On September 22, literacy organization NABU partnered with New York City work and social space NeueHouse for a panel called Read to Rise, a discussion focusing on the role of children’s books in reducing global poverty levels and working towards achieving UN Sustainable Development Goals. The panel took place as part of the 77th annual UN General Assembly week.

The panelists were Coretta Scott King Award recipient and children’s author Andrea Pinkney; Ina Progonati, digital equity program and partnerships global lead, social impact at HP; Michael Hagen, senior v-p and general manager, Literacy Pro and Collections at Scholastic; Tanyella Evans, CEO and co-creator of NABU; and Yasmine Sherif, director of UN global fund Education Cannot Wait. The panel was moderated by Sarah Acer, chief social impact officer of the LEDE Company.

The event kicked off with a question about the state of education and literacy across the globe, which caused the panelists to reflect on how their hands-on experiences with communities in need of access to literacy shaped their understanding of how much people were willing to risk for the opportunity for education.

Sherif talked about her work through Education Cannot Wait her time working with refugee populations from Venezuela crossing at the border into Columbia. “Every parent and child you speak to as they cross the border and you ask, “Why are you leaving?” they say, “We want our children to have an education. We want to give them the best education for their life,” Sherif said.

“Reading is about empowering a human being to reach their potential. Without reading you can’t access information,” she continued. “You cannot learn. You can’t travel into imagination; your creativity can’t develop. You are disabling someone without literacy.”

Reading is about empowering a human being to reach their potential. Without reading you can't access information. You cannot learn. You can't travel into imagination; your creativity can't develop. — Yasmine Sherif

Evans, whose NABU organization aims to resolve the global literacy crisis by providing mother-tongue language books sourced from local authors and artists, shared a similar sentiment in her own work with communities in Kenya and beyond. “We see for children and families in poverty and the communities we’re working with that they lack access to books in languages they speak and understand, and so they don’t have access to literacy gains [that will benefit them later in life]. It’s robbed from them,” Evans noted.

Though literacy is a huge problem for many children across the globe, panelists identified the subsection of young girls as a crucial subgroup in dire need of tools to access literacy.

In her research for her book The Red Pencil, which centers on a girl in the midst of the Sudan war who dreams of learning to read and write, Pinkney discovered that “there are 523 million girls on the planet who cannot read or write. That’s a big number. That adds up in my mind to the tragedy of knowledge poverty,” she said. “We, all of us in this room, we are the rescue squad. We have the opportunity to make that change.”

Evans added to Pinkney’s sentiment, noting that young women being able to read has several kinds of benefits outside of education and economic mobility, citing how the ability to read increases the chances of women having smaller, healthier families, and reduces chances of sexual exploitation.

Working Together to End Global Illiteracy

The subject of the conversation then shifted to focus on partnerships, and how nonprofit organizations can work together to attain the tools needed to reach the goal of spreading literacy across the globe.

Progonati succinctly expressed that “it’s about who you work with” when it comes to achieving large scale goals such as accelerating digital acuity for 150 million people by 2030, which is HP’s mission. In 2021, HP partnered with NABU and girls’ education nonprofit Girl Rising to encourage children to work against harmful sexist stereotypes.

“We at HP rely on working on the right partners,” Progonati explained. “The idea behind it is let us find the experts in the industries that actually know what they are doing, and make sure we can give them the right resources.” Both HP and Scholastic have partnered with NABU to help provide books to communities in need of literacy tools. Scholastic’s partnership utilizes authors and creators from within marginalized communities to create books in mother-tongue languages, which were then expanded into collections and made available worldwide for readers of all ages to engage with other cultures.

“We had an obligation at Scholastic to partner with someone like NABU, because the [mother tongue] books didn’t exist.” Hagen said. “They’re doing the work and they need someone like ourselves or HP to step up and make sure kids have access to them.”

The NABU Mission

Closing out the conversation, the panelists shifted their attention to NABU’s mission to resolve illiteracy through mother-tongue books and the involvement of the responsibility of the private sector in resolving the global “literacy crisis.”

Evans explained the three central tenets included in NABU’s goal to resolve global literacy crisis by 2030, the first of which is the “authentic book creation lab,” which highlights artists and creators from around the world to publish approximately 300 books a year in mother-tongue languages, which readers can access through the second aspect, NABU’s low-bandwidth app, available on iOS and Google Play. The final strategy is NABU’s “Bridge to Literacy” program, which hires local ambassadors to connect with locals to help expand NABU’s reach.

On what drives NABU’s mission to provide mother-tongue books and make them accessible, it’s “a love of reading—that’s the secret sauce.” Evans said. “It’s not just about providing children with books. But with books they want to engage with, and books they’ll love.”