Room to Read Site Visit

When we were looking for a partner to support our mission to give back we strongly felt that access to education was the most effective way to systemically create change that would close the gender gap. We were introduced to the organization Room to Read by our friend Narelle Payne. The reason that Room to Read is such an incredibly effective organization - creating systemic change, is because of their mission to work WITH local governments to implement programs to develop literacy skills and a habit of reading among primary school children, and support girls to complete secondary school with the relevant life skills to succeed in school and beyond. In early October, Anne, Dôen’s Senior Director of Production and I travelled to India and were able to visit one of the India Girl’s Education Programs sites that we (hand-in-hand with our customers and factory) support.

Why India? It is essential that secondary school age girls in India receive support around staying in school. Often families when faced with limited resources will opt to keep a male child in school while keeping a girl child home or arranging for her to be married before she would have otherwise finished school. In addition to the support around education, we believe the Room to Read teachings around effective communication and life skills are key to shaping independent and literate women whom will shape the next global generation. As many of our pieces are made in India (embroideries, smocked and quilted pieces, wovens, printed cottons and silks) it is important to us to be able to support long lasting positive change for women and girls directly within that community. We are also extremely inspired that we work with a factory that supports our partnership with Room to Read as well, by taking low margins or sometimes charging below cost on our fundraising pieces, in order to help raise the most money possible.

As Room to Read exercises the highest level of confidentiality to protect students and always prioritizes the work they are doing in the classroom, site visits are infrequent. Room to Read programs exist in the areas that need them most. The day we arrive we drive to the outskirts of Delhi, park and walk through hectic, narrow, and congested side streets. We weave past scooters, donkeys, dogs, and cows. There is a channel of open sewage running parallel to the street and a mountain of trash. We make our way to the classroom, one floor of a shared building. This center is Girls Education Center that offers, in addition to the Life Skills class, after-school academic tutoring. The life skills class we attend is for 11th graders. We take our shoes off and enter one of the 2 classrooms. There are no desks. Twenty two 11th grade girls sit in a circle on a bright, cheerful rug. The strong Delhi sun provides light to the room. The class is lead by a young woman, one of Room to Reads “Social Mobilizers”. The Girls Education Program is structured so that the girls (and sometimes their families) work with a Social Mobilizer, and the Social Mobilizer is supported by psychologists that attend the classes. Our class was attended by 2 psychologists, both also young women. One of the psychologist explains to me that the goal of this program is for the girls to “develop critical thinking, which they can take into all relationships.”

We discuss some of the topics for classes.

Respect - students are asked to think about and write answers for questions “What does respect mean to you?” “When was a time that you felt disrespected, and were you able to effectively communicate how you felt?”. I was told that a past week’s session was about Safe Spaces, students were asked “What is a Safe Space, and what is an Unsafe Space for you? What can be done to change an unsafe space into a safe space?”. As I look around the room, I see handwritten signage on a door to a small room: “SAFE SPACE”. Students are actively writing answers to the questions on post-its that have been handed to each girl. Pencils are shared between 2-3 girls. The only notebooks around are the Room to Read course books that a few girls are holding. Something that becomes very clear to me is that these girls are ENGAGED and they are BOLD. As the discussion begins, most everyone has something to say - hands are flying up and answers are in Hindi with a few English words mixed in. They are much more interested in what is happening in the class than in the 2 visitors from California There is a lot of laughter and it very much becomes a group discussion, at times moderated, but clear that the girls are able to reflect and problem solve as a group. I am told that one girl has been coming to this site for 5 years.

After the discussion, the Social Mobilizer reads the girls a short scenario and asks them to reflect on what has happened: A young woman has a male friend, and they have planned to meet one afternoon. Upon arriving, the young man gives the woman a gift. When she opens the gift, she sees that he has bought her “fairness cream” (skin lightening cream). Her eyes fill with tears and she runs away. The girls are asked what they think of the situation and there are a variety of answers. One girl thinks that it is a very racist gesture, and that the woman in the story is very offended and hurt at the disrespectful judgement made towards her appearance. One girl thinks that it was potentially a mistake, that a man went to a cosmetics store and just choose something or was helped with the selection. The girls also discussed if it would be disrespectful towards the young man if she were to tell him why the gift offended her. Following the exercise and the variety of potential outcomes the teacher discusses the importance of remaining in communication, and that the mark of a healthy relationship is when there is conflict and then further communication about that conflict.

After the session we get a chance to ask each other some questions. We talk about their education and they teach us about the different options that secondary school students in India have for study. The different paths are called “Streams” and students select from Arts, Commerce, or Science. In the room, we have a lot of commerce and science. They ask what we studied before our careers, and what sports women in the US play in school. The girls share with us that they play Badminton. We talk about their futures and dreams, such as medical school. Some of the girls chose to share lessons learned at Room to Read with their families such as budgeting and hygienic food preparation.

When I arrive back at my hotel, our contact at Room to Read India has already sent me and email of a video they have made recently about a young woman, who with support from Room to Read’s Social Mobilizer was able to use effective communication to convince her family to delay her marriage until she was able to finish school and have some independence. It is a very moving and overwhelming feeling to know I was just in a room of women doing the exact same work, for themselves and future girls.

Video via Room to Read

A note on Room to Read:

After leaving an executive role at Microsoft in 2001, John Woods co-founded Room to Read with Dinesh Shrestha and Erin Ganju. Room to Read has the bold goal of reaching 15 million children by 2020 and has earned the support of Oprah, Michelle Obama, the Clinton Global Initiative. They have been the recipient of numerous awards including the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy and the Library of Congress Literacy Award. Since we launched Dôen in 2016, with the support of customer donations and our fundraising products we have raised $57,000 +, which Room to Read effectively uses to send 190 girls each to school for one year.

– MK