Room to Read & Why Universal Literacy and Education Matter

How could you relate and interact with this hyper-textualized world if you couldn't read or write?


Last weekend, I had the opportunity of attending the TEDxBerkeley conference at UC Berkeley.  It was my first TEDx event, and it pretty much lived up to my expectations of what a TEDx event should be: insightful and entertaining, a reminder that humanity isn’t really as doomed as the ubiquity of Snooki-like figures in this world might suggest, and an impetus to get out there and do something, anything, even if you know it’s only going to make a micro difference.  The speakers were all humble and thought-provoking, but one speaker in particular held my attention.  That speaker was Erin Ganju, the co-founder and CEO of Room to Read, a global non-profit that champions universal literacy and promotes education access in developing communities.

I’d heard of Room to Read before, and though I’ve always thought it a noble endeavor, I hadn’t really looked into it much prior to hearing Erin speak.  My interests were primarily in Vietnam, and as far as I knew, Vietnam has a pretty decent literacy rate. (95% for males ages 15-24, and 94% for females ages 15-24 by 2007, according to UNICEF).  I eventually slipped into the mode of believing that it was only a matter of time before Vietnam achieved universal literacy.

Erin Ganju in her earlier days, working in Vietnam. (Photo from roomtoread.org)

But that was simplistic thinking, and Erin’s talk helped awaken me to the reality of things.  As it turns out, one of the main reasons Erin helped co-found Room to Read in the first place was because of her firsthand exposure to education inaccessibility in Vietnam.  While working for Unilever in Vietnam, Erin got involved in the local community, volunteering in classrooms and developing a passion for the overall development of the country.  She then took a leap from the corporate world into the non-profit world, making literacy and education her motivating causes.  For, as the Room to Read Vietnam profile points out,

A history marred by warfare and poverty has prevented Vietnam from developing an effective educational infrastructure. And with 33% of the population under the age of fifteen, Vietnam’s educational system is particularly burdened…Over half of the country’s students do not continue on to secondary school…This means that they stop learning to read and write by the age of ten!

Illiteracy and truncated education are not issues that resolve themselves through time.  Achieving universal literacy and providing basic education access necessitates active engagement—these are goals that we must collectively work towards.  Even if 95 out of 100 males can read and write in Vietnam, that’s still 5 too many who cannot; even if 94 females out of 100 can read and write in Vietnam, that’s still 6 too many who cannot.  I know it’s often said that higher literacy rates mean greater human capital, and that’s incentive in an economic sense, but really, just think about it in an epistemological or humanistic sense.  How could you relate, how could you interact with this hyper-textualized world if you couldn’t read or write?  For someone like me, someone who carries a Kindle in her backpack, someone who has studied literature throughout her four years of undergraduate education, the mere possibility of life without knowledge of text is fundamentally unnerving.  Yet that’s the reality that many people–far too many people–are living.

What Room to Read has done so far and future plans. (graph from roomtoread.org)

To date, Room to Read has helped established 469 libraries in Vietnam, helped publish 39 local language titles, helped construct 121 schools, and helped 1323 young girls (who tend to be the most at-risk population when it comes to truncated education) stay in school.  But I really feel like numbers alone don’t convey the extent to which Room to Read has done good.  As Erin explained in her talk, Room to Read doesn’t just go in and give—it localizes and pushes for sustainability.  It works with and within the community to ensure continued success. So it hasn’t just helped children of developing communities, it’s also helped build a greater sense of entrepreneurialship within developing communities through collaborating with local illustrators, writers, and publishers.

Erin on a trip back to Vietnam. (photo from roomtoread.org)

Even as Erin has gone onto manage the operational side of Room to Read in other countries, her relationship to Vietnam still keeps her going.  Just last year, she returned to Vietnam with her four-year-old daughter Julia to visit the country and see how far Room to Read has gone.

Erin’s talk at TEDxBerkeley was truly, wonderfully inspiring.  Frankly, I’m a little frustrated with myself for not having the words to adequately relay Erin’s passion and ideas to those of you reading this post now.  I can only hope that TED.com will eventually archive her talk online for all to see.  In the meantime, please check out Room to Read if you’re interested in this 21st century struggle for universal literacy and education.

Finally, I’d like to end this post with a quote from Nelson Mandela that was brought up several times during the TEDxBerkeley conference.

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

James might argue otherwise in the case of Vietnam (heh), but I hope you’ll all just let that sink in for a moment.