After a stint in the U.S., molecular biologist Rana Dajani returned to Jordan and noticed children didn’t read for pleasure. “It’s not a habit,” she says. The literacy rate is high — everybody knows how to read and write — but nobody was opening a book for the simple joy of it. And that’s problem, says Dajani, who studied the science behind it and found a surprising connection between reading and happiness. When a parent or a caregiver reads aloud to a child, the neurons in the brain start figuring out “hey this reading stuff is very soothing.” As a result, people read books when they are happy or sad or stressed because it floods them with good feelings. Her social enterprise, We Love Reading, teaches volunteers to read aloud to children, encouraging the habit at a young age. Reading is also associated with better vocabulary and empathy, which decreases violent behavior.
SUE: Welcome to The Story Exchange. You’re listening to our series Good on the Ground...
VARIOUS VOICES: ...Good on the Ground...
COLLEEN: You’re listening to Good on the Ground from The Story Exchange, featuring women entrepreneurs making an impact in a world that needs fixing.
RANA: We train her, we give her the skills and the tools and examples, and then it’s up to her to figure it out. So she becomes a social entrepreneur. Am I going too fast? Am I giving too much detail?
SUE (from tape): No, no, no.
COLLEEN: And that is Rana Dajani. We asked her to slow down a little.
RANA: I'm the founder and director of We Love Reading, a nonprofit organization based in Jordan.
SUE (from tape): See? That was perfect.
COLLEEN: And I’m Colleen DeBaise and you’re Sue Williams.
SUE: I am indeed.
COLLEEN: You know, I have a hard time keeping up with Rana, but not because she talks fast --
SUE: -- in two languages, English and Arabic --
COLLEEN: -- but because she is one of these people who can accomplish so much more than the rest of us.
SUE: I know, she’s amazing. She’s a molecular biologist and university professor in Amman, Jordan...
RANA: Oh yeah, I'm a full-fledged scientist, that's still running.
COLLEEN: And she is also an entrepreneur running an incredibly unique and growing social enterprise...
SOT: (Volunteers and children reading in Arabic)
SUE: ...which is all about helping kids read books for the joy of it -- not because they have to. Her organization --
COLLEEN: -- We Love Reading --
SUE: -- trains adult volunteers --
RANA: -- on how to read aloud in the native tongue on a regular basis within their local community.
SOT: (Volunteers and children reading in Arabic)
SUE: We headed to Boston to talk to Rana...
COLLEEN: ...while she was a visiting fellow at Radcliffe College...
SUE: ...about why she started We Love Reading...
COLLEEN: ...the surprisingly scientific connection between reading and happiness...
SUE: ...and the butterfly effect of something remarkably simple taking off and having huge consequences.
COLLEEN: Stick around!
RANA: So there's a lot of good things coming from reading for pleasure. That was very clear to me.
COLLEEN: So, our story begins a few years back...
RANA: I did my master's in molecular biology in Jordan. I wanted to be a scientist, right, but there were no Ph.D programs in Jordan.
COLLEEN: In the year 2000, Rana Dajani is pregnant with her fourth child, when her husband, Mohammad, encourages her to apply for a Fulbright scholarship.
SUE: And she wins it.
RANA: I went to University of Iowa. I didn't choose it, it just happened. They sent me to University of Iowa, which is a great school for my field.
COLLEEN: She brings the whole family there, spends five years in the heartland...
RANA: Iowa City has the best education system for children, primary school, all over the U.S. It is the safest place you can be. My kids would come home, I'd stay in the lab until five, they'd come home at three after school, open the door, play outside. It was heaven.
COLLEEN: It’s not everyday you hear Iowa City described as heaven, but to each his own. Anyhow -- Rana gets her Ph.D., and returns home to Jordan in 2005.
SUE: And that’s when she realizes something.
RANA: When you change scenarios, you've been away from a country and you go back, especially for a long time period, you notice things you hadn't noticed before.
COLLEEN: This is really remarkable.
RANA: I noticed when we got back in 2005, looking around me, that children don't read for pleasure. Meaning, you don't see them grabbing books and staying up at night.
SUE: And it’s not just children.
RANA: It's also adults, adults don't read for pleasure. Meaning, they're not on the bus or waiting in the doctor's office, or on the train, reading a book. It's not a habit.
SUE (from tape): Why do you think that is?
RANA: This habit doesn't exist not because they don't know how to read. No, everybody's literate. Actually, Jordan has a literacy of 99%, so everybody knows how to read and write, that's not the reason. There are so many people who have lots of books in their houses, and they’re very affluent, but they don’t read for pleasure. Because nobody read aloud to them when they were young.
COLLEEN: We’ve been sharing the story of Rana Dajani, founder of We Love Reading.
SUE: I want to pick up on something Rana just said. Jordan has an extremely high literacy rate.
SUE: We’ve profiled social entrepreneurs trying to address literacy issues.
COLLEEN: We have, like Stacy Ratner, who runs Open Books in Chicago.
SUE: In Chicago, it’s really shocking -- about 30% of adults need basic literacy training. Here’s Stacy.
STACY: And when we say "basic" we are talking about beginning at the level of difficulty reading the label on a can of food, difficulty filling out a job application, difficulty deciphering a bus schedule.
COLLEEN: Stacy runs a used book store and hosts literacy programs for kids -- you can learn more about her on our site, www.thestoryexchange.org.
SUE: But in Jordan, reading and writing isn’t the problem.
COLLEEN: No, that’s not the problem Rana is trying to fix.
SUE: As a scientist, Rana was concerned about what happens when kids don’t read for the simple joy of it.
RANA: Why should we be worried about reading for pleasure? So that was the first question I set out to explore.
SUE: She started to research the benefits of just picking up a book.
RANA: I found out that reading for pleasure is very important for the following reasons. One, it increases your imagination, right, broadens it, because you're reading about other stories, other places. You learn to empathize because you're learning about other cultures and other people.
SUE: Not surprisingly, reading increases your vocabulary.
COLLEEN: Which has a profound impact as a child matures.
RANA: You become better at expressing yourself because you have words to describe your feelings, your emotions, your ideas, your thoughts. And if you have words to describe those, you become less violent.
SUE: Keep in mind, Rana’s based in the Middle East, where violence can be top of mind.
COLLEEN: Though as we unfortunately know, violence is an issue in all countries.
RANA: People are violent because they have something inside them they want to share with the world and they don't know how to. So now having words, you can share it in a much more effective way through writing or speech. So there's a lot of good things coming from reading for pleasure. That was very clear to me. The question that comes after that is, how do you plant that love of reading, right? How do you foster that love of reading?
COLLEEN: We’ll tell you what Rana came up with, after this brief break.
SUE: The Story Exchange is a nonprofit media company that provides inspiration and information for women entrepreneurs. Check out our videos -- including a profile of the entrepreneur you’re listening to right now -- at www.thestoryexchange.org. And we’d love to hear from you, especially if you know someone who should be featured on this podcast: Drop us a line at [email protected] -- or find us on Facebook.
RANA: Again, I went back and I did research -- whether it's reading the literature or asking people, the children and the adults, why don't they love to read?
COLLEEN: So, I think anyone who has children might appreciate this interesting discovery that Rana made.
SUE: Especially if you’ve read “Where the Wild Things Are” over and over again -- I must have read that book about 30,000 times!
RANA: I found out that the most important way to make a child love to read is by reading aloud, by a parent, or a caregiver, or somebody close, as early as when the mother's pregnant.
COLLEEN: That’s because the neurons in the brain start figuring out, “Hey, this reading stuff is very soothing.”
RANA: There's a connection between the feeling of security and happiness, and reading, that is reinforced by these neural connections. So when you grow up, when you're happy, you want to read, when you're sad, you want to read, because it gives you this good feeling. It's coming from that place in your brain that was solidified when you were young. So, that's the key, it's reading aloud.
COLLEEN: So now that Rana the scientist had it all figured out...
SUE: ...she asked herself one more important question.
RANA: We discovered that the way to plant the love of reading is by reading aloud. I found the key. What do I do? I felt this feeling of responsibility, I felt all the futures of these children was on my shoulders, because I had the solution, I had to do something.
COLLEEN: She briefly considered knocking on people’s doors.
RANA: That's not practical, it's not going to happen.
SUE: She really felt -- like many social entrepreneurs -- that she needed to do her part to fix this problem.
RANA: I brainstormed with my husband and my children, “What do we do, guys? How do we make this happen?”
COLLEEN: She decided to take the first step by reading aloud to children in her neighborhood.
RANA: We needed a public space that wouldn't be in a house. In Jordan, in every neighborhood, there's a mosque. We said, "Why don't we use it? It's got a carpet, it's clean, it's empty half the time, it's welcome to everybody, and it's in every neighborhood."
SUE: In February 2006, Rana held her first reading in her local mosque.
SUE (from tape): Do you have a picture of the first one?
RANA: Yeah, I do. I could send that to you, me reading with my hat.
SUE (from tape): Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
RANA: I have all that kind of stuff, I’m a scientist, so I documented everything. (Laughter)
COLLEEN: I love the photos we have of her reading to the kids -- now, Rana typically wears a hijab, a veil or headscarf covering her hair -- on top of that, she’s wearing a large, floppy red hat.
SUE: There’s polka dots on it as well.
COLLEEN: The kids definitely approved.
RANA: They fell in love. They fell in love with reading because it was the funny hat, it was the reading aloud in an animated way.
SOT: (Volunteers and children reading in Arabic)
COLLEEN: For three years, she continued to read to the children every other Saturday morning
at the mosque.
SUE: Colorful children’s books -- nothing religious or ideological.
RANA: Most importantly, they start begging their parents to read to them, and they read to their siblings and to their friends.
COLLEEN: It was an incredibly simple and inexpensive operation.
SUE: Rana bought the first 25 books, and then the community began chipping in funds to buy more.
COLLEEN: The results were impressive.
RANA: The parents told us how their children were doing better in school, they had more confidence, they were off the streets, they were asking for books instead of toys...
COLLEEN: Rana kept finessing the model, because she wanted to create something that could be replicated at other mosques throughout Jordan.
RANA: As I was tinkering with it, I would tell people, "Why don't you start in your own neighborhood?" The response I got was either people don't know how to read aloud, because nobody read aloud to them, so they don't know how to do it.
COLLEEN: As an academic, Rana was used to applying for grants...
SUE: So she decided to raise grant money to start training programs for We Love Reading volunteers.
RANA: In 2008, my friend told me, "Rana, there is this organization called Synergos that has started a program called Social Arab Innovators, why don't you apply?" I actually wrote my story that I just shared with you, and I won the award. The award was two things. It was financial, I got $34,000, and it was credibility. Now, when I went and knocked on people's doors, they listened to me.
SOT: My favorite book’s got lots of action. They defeat evil people and other stuff.
COLLEEN: Today, thanks to Rana’s efforts, We Love Reading has trained 4,000 volunteers to read aloud and has worked with an estimated 100,000 children in 36 countries around the world.
SUE: Not bad, especially considering she hasn’t quit her day job.
COLLEEN: That’s right, she’s still a molecular biologist. But Rana has received much recognition for her work with We Love Reading.
SOT: We thank you (applause).
COLLEEN: She’s won awards from the United Nations, the World Literacy Foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative...
SUE: Rana used that initial $34,000 grant to train volunteers to start their own reading groups.
RANA: These volunteers that are reading aloud, we call them the We Love Reading ambassadors. They have become, in their own right, leaders in their community. Especially the women.
COLLEEN: Rana used the funds to develop materials and an online training course.
RANA: The way it has spread is many ways, but one of them, every person we train, we tell them, "You have to pay it forward. So you have to train someone else and you tell that someone else, you have to train someone else." And so it becomes like a domino effect.
SUE: And of course, money begets money.
RANA: If I would draw a graph, I would show that We Love Reading funding started going up with these small grants, and actually, those grants really helped in formulating and putting a framework of our objectives.
COLLEEN: In what might be considered a dream to anyone who has tried to raise money before, either for a startup or a nonprofit or even a project...
RANA: In the last three years, we were approached by UNICEF saying, "Rana, here's $1 million, do whatever you want."
SUE: $1 million -- nice. And after that...
RANA: USAID offered the Jordanian government a huge grant of $48 million.
COLLEEN: To win some of that grant money, We Love Reading partnered with a bigger nonprofit, RTI International.
RANA: So, we played hard (laughter). We went with the best. And they tell us they won because of us! That got us another like $2 million over five years to do our work.
COLLEEN: Almost overnight...
SUE: ...We Love Reading went from 2 or 3 employees, to an organization with 30.
RANA: We have been called a social movement because We Love Reading is spreading from person to person through word of mouth. It piggybacks on a network of human beings who all believe in the same thing. And because the model is so simple, it's flexible. You can culturally adapt it, and it doesn't need a highly educated person. All you need to do is read a children's book, so it can be implemented anywhere.
SOT: (Volunteer and children reading in Arabic)
COLLEEN: That is the sound of a We Love Reading volunteer who is reading to kids inside the Zaatari refugee camp.
SUE: It’s a giant camp in Jordan that’s home to tens of thousands of Syrians -- half of them are children.
RANA: Refugees in camps are waiting listlessly, not knowing where they're going, what is the future holding for them?
COLLEEN: Volunteers in the camps -- mostly mothers -- can follow We Love Reading’s simple model to read to their kids.
RANA: Suddenly, We Love Reading becomes a very tangible target that they can actually use, and implement, and feel useful, and that they're planning for the future because they're investing in their children.
COLLEEN: In the long term, Rana hopes to figure out a self-sustaining model for We Love Reading that doesn’t rely on grants.
SUE: In recent years, they’ve written 32 books, which they sell to generate revenue.
COLLEEN: Rana also plans to license the program around the world to much larger nonprofits that are heavily funded -- such as Save the Children, which is a $2.1 billion charity.
RANA: One of those challenges was, how do I scale We Love Reading around the world? Not just through word of mouth?
COLLEEN: She is not overly concerned about the future, though.
SUE: Rana believes when you’re focused on what’s right to do, things fall into place.
RANA: Real change takes time, so we're very patient. We know that it's not going to happen overnight, but it's all about planning, and thinking forward, and having a vision that you believe in, that hopefully we will achieve. So I think that we can change the world through reading aloud, as simple as that (laughter).
COLLEEN: We thank Rana Dajani for sharing her story.
SUE: And we thank you for listening.
RANA: Maybe I want to add one thing, if you don't mind.
SUE (from tape): Okay.
RANA: And you can see if you want to add it or not.
SUE (from tape): Yeah, yeah, yeah.
RANA: But what I want to say that I’ve discovered through this journey is, every one of us can identify challenges in their communities, and they can start thinking about solutions. And it all starts with, you have to believe in what you're doing, and don't think that you have to change the world. You have to think, what can I do now? From there, everything just flows. Yeah, so I just wanted to share that. Sorry, you were going to say something.
SUE (from tape): You're fantastic. Thank you, thank you.
COLLEEN: This has been The Story Exchange. Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or...maybe you would. If you liked this podcast, please share on social media or post a review on iTunes. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women entrepreneurs. And we’d love to hear from you, especially if you know someone who should be featured on this podcast: Drop us a line at [email protected] -- or find us on Facebook. Sound editing provided by Nusha Balyan. Production coordinator is Christina Kelly. Interview recorded by Sam Shinn. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.