The day began like any other.
A cold morning with fog lifting over the lake. The sound of tin garage doors being rolled up to reveal store fronts. Women crouched over steaming tamales in the cold air.
But today was different.
From where we sat, today was bigger and better than any day that had come before it. Today, Concepcion – one the three communities in which we work – was opening its very first library. I should be more specific – its teenagers were opening the library.
Rewind four years.
Four timid girls and two stiff boys are selected as Reading Village scholars. They survived the rigorous application process. They won over our Directors. They were hopeful, and so were we. Together we committed to giving them the chance to do something that less than 1 in 10 of their peers would do: finish high school.
In exchange, we asked the group – as we ask all of our scholars – to participate in frequent leadership training and to invest in their community by leading literacy activities for younger children. It was the usual arrangement for us - scholarship, leadership, literacy.
But there was nothing ordinary about this bunch. Little did we know that this particular cohort was going to surpass our wildest expectations and raise the bar for what it means to create a culture of literacy.
In its effort to transform communities through literacy, Reading Village was never going to build infrastructure in the form of classrooms or libraries. If the town prioritized literacy enough to want a library, it would have to build one itself. We would plant seeds, invest in human capacity, facilitate connections, and cultivate potential. The rest was up to them.
Fast forward back to real time. The town has gathered to celebrate the grand opening of its library. NGOs are represented. Town leaders are present. International authors have travelled in for the ordeal. Our teens are proud, we’re proud, their parents are proud. And then they get a call from the local councilmen to come into the office.
In a country where authority has long been synonymous with corruption, suspense hangs in the air.
Our teens walk across town and gather nervously in front of the councilmen. In an act of generosity that contradicts all stereotypes of power and privilege that too often define low-income communities, these councilmen hand over – of all things – a handful of cash! It’s a small investment but an enormous gesture in the well being of the library. Turns out, the local leaders are proud too.
The rest of morning unfolds in joyful celebration. The shelves are stocked. Linda cuts the ribbon. Tamales are consumed and games played. For a moment, people are happy in a way that is rarely publicized in the international development community. It wasn’t a scene of desperation. There was no corruption. Just a community brought together by books.
For the first time, this rural, impoverished, indigenous community has a library all its own. We didn’t have to lift a finger or place a brick in the entire process. This achievement is owned by the community itself, an investment that ensures its sustainability for years to come. From teenagers to parents to teachers and councilman, the entire town identifies with this emblem of literacy. Reading Village, for one, couldn’t be prouder to stand in those circles.
In our effort to create a culture of literacy, the library stands as a resounding success. This is a high point for Reading Village, for the scholars, for the town.
But it shouldn’t be ours alone. This sense of pride and the realization of sustainable change should be a more common thread in the fabric of community development. If everyone was investing in the human capacity of future generations, maybe there would be fewer buildings abandoned, schools sitting empty, and donor dollars drained on projects that never stood a chance.
This month, we’ve chosen to remember how exceptional our teens are. To be grateful for the opportunity to work alongside this community, for the chance to build leaders who build libraries.
And we’re going to remember that the bar has been raised. If five teenagers can build a library where most folks can’t even read, really isn’t anything possible?
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