MIPBlog: Room to Read’s story began in 1998. What would you say its three greatest achievements have been since?
John Wood: The seed for Room to Read was planted in 1998 when I took a much-needed vacation from my rewarding but challenging job at Microsoft to trek in the Himalayas in Nepal. Completely by chance, I met a Nepalese education officer while hiking one day and he invited me to visit a school in a neighbouring village. While at the school, I was introduced to the headmaster, who offered a tour. After visiting the classrooms, he showed me the library, which was just an empty room with a selection of books so scarce and precious they had to be locked away in a cabinet. The books appeared to be backpacker castoffs, completely inaccessible both physically and intellectually to the children they were intended for. There were about 450 students at the school, but no children’s books. That seemed like a lost opportunity to me so I vowed to help the school set up a functioning library. One year later, I returned to the school with 3,000 books on the backs of six rented donkeys.
The response was overwhelming and was a turning point in my life. In 2000, Room to Read was founded and our scope has grown ever since, as we recognised specific needs in the communities we serve. The one thing I’m most proud of is that in just thirteen years, Room to Read has opened over six times more libraries than my hero Andrew Carnegie did in his lifetime; we have established 15,000 libraries, with many more on the horizon.
To date, our work has impacted the lives of over seven million children, we’ve distributed 12 million books worldwide, including the publication of over 850 original children’s book titles in over 25 local languages, and have supported more than 20,000 girls to succeed in secondary school and beyond. Room to Read has scaled beyond our wildest dreams, and we’ve only reached the tip of the iceberg. Our goal is to reach 10 million kids by the year 2015.
> Why did Room to Read agree to get involved in the UN’s Global Education First initiative?
Our mission is very much aligned with the values and goals of Education First – we are all very passionate about and committed to providing education to children on a global scale. Gordon Brown and I discussed his new role soon after he was named United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education, and during that meeting he invited me to partner with him at several key forums where global education would be discussed.
One of the goals of the initiative is to spur a global movement for education to be high quality, relevant and transformative; and those elements are woven into the fabric of Room to Read’s programmes. We started our local language book publishing programme to ensure the books we provide for children will inspire them to read, expand their minds, and develop a lifelong love for reading and learning. They are written in local languages such as Kiswahili and Tamil and are illustrated by local artists in the countries where we work. Room to Read’s primary contribution to the Education First Initiative is to continue to be an impactful implementation partner that is transforming the lives of children through the gift of education.
> What would your key message be to MIPTV-goers (TV and entertainment companies) looking to use their content to help the underprivileged?
The power of the media can result in global movements that empower societies all over the world to unite and call for change. Awareness-raising resources as powerful as broadcast television must champion global education in an accessible and high-profile manner that inspires action. For example, Room to Read was recently one of nine NGO’s featured in 10x10’s film called Girl Rising, now in US cinemas, and soon to be broadcast on CNN in June. In October, we were honoured to be featured in the Half the Sky Movement documentary on PBS, based on the best-selling book by New York Times journalist Nick Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn. Both of these projects use media to shine a light on the complex issues women and girls face around the world in a way that underscores not the daunting challenge but the attainable solution that we can all be a part of.
> What do you hope Room to Read and the Global Education First initiative achieve in the near future?
I want the next generation to live in a world where every child has access to a quality education. The premise that a child is told that he or she was born at the wrong place at the wrong time and therefore did not get educated belongs in the scrap heap of human history. I believe it is Room to Read’s responsibility to put it there. My hope is that the collective voices of all partners of the Education First Initiative and all those that believe in its mission are heard and the world’s attention is turned to this pressing issue until the disparities in education are eradicated.
Find out more about Room to Read’s work here. Full details of the UN Global Education First Initiative launch event at MIPTV here; and have your say in how the TV industry could help global education here, by answering our Quora question!