Interview with Pam Allyn, the CEO and Founder of LitWorld, a for-purpose literacy organization fostering resilience, hope and joy through the power of story. Pam is a storyteller, teacher, author and speaker who brings the power of literacy to thousands of children around the world.
Humankind’s greatest innovation is the power of story. Stories are mobile, portable and democratic and have the power to transform, uplift and delight. When all girls have the opportunity to learn to read and write and to share their stories, they become active creators of their own lives and mobilized to create monumental change in our world. Pam Allyn
What is one of the most important things in the world that needs to be fixed?
Worldwide 793 million people cannot read or write. Two thirds are women. The statistics are particularly devastating for children, 57 million primary school aged children are not in school, and 31 million of them are girls (UNESCO).
Why invest in girls’ literacy? As stated so eloquently by Gordon Brown, literacy is the goal of goals, a foundational human right from which all other freedoms can be attained. And the extraordinary truth is that the benefits of educating girls reach beyond self-empowerment and reap better health and economic outcomes for family, community and society as a whole.
Every day, 39,000 girls under 18 are married (UN Women), but girls who receive seven years of schooling marry four years later and have 2.2 fewer children (UNESCO). A literate woman will understand the importance of educating and vaccinating her children, and will know how communicable diseases can be prevented. This is why children born to a mother who can read are 50% more likely to survive past the age of 5, and twice as likely to receive an education themselves (UNESCO).
What will it look like when it’s fixed?
Eradicating illiteracy and gender inequities in education will give us a chance, together, to fill a gap in the world, helping girls get to the negotiating tables, to the boardrooms, to the financial industry, to their communities. Research shows that for every 1% increase in female secondary school enrollment, a country’s GDP rises by 0.3% (World Bank). It is also proven that having even one woman in a country negotiation around conflict makes it far more likely the conflict will be resolved. Giving girls the power of reading, writing and a safe place to share their own stories enables them to envision and plan for a future of their own creation, both by seeing girls achieving in the literature they read and writing and sharing the stories of their own lives. By investing in the power of female storytelling, we are investing in a safer and more peaceful future for us all.
What are you doing to help fix it?
I launched my organization LitWorld in 2007 to serve the world’s most isolated, at-risk communities by sharing the powerful tool of literacy as a lifelong and personalized tool for economic, emotional and academic empowerment.
LitWorld’s signature program, the LitClub, was created to support girls, the most marginalized members of the most marginalized communities in the world, and for whom literacy is a life raft to hope, resilience, joy and independence. I focus the Clubs on girls ages 10-15, the most vulnerable age in vulnerable communities because of the combined risks of age, gender and poverty. Literacy is the one tool we can share that they will have forever, and that is mobile, nimble and flexible enough to strengthen girls no matter what their dreams or circumstances.
LitClubs bring girls together in strongly supportive learning environments to foster a lifelong love of reading and writing. Through these programs, girls foster a strong sense of self, a positive future outlook, academic achievement and civic engagement. Girls and their female LitClub Leaders meet in small groups in safe environments where they can cultivate strong community bonds and lifelong friendships. It is here where the power of the girls’ own stories combined with their life experiences become a catalyst for growth and learning. LitWorld’s unique approach of narrative framing both builds literacy skills and also nurtures the skills and resilience that girls need to face the challenges of their everyday lives.
In addition to LitClubs, I have created Innovation Hubs– welcoming spaces that serve the entire community by providing access to books and technology through 21st century lending libraries, internship and leadership opportunities for the LitClub girls, and intergenerational programs (such as Moms LitClubs) that offer all demographics the space and time to explore their identities as readers and writers. In addition to nurturing existing LitClubs, the hubs are places we incubate new programs to support girls as they transition from primary to secondary school and beyond. It is here in the hubs that we are fostering girls in our clubs to be future leaders of their own clubs, thereby creating a world of “litcorps” members: everyone giving everyone the power of story, the power of words.
LitWorld’s programs serve girls in 12 countries around the world, including Haiti, the Philippines, Nepal, Kenya, Ghana, Liberia, Peru, Rwanda, and the United States, where the work is centered in Harlem, New York and Detroit, Michigan. LitClub participants are graduating from middle school at the top of their classes, becoming academic leaders in their local communities and are now moving on to secondary school and college, often as the first members of their families to do so.
I campaign for social emotional learning, the power of personal storytelling, access to literary stories, and safe environments for self-expression. At the heart of literacy is this: that stories and words are a mirror and a window. The girls in our Clubs read and write to find out who they are, to see that stories can inspire them, make them feel less alone. They can read and write to look out at the world, to imagine it as one of possibility for themselves and for their families. Through these programs, the world becomes a hopeful place.
What can others do to help fix it?
I want everyone to get involved in building the “safety net” for girls worldwide. Individuals hold tremendous power, and if we all stand up together for the human right of literacy the potential for rapid change is amplified exponentially. Here are simple actions that you can take to spread a literacy culture:
Be a reading role model in your community. Carry books with you wherever you go, and read aloud every day to your children, or with someone you know who would appreciate a spoken story. Your acts of reading kindness makes the practice and habit of reading visible to children and to your community and also builds empathy, teaching children (and adults) to see the world from another’s perspective and to stand up for injustice wherever it occurs.
Organize reading celebrations in your community, or in a community that has limited access to books and technology. Make it joyful and full of books in both print and digital form. They key to a successful event is to involve children and youth in the planning process from the earliest stages to ensure that the celebration reflects what they value as readers and writers, and what they want to learn, and to make sure all demographics feel safe and welcome at the celebration.
Focus on the child’s own story. Take the time to regularly listen and record a child’s own stories and experiences. Having an engaged, caring individual truly hearing what they have to say sends a powerful message to a child: Your story matters, and your words can change the world. From the earliest age a child must understand that they already possess the greatest tool for shaping and creating their own future, and must practice harnessing their own narrative.
Advocate for literacy as a human right. To spread the larger messages of my work, I created two annual advocacy days: World Read Aloud Day, held annually on the first Wednesday of March, and Stand Up for Girls, on October 11, the International Day of the Girl. These two campaigns call upon girls, boys, women and men around the world to use their own voices and stories to advocate for every person’s human right to a quality education. This year over one million people from more than 65 countries participated in community-led reading rallies to celebrate World Read Aloud Day. Thousands more participated in Stand Up for Girls, led by the LitClub girls themselves. Register for these movements at litworld.org.