready to set down his or her backpack and talk about books. It’s an opportunity for people to step out of their prescribed roles.”
Diana Rempe, one of the librarians, tells Koffman, “There are so many really obvious assumed differences, assumptions that because you don’t have a roof over your head and some basic needs are not met, doesn’t mean that you aren’t interested in ideas, the life of the mind, the joy of reading. That’s right up there with nourishment of other sorts.”
One of Street Books’ regular customers is Ben Hodgson, a formerly homeless veteran who now lives in Section 8 housing. While he was on the streets, the literature Street Books provided brought him comfort, and now he works on Fridays as the inventory specialist, helping the librarians sort books. “Street Books didn’t get me the heck off the streets; no-one can do that for you,” Hodgson says. “But it was, what do they call them? Street Books was one of those tender mercies.”
MORE: The Bicycle Is Not Just For Exercise Anymore

Why Every American Should Read Harry Potter

Can reading a fantasy story about a British kid with glasses who befriends half-giants, house elves, goblins and mudbloods (aka wizards whose parents have no powers themselves) lead to greater kindness toward minority groups facing discrimination?
Turns out, it can.
New research suggests that reading J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” books correlates with less prejudice among young people toward minority groups, including immigrants and homosexuals, and a greater ability to understand their perspectives.
The research comprised three separate studies. In the first, a team led by Loris Vezzali of the University of Modena gathered 34 Italian fifth graders and assessed them on their attitudes toward immigrants through a questionnaire. For six weeks, they met in groups of five or six with a researcher to discuss passages from “Harry Potter.”
Some groups read passages pertaining to prejudice, while others read sections about a different topic. After that, researchers interviewed the kids about the extent of their Pottermania (to determine how many of the books they’d read and movies they’d seen) and asked whether or not they identified with Harry and wanted to be like him. Kids who identified with Harry and read passages pertaining to prejudice showed “improved attitudes toward immigrants,” the researchers write.
Another study found that high school students who identified with Harry (as opposed to the villian Voldemort) were less likely to show prejudice against gay people. And a third study focusing on college students in England discovered that those who did not relate to Voldemort were more likely to have accepting attitudes toward immigrants.
So in the melting pot that is America, it’s easy to use these findings to make our country a little bit better. After all, these studies demonstrate that we don’t need magic to reduce prejudice and racism and increase empathy. Instead, all that’s required is a library card (and a magical wizard to read about).
MORE: Can Reading A Book Make You A Better Person?