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Once Upon a Time, There was an Ashoka Fellow…

New Fellow Rana Dajani is the founder of We Love Reading, an initiative aimed at empowering young people as empathetic leaders by encouraging a love of reading and sparking the development of locally run libraries around the world. Read more in this Q&A with Rana herself!
Rana

In a culture where reading for pleasure is uncommon, newly elected Ashoka Fellow Rana Dajani is altering mindsets by spurring a movement of community-run libraries across the Arab region and organizing reading-aloud sessions to inspire a love of reading among individuals as well as instil an “I Can” mindset among youth.

 

Dajani’s love of reading was first sparked by her father, who would constantly captivate her attention with storytelling in the evening. She quickly became convinced of the transformative power of reading and grew into a storyteller herself, leading learning and reading sessions for her siblings, students, and eventually her own children.

As a teacher and professor, Dajani observed youth struggling to think for and motivate themselves and sought out to bring about change in her community. In launching “We Love Reading: (WLR) under her non-profit organization Taghyeer, Dajani became the first in the Arab World to design a practical, cost-efficient initiative aimed at infusing a love of reading in children and youth.

Through her initiative, she has built a network of WLR ambassadors who are establishing local libraries and organizing reading-aloud sessions in neighborhoods across Jordan, and now around the world. Through two-day training sessions Dajani’s initiative empowers citizens to develop their leadership and entrepreneurial skills, encouraging them to step up and lead change in their local communities. Led from within the community at a low cost, WLR dismantles the conception that reading is a luxury for the well-educated and that founding a library is a complicated process requiring large funds.

While other programs focus on literacy and book provision, Dajani’s WLR program cuts straight to the very root of challenges in youth development and education by creating an appetite and value of reading among youth between the ages of 2 and 18. Dajani’s approach has shown impressive results, improving children’s relationships with their parents and teaching youth to think for themselves, empathize with others, and better articulate their thoughts.

Dajani is among a cohort of two new Fellows to be elected into Ashoka Arab World’s network in December 2019. After her election, Ashoka sat down with Dajani to welcome her to the network and learn a bit more about her:

How did you feel when you first got the news that you are an Ashoka Fellow?

I was excited to join the network of changemakers around the world and elated to share my experiences and learn from theirs. This means I have a huge responsibility and an opportunity to do more with my work.

Tell us about an experience with your target community or a particular beneficiary that stands out to you as reflecting your impact.

I was about to give a “We Love Reading” training in a southern town in Jordan in 2013. One of the women came up to me and asked, “Why don’t you build us a library?” I told her, “Why are you waiting for me to build you a library? Why don’t you initiate such an effort?” The lady took the WLR training, and six months later, she invited me to inaugurate her real library.

After she finished the training, she went to back to her community and chose to start her sessions in a local mosque.  The children began attending the sessions in the mosque every week. The number of children started at 10 and kept increasing, reaching 75 children. There was no more space. A local contractor was so impressed by her work that he offered to build an extra room as an extension to host the reading aloud sessions and make it into a real library. The local neighbors got together and brought paint shelves and nails and books and created a real library. This library is still functioning today, five years after she took the WLR training, and it is now community owned and run.

Why was it important for her to lead this initiative?

 If I had built the library for her, the community would not have engaged and sustained it. Because the community built the library, they are committed and will always take care of it. “We Love Reading” is about changing mindsets through reading and creating changemakers.

What about your work energizes you the most?

Feeling that I am helping others discover their inner potential to become changemakers creates a feeling of humbleness and gratitude in me. I am always learning from the people I work with.

I also feel a deep sense of responsibility stemming from my religion that I should take care of humanity. I believe that what matters is to try. It is the effort that counts, and everything else will come together. Therefore, my belief that I have a solution that can help create a difference in the lives of children pushes me to do more and believe that nothing is impossible and to dream big.

In what ways do you see your initiative growing in the coming years?

I see WLR reaching every child in every neighborhood in the world. It is a crime for a child not to fall in love with reading so that they can discover their inner potential and the outer world around them to become changemakers with an “I Can” mindset.

To me, this has a butterfly effect. When a butterfly flutters it wings, it moves the air a few centimeters, and the result is a hurricane in the Atlantic. Similarly, my efforts started in a small neighborhood in Amman. Now, WLR has grown to become a social movement that has spread to 55 countries and counting.

What is your favorite book?

My favorite book changes all the time. Every time I read a new book, it becomes my favorite. So, for the time being, my favorite is Mornings in Jenine.

What is the first book you read as a child?

The first book I read in Arabic as a child was “"اين كنت؟  and the first English book I read was Oh the Places You’ll Go.

What is your earliest memory of changemaking or leading when you were young?

I am the eldest of eight girls and one boy in my family. Every summer, I used to gather my siblings and create programs and activities to enrich their experiences and opportunities for learning. One summer, the comet Haley was passing by Earth. It only passes close to Earth once every 76 years.

In my mind, I felt I had to make sure all my younger siblings had the chance to see it because they may not be able to see it again. I also believed that this experience could open their minds and imaginations to an entirely different level. I felt it was my responsibility to expose them to this opportunity. So, I made sure to take them all to the roof of our house and stayed up all night with them to watch the comet pass by in the night sky.