A Million Shades of Gray

Cynthia Kadohata,
A Million Shades of Gray
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010.

Ages 9–12

Cynthia Kadohata (Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam) once again writes about the bond between an animal and its owner in the context of the Vietnam War. With A Million Shades of Gray she introduces us to Y’Tin, a thirteen-year-old elephant handler from the Rhade tribe in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, and Lady, the pregnant elephant he swears to protect.

The story takes place in 1975, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The Paris Peace Accord signed to signal the end of the war has been broken and Y’Tin’s village is attacked by the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong. The American Special Forces haven’t kept their promise to provide military support.

Following his father’s orders, Y’Tin flees into the jungle with Lady, where his resourcefulness and bravery are put to the test. Like the “million shades of gray” of the jungle itself, Y’Tin’s life is no longer black and white. Readers follow his thought process as he tries to come to terms with the fact that he may not be able to keep his promise to Lady: indeed, the heart of the book lies in Y’tin’s perception of the chaos around him, as well as his struggle to survive and protect his elephant friend.

The story reveals many moments of heartbreaking reality, such as when one of Y’Tin’s elephant handler friends is killed “for no reason”, or when Y’Tin is forced, after being captured, to dig a mass grave for the dead in his village.  For the most part, however, Kadohata’s poignant narrative rises above the violence and insanity of battle to focus on its emotional and psychological impact on Y’Tin, who is forced to grow up too fast and to deal with the horrors of war guided by little more than his commitment to his elephant.

Y’Tin’s ability to cope with all the hardships he faces, as well as the tough choices he is forced to make, are unthinkable for most of us, who are far removed from the realities of war. A Million Shades of Gray will touch the minds and hearts of mature young readers and older readers alike. A Note at the end of the book talks about the author’s research process and her inspiration for the novel, and as readers absorb the bigger picture, readers will be rooting for Y’Tin and Lady’s survival from beginning to end.


Silence Seeker

Ben Morley, illustrated by Carl Pearce,
The Silence Seeker
Tamarind Books, 2009.

Ages 4–8

British author Ben Morley’s picture book debut, The Silence Seeker, handles the largely unexplored topic of asylum seekers with a feather-light yet sure-handed touch.

Next door to Joe’s house, in an unnamed inner-big-city neighborhood, a new boy and his family move in. Joe, a spectacled, friendly-looking young boy, immediately sees the new boy as a potential friend, and can’t wait to play with him outside.

When Joe’s mom explains that the boy is an asylum seeker, having never heard the expression before, Joe hears “silence seeker”. Knowing his neighborhood, as he does, like the back of his hand, he is convinced that he can help his new neighbor find some silence amidst the chaos of traffic jams, road work, and what not outside their door.

Joe invites the boy, who seems quite a bit older than he is (and we never get to know the boy’s name, where he came from or what brought him there), to follow him. He proceeds to take him to the quiet spots he knows of: the laundry room in the basement of his building; the bridge over the canal; even the dump… but everywhere they go, people are gathered, making noise. Silence is nowhere to be found.

However, even if they don’t realize it themselves, the quiet interaction between the two boys throughout the day seems to be, itself, the safe haven they search for. The picture of them holding hands – a plane flying above overhead – after sharing a jam sandwich, is very touching, and will likely convey to kids that sometimes the smallest gestures of kindness can make a world of difference.

The open ending, which has Joe waking up the next morning to the news that his newfound friend left with his family in the middle of the night, will leave readers of all ages with enough to imagine and interpret on their own.  It also makes for a perfect opportunity for parents to initiate a conversation about the difficult and uncertain situation of refugees and asylum seekers, and what they can do to offer a helping hand.

Interview with Maya Ajmera, founder and president of The Global Fund for Children

Maya Ajmera is the founder and president of The Global Fund for Children (GFC), a philanthropic intermediary that makes small grants to innovative, community-based organizations working with some of the world’s most vulnerable children and youth. To date, GFC has awarded 2,606 grants, totaling over $15.3 million, to 376 grassroots organizations in 73 countries. In addition, GFC has a dynamic media program focused on children’s books, films, and documentary photography. She is also the co-author of many Global Fund for Children books, including the award-winning Children from Australia to Zimbabwe and Faith.

Maya is sought out nationally and internationally to address audiences on local and global philanthropy, global children’s rights, early childhood development, and social entrepreneurship. Her work and life story have been profiled by such media outlets as CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Financial Times, NPR, and many others.

Maya serves on the boards of directors of Echoing Green, the Washington Area Women’s Foundation and New Global Citizens, and is a trustee of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. She also serves on the advisory boards of numerous philanthropic entities, including theAmerican India Foundation, the Global Philanthropy Forum, and the Emerging Markets Foundation.

Can you please tell us a little bit about the effects of growing up spending your summers in India? How did it affect you, and how do you think it helped shape who you are and what you do today?

I was raised in eastern North Carolina in the 1970s as the daughter of Indian immigrants and my summer holidays were spent in India with my extended family. I attempted to navigate between both cultures and saw how children in other parts of the world lived. It really shaped my world view and taught me to become a global citizen from an early age.

When you were little, what did you think you were going to be when you grew up?

I was the typical Asian kid who was supposed to become a doctor or an engineer. I thought I was going to become a doctor, and went on to work in laboratories and study neuroscience in college. I didn’t think there was another possibility until I received a Rotary Fellowship that allowed me to travel extensively in South and Southeast Asia.

And here you are now: working, through GFC, to create positive change in the lives of the world’s poorest children. In interviews, you often talk about your “moment of obligation,” when you realized you had to do something to help others. Could you tell our readers what that moment was and when it happened?

After college, I traveled to South and Southeast Asia on a Rotary Scholarship. In India, I spoke with a wise professor who told me, “If you really want to know people and to understand them, visit their homes and villages.” So I traveled with my backpack for a year.

One hot and dusty day in March, I stepped off a train onto a busy platform. There I saw 50 children sitting in a circle learning how to read and write. They had such an extraordinary determination to learn amidst all the chaos. Their teacher was in the middle, teaching them with flashcards, and I was amazed at what she was doing. I approached her after her lesson and we had a conversation in Hindi. She explained that these children worked, played, begged, and slept on the platform.

When I asked her how much it cost to run such a school, I was stunned by her reply. The cost of running a school for 50 children with 2 teachers for a whole year was approximately $400 USD. It was then that I thought to myself, how do you get small amounts of capital to the most worthy grassroots organizations that are social innovators and are really providing change to the poorest children in their communities? And it was then that I saw how a small amount of money can make an enormous difference if put into the right hands. I wanted to turn foreign aid on its head.

Could you please name and briefly describe a few of the groups the organization has been involved with to date, just to give us a taste of its scope and reach?

In Uganda, Nyaka AIDS Orphans School provided free high-quality education and extracurricular activities to children who have been orphaned due to AIDS. It operated free primary education and social services, basic healthcare for students and their foster families, HIV/AIDS community education, and nutrition and community gardens. Combining education and advocacy, its garden provided vegetable seeds to 400 families and its students built a rain-harvesting water tank for access to clean drinking water.

In Cambodia, Community Sanitation and Recycling Organization addresses the needs of Phnom Penh’s waste pickers through community development models and the Mobile Outreach and Education Program. Using “curbside classrooms” at 18 locations to build awareness about the environment and sanitation at the community level and to provide basic education to child waste pickers, its staff offers a curriculum that educates children about dangerous materials; child abuse protection and reporting; and health and hygiene.

These are only two examples, but we work with dozens of organizations that provide similar education opportunities, including some that provide secret schools for girls in Afghanistan, mobile boat schools for children in Bangladesh, night classes for women and girls in the red light districts of India, and schools in Bolivia that apply Montessori methods to engage working children.

I understand you have a hands-on approach to selecting grantees. Please tell us how you go about it. It must be a tough job, with so many needs to fill and so many deserving projects out there…

Grassroots organizations are incredibly undervalued and undercapitalized. For us, it is tough knowing that there are so many honorable organizations out there, but we have a team of dedicated program officers who seek out the most promising community-based groups that are in their earliest stages of development.

Our program officers are each assigned to a region of the world where they scout for new grantee partners with the potential to affect change on a local level. We don’t sit back in our offices getting proposals. We ask the kids on the street, “If you need help, where do you go?” And they’ll show you. We basically ask the customers what the best services in their communities are, and then follow through with due diligence to award them with grants.

We believe that grassroots organizations are in the unique position of serving their communities best because they know what is most needed and what will work locally, and can often accomplish this on grants of just a few thousand dollars per year.

In addition to its grantmaking program, GFC has also developed a strong and well-respected media program.  What do these media ventures encompass exactly, and how do they relate to the organization’s main work?

I wanted to show people in the United States that we live in a true global village. I wanted to show American kids how kids all around the world live. The images I always remember seeing of children around the developing world were of their suffering, but there is more to these children than just suffering. There is beauty, resilience, and culture.

In light of this, we harness the power of children’s books, films, and photography to promote global understanding. Our children’s books are filled with vibrant photographs that help children explore diversity and tolerance. The books depict positive images of children, which encourage children to take an active role in shaping their destiny and to become productive, caring members of a global society.

We also support films that portray the resilience of young people in order to raise awareness of the issues confronting them, and provide a connection to grassroots organizations that directly address the challenges identified in the films. In partnership with the International Center of Photography, we select promising young documentary photographers, who visit our grantee partners and highlight their powerful work.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the publishing arm of GFC and its partnership with other publishers? I understand the organization’s first grant was made using royalties from Children from Australia to Zimbabwe…

After I had my moment of obligation, I went to the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke. It was there that my mentor, Professor Bill Ascher, said, “What do you really want to do with your life? Do you really want to become a doctor?” I replied that I didn’t. What I really wanted to do was start the Global Fund for Children. I would use my graduate school training in foreign aid, the World Bank, and my experience and travels to put small amounts of capital into the most innovative and worthy grassroots organizations around the world.

In conjunction, I also wanted to publish children’s books. Professor Ascher said I needed to raise money, so I went to the Echoing Green Foundation and they invested in my vision of the children’s book publishing venture. My first book was Children from Australia to Zimbabwe, but when I peddled the idea to publishers, no one wanted to take me on because there was no market and I was an untested author. I decided to self-publish, and to accomplish it, I convinced funders to give me $5,000 a piece. In return, I promised to donate 3 copies to every public school in North Carolina.

We did that, and went on to sell through a local distributor in North Carolina. When all the copies sold out, publishers began to call me and tell me they liked the book and wanted to do others with me. I politely rejected their offers because I wanted to create the Global Fund for Children books imprint, and we found a wonderful publisher called Charlesbridge.

Together Charlesbridge and GFC have developed 24 booksto date; and we recently published Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan with Simon & Schuster.

Our first grant, made from the royalties from Children from Australia to Zimbabwe, was awarded to the train platform school in India that initiated my obligation to create GFC.

Faith, the title you co-authored with Cynthia Pon and Magda Nakassis, is a photo-illustrated book that celebrates the diversity of religious expression around the world. What inspired you to focus on this particular topic?

Religion is the topic of the century. Tolerance builds understanding across cultures, so while most multicultural children’s books accentuate differences, I felt we needed a book that celebrated faith by looking at the similarities children of different faiths share.

Do you recall, by any chance, when and how promoting global understanding and respect for diversity became a goal of yours, in relation to GFC’s work?

There weren’t many kids of Indian decent where I lived as a child. I wasn’t Caucasian and I wasn’t African American, so I had to navigate the road between cultures. My parents were always very open and encouraged me to experience attending houses of worship, sharing Shabbat dinner with my neighbor’s family, or going to Catholic mass. Living in that environment fostered my intrigue with people and really gave me a lens for seeing the world as a place or richness: so when I started GFC, I wanted to convey that richness to others and to children in particular.

In your opinion, what are some of the biggest challenges confronting the world’s children today? How does one stay one step ahead in order to be proactive in preventing issues from worsening to the point of affecting entire societies in the future?

HIV/AIDS is certainly an issue with which we contend. We have grantee partners working around HIV/AIDS prevention and education, and working on the ripple effects it creates in society, such as AIDS orphans and malnutrition. While this is a focus of many international development and relief agencies, GFC has a unique perspective on another challenge — the plight of boys globally.

We’re seeing more boys leaving school, living on the streets, and becoming unemployed, which has implications for global security. There also isn’t enough literature for boys out there. We have a children’s book calledExtraordinary Girls, and one of our hopes is to develop a book called Extraordinary Boys. It will help build up boys’ self-esteem and show how they’re talented and interesting, and how they can provide public service in their own right.

We would be interested in learning how GFC, as a grantmaker, approaches the funding of projects that address the education needs of boys and girls in places such as Afghanistan. Has the organization, to date, favored projects that serve one gender over the other? If so, what motivated it to do so?

In the late 1990s, we were one of the first funders of secret schools for girls in Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban. For security purposes, I would like to allow our partners in Afghanistan to remain anonymous. The day after September 11th, I called the leader of this organization and asked, “What can we do to help you now?” She told me that something must be done for boys being pushed into extreme schools. In response, we started funding schools for boys that taught peace, tolerance, numeracy, and literacy.

As an organization that works on children’s issues, boys and girls are equal to us in the amount of attention they receive. Girls have their own unique issues and needs, as do boys, so it is our responsibility to address both.

What are some of the most challenging and some of the most rewarding aspects of your work?

The most rewarding aspect is realizing that 15 years of work has meant we’ve been able to award nearly $15 million to 362 organizations in 72 countries; that our work has reached more than one million children; and that we have more than 26 children’s books with over 2 million readers globally. We’ve built a lasting institution of change that goes way beyond me.

What is challenging is realizing that there is so much need, and that we need to be able to provide more resources and support to these innovative groups around the world. I would like to give away $10 million per year to 600 NGO’s globally, and I know that there is capital out there for us to be able to do that…

Since the end-of-year celebrations are approaching, do you have any holiday-related memories that relate to the topic of respect for diversity?

Our family followed Jainism, one of the smallest religions in the world. Jainism’s essence is concern for the welfare of every being in the universe, for the health of the universe itself, and for nonviolence. Mahatma Gandhi was among those greatly influenced by the principles of Jainism.

As a child, I was raised to be very open to other people’s holidays and traditions. Even though we weren’t Christian, we had a Christmas tree in our house and Santa paid us a visit. We celebrated the holidays by focusing on family togetherness and counting our blessings.

I believe that keeping an open mind and being exposed to different cultures and traditions is absolutely vital for every child.

Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees

ChildrenOfWarWritten by Deborah Ellis
Groundwood Books, 2009.

Ages: 12+

With Children of War, Deborah Ellis continues her admirable efforts to expose the effects of the Iraq war on children, this time focusing on the plight of Iraqi refugees.

Following the same format as she adopted for Off to War: Voices of Soldiers’ Children, where the children’s narratives were given center stage preceded only by a brief introduction that helps shed light on their individual stories, in Children of War Ellis interviews 24 young refugees, ages 8-19. A four-page general introduction contextualizes the conflict and the role of the U.S. in it for children and young adults, who, like the interviewees themselves, are likely to have very strong opinions about the war after reading all the harrowing accounts of violence witnessed and suffered.

In her brief introduction to seventeen-year-old Eva’s account, the author quotes some astonishing statistics: according to a trauma survey of Iraqi refugees in Syria, conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2008, “77% of the refugees had been affected by air bombardment, shelling or rocket attacks; 80% had witnessed a shooting”… and the list of horrors goes on. Eva herself reveals: “My whole life has been war. My mother was giving birth to me [during the war with Iran] when a missile hit the hospital.”

We learn that while a few of the young people highlighted have managed to flee to Canada or elsewhere, most have gone to neighboring Jordan, where they have been living in refugee camps, in dire conditions. Michael, age 12, says: “We were supposed to go to Australia, but Australia changed its mind and doesn’t want us. So here we sit, waiting.” His words illustrate the unbearable uncertainty and total dependency refugees face, in addition to other hardships such as loss of identity (both literally and symbolically), prejudice and more.

These young refugees’ lives have clearly been shattered, yet their hopes and dreams of returning home or finding a safe place to start anew, remain alive. While many express feelings of anger and confusion about a situation over which they have no control, their resilience seems to prevail.

A must, if devastating, read, this book really helps raise awareness of the vulnerable and heartbreaking situation of refugees, and is likely to inspire social justice-oriented readers to start advocating on their behalf.

Black and white photos of the interviewees and a partial map of the Middle East are included.

Interview with Chris Bradshaw, founder of the African Library Project

Chris Bradshaw founded the African Library Project (ALP) in 2005, with the goal of increasing literacy in Africa. Since then, with the help of literacy activist volunteers and organized book drives, ALP has created over 500 small, free lending libraries in various countries of Africa, such as Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Malawi.

On September 11th, 2010 Harambee!, a special party and fundraising event, will mark the project’s 5th anniversary. Harambee (Swahili for “Let’s pull together to get it done!”) will be both a celebration of the organization’s past success and a fundraiser for establishing and sustaining more libraries in rural Africa and supporting its African partners in their efforts to promote literacy, educate their communities about HIV/AIDS, and change lives book by book. For more details about the event, see the sidebar.

Chris lives in Portola Valley, California.

What motivated you to start the African Library Project?

I spent my Junior Year Abroad studying in Sierra Leone and traveling throughout western and central Africa.  I was deeply touched by the warmth of people and troubled by the potential lost in just trying to survive given the everyday challenges of extreme poverty.  As a 20 year old, I felt overwhelmed by this and did not know what I could do that would have much of an impact.

Fast-forward 30 years to 2004…on a homeschooling field trip to southern Africa with my husband and two children, ages 9 and 13, while pony trekking in the tiny, remote mountain kingdom of Lesotho, I discovered there was just one library in the entire country.  Noodling along on my horse, I couldn’t stop thinking about the US bookshelves overflowing with once-read books and landfills filling up with what would be a precious resource in Lesotho.

How did the first library come about and what was the process of going from one library to more libraries like?

When I got back to the village, I met with the manager of the lodge that had rented us our horses and asked if they had ever considered having a library.  “We have always wanted a library, but did not know how to get books!”  I offered to provide books if the local leadership would provide space and staffing for the library and commit to running it as a village enterprise.  Two months later, I contacted them and they happily reported that the library building was half done! I was committed.  The village decided to give the task of developing the library to a US Peace Corps Volunteer who was scheduled to arrive soon.  I thought this was a great idea.  If you have never seen a library, how would you know what to do?

A little miracle happened next.  When the Peace Corps Volunteer arrived, she was a retired librarian!  Together, along with many generous American book donors, we developed five small libraries throughout Malealea Valley, the first of now 562 African Library Project libraries.

Eventually, I decided to partner with Peace Corps Lesotho to establish libraries throughout the country.  I found it inspiring to work with the smart, capable and passionate Americans who serve in Peace Corps.  They and their villages were ecstatic to get books and many American schools and groups were eager to make a concrete and personal contribution to Africa.

How do you determine which countries (and which towns and communities) will receive book donations?

We’ve grown a lot since our first libraries.  We will work in any stable English-speaking African country where we can find a suitable partner.  Our partners are large African organizations whose mission is library development or education, usually NGOs or government branches, e.g., the Swaziland National Library Service.  Our African partners vet the local library projects, bring our containers in, distribute the books, train teacher-librarians and track results.  We ship 30-60 libraries each year to our partners, year after year, because it is efficient, economical and allows us to have a major impact by building a library movement within a country. 

What is involved in creating rural libraries?

Most African cultures don’t have communal public institutions, as we know them, with the exception of schools.  About 90% of our libraries are in schools and most of these are open to local villagers for checkout of books.  Sometimes, as many as sixteen villages will use a single African Library Project library, as it is the only source of reading material in the area.

To apply, a village or school must provide the space for the library, furniture, staff and a library committee dedicated to establishing and managing the library.  The African Library Project provides a manual on how to set up and run a simple library, the books, and ensures that the staff receive training and ongoing support.

Once the libraries are established, how sustainable are they?

We’ve learned a lot about sustainability since we started!  On my first trip back to visit the libraries, at one site I found our boxes of books had been sitting for six months untouched.  Since then, we’ve changed our systems to provide ownership by the African community from the very beginning of the project throughout.  Training the librarians is vital and providing a tracking system to measure results is helping our country partners find the libraries that need extra support.

Can you tell us a little bit more about ALP’s all-volunteer network?

I love working with ALP volunteers! Our board and administrative volunteers are a passionate and talented group of African literacy warriors who have a solid background in Africa and library development.  What a pleasure it is to work with them.

We have now had volunteers from 30 states and four countries organize book drives to help start a library in Africa.  These schools, youth groups, companies, individuals and families commit to collecting and sorting 1,000 gently used children’s books, raising the approximately $500 in related shipping costs and putting in the elbow grease to pack and mail them.  Children as young as six years old and adults in their eighties have rallied their local communities to help start a library.  Many of these grassroots volunteers report that their book drive really helped pull their local community together around a cause everyone believed in, bringing diverse groups together to work on it.  I love that!  Kids are often the driving force behind our book drives and they report learning all sorts of new leadership skills while organizing their African library project.

Of course our donors love that we are 100% volunteer and that all the books are donated because they know their contribution completely supports our core needs.

Do the book drives and donations focus on books for a particular age group?

Every book drive is partnered with a specific wannabe library in Africa and the book drive organizer collects the types of books requested by their African match.  We are starting and improving preschool, primary and secondary school and community libraries.

Literacy levels are much lower in Africa for two reasons: English is a second language; and without access to books, it is difficult to get really good at reading.  Even teachers top out at about the equivalent of a U.S.  8th grade reading level.  For these reasons, we send preschool-8th grade level books as these are what are requested by our African partners.

Can you tell us about some of the special projects ALP has undertaken in Africa?

In Botswana, there was a huge need for books in primary schools, so we started the “Botswana 100”, an effort to start 100 primary school libraries with the South District of Education.  We got a little carried away though.  We completed libraries in all of the South District and are now covering our third (of twelve) school districts with 199 libraries and counting.  We aim to blanket Botswana’s primary schools with access to books and completely change their educational and development opportunities.  Some wonderful innovations have come from the “Botswana 100”, including a Culture Corner in every library that serves as a little mini-museum to preserve Botswana culture.  One school added an hour to their school day every morning so that the entire school came in just to read!  The district initiated a pilot project for second and third graders to come in for an extra week of school to participate in a reading camp.

For the past two years, we have organized ALP African Partner Summits in Botswana and Lesotho to bring together our international teams and share best practices.  The best ideas have now spread throughout all of our libraries thanks to these conferences.

In Lesotho, where Peace Corps Lesotho is our main partner, the Ministry of Education is gradually increasing their role in library development.  This year we have a pilot project with the Butha Buthe District of Education for 20 schools to begin libraries, assisted by just three Peace Corps Volunteers acting as consultants instead of the usual one-on-one mentoring relationship.

We are working in the countries most affected by AIDS.  Because our libraries are in a unique position to reach young rural Africans, we work hard to raise additional funds to try to provide each library with a fantastic set of HIV/AIDS children’s readers that are set in southern Africa and written for African reading levels.  

Do you keep in touch with the communities you serve? What would you say are the most pressing issues facing them?

Good communication is one of the biggest challenges we face.  Most of our libraries are in remote areas without electricity, running water and sometimes even roads.  In some places, an ALP team visits these libraries to conduct library workshops.  In others, the teacher-librarians travel to a central location to get their training.  We’ve recently implemented a simple tracking system using SMS texting for the libraries to report monthly statistics.

The challenges facing most Africans are daunting: HIV infection rates of up to 30% of the population;  lack of clean, easily available water; inadequate food;  no healthcare and inadequate educational options and resources.  Solutions to all these problems are available, but basic literacy skills and access to information are fundamental to implementing change on a broad scale.

What have been ALP’s biggest challenges and accomplishments so far?

We’ve discovered that getting the books is the easiest part.  American bookshelves overflow with books no longer being read.  Getting the books to Africa efficiently and economically is another story.  Now, we’re shipping 30-60 libraries at a time in containers to African partners that can support large-scale library development of small libraries.

In Africa, there are many challenges.  Developing a reading culture in a continent with a strong oral tradition takes focused effort by teachers.  Many students with illiterate parents cannot get support in learning to read from home.  We must train teachers in basic library management skills as their exposure to libraries is limited to non-existent.  Teachers are not used to having books available so we need to include training on how to best use books in the classroom.  Administrators consider the books a great treasure and sometimes do not want children to use them in case they might damage or lose them.

As for our accomplishments, we’re very proud of the unique model we’ve created that has allowed over 500 book drive organizers from 30 states and four countries to start libraries in Africa. The roughly 25,000 Americans, especially kids, who have contributed to book drives have developed their global consciousness as they learn more about the African continent. During our first five years, we’ve recycled over 600,000 books to provide half a million Africans with quality, carefully selected reading material.  Working with our African partners, we’ve been able to start or improve 562 small libraries in remote areas of eight African countries.  Our African Partners Summits have spread exciting and valuable ideas in rural library development throughout southern Africa while creating professional connections between countries.

On September 11th ALP will be celebrating its 5th anniversary with a fundraising party to celebrate the spirit of  Harambee (a Swahili word that means “Let’s pull together to get it done!”). Looking back on these past five years, how do you see your journey?

Well, it hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve loved it.  We’ve undergone an organic and strategic process of going from one library to hundreds. We’ve had a huge impact, but there is so much more to be done!  I look forward to engaging more and more Americans and Africans “to pull together” (Harambee!) to change lives through what is essentially a simple redistribution of resources.

You have a won a Jefferson Award for public service. Has this recognition helped raise awareness of ALP’s efforts?

Yes.  Because the Jefferson is competitive, winning it lends credibility to those looking at our work, knowing others have taken a close look and found it deserving.  Anything that gives the African Library Project more exposure (like this interview!) has the potential to attract someone who wants to organize a book drive which will turn into a new library.

On a personal note, I find it a little hard to take in.  I love what I am doing and get massive fulfillment from it.  So many people contribute to our success, it seems crazy just to honor me.

What are your hopes for the future of ALP?

I am a pragmatic person who naturally thinks long term. Eventually, I hope to create an international movement that will cover Africa with libraries so that Africans grow up thinking of themselves as readers,  book buyers, writers, book store owners, publishers and book distributors.  I think this will revolutionize Africa and is a concrete contribution ordinary citizens can make to support development without trying to control it.