Founder’s Corner: The Power to Transform Communities

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This summer, as our country marks many of the moments of the civil rights movement of the 60’s, I’ve been re-reading some of Martin Luther King Jr’s later writings when he turned his attention from the South to our northern cities. Not surprisingly, 1967 urban Black America and 2013 rural Mayan Guatemala are worlds apart. But when I came across these words of his, it occurred to me that maybe they weren’t so different after all. He saw “our dying cities,” as a place where youth could engage in “self-transforming and structure-transforming action.”

This is the work of Reading Village in a nutshell.

As our teens are transformed in their development as leaders through learning, action, and reflection, they begin to see the bigger political, economic and social systems that hold their communities in poverty. But they also begin to see that they have the power to change that.

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” – Alice Walker

I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes. There’s a moment when our scholars begin to view the world and themselves in a new way. For the first time they are able to see the system they live in, and more importantly they begin to see themselves as agents of change within that system. At this moment they are no longer victims of something beyond their control, and they take off like rockets and begin to transform the social structures of their community.

At this year’s annual retreat, we brought all 40 scholars together from three different communities. They demonstrated the most profound understanding of their work in writing the manifesto pictured above. This document is a testament to the power of literacy to transform lives and of teenagers to transform communities. Our scholars clearly see their effort to create a love of reading in local children as a mechanism through which to have a much larger impact, exactly as we hoped it might. According to their manifesto, creating this habit improves the children’s vocabulary, comprehension and writing, all the while building the leadership skills and organization of our scholars and the community at large, instigating transformative community action and ultimately community development. 

It is precisely this cycle of which our teens are part. Just five years into our program, our scholars have built brand new, first-ever public libraries in two communities. And, remember, these are 14-17 year-olds! This is the power of linking self-transformation (education) with structure-transformation (community development) and we couldn’t be more thrilled to partner with these powerful teenagers to make it happen!

– Linda Smith, Founder & Executive Director of Reading Village

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