Editor’s Note: This is part of our Good on the Ground series, profiling entrepreneurial women who are addressing social issues in innovative and inspiring ways.
Picture a toddler, snuggled up to a parent or grandparent or teacher, happily reading a book. It’s an iconic image of love and family in America.
But while reading for pleasure is taken for granted here, it’s not as common elsewhere in the world — including Amman, Jordan, where entrepreneur Rana Dajani has created the nonprofit We Love Reading to encourage kids to pick up a book for fun.
To be clear, her 8-year-old, 30-employee organization is not about literacy — Jordan, after all, has a 98 percent literacy rate — but rather the profound (and often overlooked) benefits that come from fostering a love of reading in children. Numerous studies, including a recent one published in the journal Pediatrics, have shown that reading aloud to young children improves behavior and attention.
The Happiness of Reading
Listen to our podcast episode for more of our interview with Rana Dajani.
“You become better at expressing yourself, because you have words to describe your feelings, your emotions, your ideas, your thoughts,” Dajani says. “With all the strife and turmoil going around in the world, I think this is one way of making a difference.”
First Noticing the Issue
A scientist by training, Dajani is bilingual in Arabic and English. She spent a good chunk of her childhood in the 1970s in Iowa, where her father, an allergy specialist, did his internship. She returned to Jordan for high school and college, but headed back to Iowa in 2000 as an adult to complete her Ph.D. in molecular biology. This time, she brought her own family with her — husband Mohammad and their four children — and stayed for 5 years.
When she finally returned to Jordan in 2005, she was struck that children weren’t grabbing books or staying up late to read; nor did parents read to young ones. “When you’ve been away from a country and you go back, especially for a long time, you notice things you hadn’t noticed before,” she said. “I noticed, looking around me, that children don’t read for pleasure.” It’s a habit that simply hasn’t been taught in Jordan and many developing nations, she says.
[Related: How Danielle Gletow is making a difference in foster kids’ lives]
Despite her busy schedule as a university professor, Dajani wanted to do something. “Like Gandhi said, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world,’” she says. “I had to do something — at least I could sleep at night because I tried.” She brainstormed with her family, and came up with a plan to don a silly hat (over her hijab) and read to a group of children at a mosque in her neighborhood.
The concept took off. The kids “fell in love with reading because it was the funny hat, it was the reading aloud in an animated way,” she says. For 3 years, she continued to read to the children every other Saturday morning at the mosque. “Most importantly, they start begging their parents to read to them, and they read to their siblings and to their friends,” she says.
Meanwhile, Dajani kept finessing the model, because she wanted to create something that could be replicated at other mosques throughout Jordan. (She picked mosques because they are readily available public spaces; the books she reads aren’t religious or ideological.) “As I was tinkering with it, I would tell people, ‘Why don’t you start in your own neighborhood?’” she recalls. But people were resistant — chiefly because they didn’t know how, exactly, to read aloud. “Nobody read aloud to them, so they don’t know how to do it,” she says.
As an academic, Dajani was used to applying for grants, and so she decided to raise grant money to start training programs for We Love Reading volunteers. In 2008, she won $36,000 from a nonprofit called Synergos, which had a program called Social Arab Innovators. “The award was two things: It was financial,” she says, “and it was credibility. Suddenly, everyone opened their doors.”
‘Rana, Here Is $1 Million’
Today, thanks to Dajani’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. Some of the work is done in refugee camps, where Syrian, Palestinian and Somalian families “are waiting listlessly, not knowing where they’re going, what is the future holding for them,” Dajani says.
Most volunteers — Dajani refers to them as “ambassadors” — are women, who in many Jordanian communities have not previously held leadership roles. In addition to working with children, the We Love Reading program is about “empowering these women to become leaders in their community, to find themselves, literally,” she says.
[Related: Learn How Stacy Ratner’s nonprofit, Open Books, is improving literacy in Chicago]
And the initial grant that fueled growth has led to much larger investments. In 2014, “UNICEF came to us and said ‘Rana, here is $1 million,’” Dajani says. That’s in large part because We Love Reading occupied a niche. “We were the only program that worked on reading in the Middle East,” she says. After that, USAID — a U.S. agency that administers civilian foreign aid — supplied $2 million through a partnership with another nonprofit, RTI, to improve education in Jordan.
“We suddenly went from two to three employees to an organization with 30 employees,” Dajani says. “We had to catch up to our infrastructure.”
In the long term, however, Dajani hopes to figure out a self-sustaining model for We Love Reading that doesn’t rely on grants. In recent years, the organization has developed some 32 book titles, which it sells to generate revenue. She also plans to license the program around the world to much larger nonprofits that are heavily funded (such as Save the Children, the $2.1 billion non-governmental organization). “This is a new way to scale,” she says.
Dajani is not overly concerned about the future. “When you’re focused on what’s right to do, things fall into place,” she says. “That’s my strategy at least.”
And the right thing to do, she believes, is to focus on We Love Reading’s core mission. “When a child is being read aloud to by his parent, there’s a connection between the feeling of security and happiness, and reading,” she says. “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.”
More from the Good on the Ground series:
Meet the Nonprofit That’s Absolutely Fed Up With Period Stigmas
She Survived Years of Trauma. Now She’s Helping Other Native Women Heal
This Landscape Architect Is Committed to Saving Coastal Communities