Rana Dajani

This description of Rana Dajani's work was prepared when Rana Dajani was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2019 .

Introduction

In contexts where reading for pleasure is not common, Dajani is altering mind-sets through reading aloud by facilitating community-run libraries across every neighbourhood in the Arab world and beyond.

The New Idea

In 2006, based on research about the benefits of reading aloud, Dajani was the first in the Arab World to design an initiative, “We Love Reading” (WLR), that offers a new, practical, cost-efficient, and grassroots approach to foster the love of reading in children and youth. By engaging various stakeholders- children and youth, parents, research institutions and volunteers- Dajani instigated a movement that has proven its ability to develop children’s capacities and mind-sets, to improve their relationships with their parents, and afford locals, especially women, the leadership and entrepreneurial skills to better position them in their local communities and reclaim public spaces.
Through a technology-enabled global strategy heavily backed by research and empirical evidence, Reading for Pleasure is Dajani’s means to the ultimate end of enabling children and youth to think for themselves, be able to empathize with others, and to peacefully and respectfully communicate their thoughts. In a notion as simple and as complex as reading a children’s book, positive change is led by an international network of local library initiators (WLR ambassadors). While WLR builds momentum, WLR ambassadors are the engines that organize, manage and facilitate reading sessions in their own neighbourhoods, shattering the misperception that reading for pleasure is a luxury only afforded to the well-educated, and that libraries require large funds and permissions to launch and be maintained.
As the leader of a movement by and for the people, Dajani’s deeply-rooted conviction that “organizations need hierarchs, but movements need causes, shared values, and common goals to pull them together and give them a purpose” stems from the traumatic past of her resilient Palestinian ancestors and stories of present-day refugees. Dajani’s model has proven that reading for pleasure has the intrinsic power to transform mind-sets and cultures.

“Organizations need hierarchs but movements need causes, shared values, common goals to pull them together and give them a purpose”, this is Dr. Dajani’s conviction, and she tenaciously works to strengthen: a movement by and for the people. Reading for pleasure is her means to the ultimate end of enabling children and youth to think for themselves, be able to empathize with others, and to peacefully and respectfully communicate their thoughts. Through WLR, positive change is brought about by something as simple and as complex as reading a children’s book, and through a growing international network of local library initiators who enrich each other’s experiences. In fact, WLR doesn’t own libraries, local communities do. WLR builds momentum, and then WLR ambassadors or volunteers raise the flag and maintain reading sessions in their own neighborhoods, shattering the misperception that reading for pleasure is a luxury only afforded to the well-educated, and that libraries need huge funds and permissions to be maintained. Through WLR, Dr. Dajani also proves that reading for pleasure has the intrinsic power to transform cultures.

The Problem

According to the Arab Human Development Report (2016), the Arab region is home to 5% of the world’s population 57.5% of the world’s refugees, and 47% of the internally displaced globally.
In a world characterized by rapidly changing patterns of knowledge and innovation, the aforementioned context stands as a major set-back for personal development and self-fulfilment, leaving many citizens in a situation of vulnerability, lack of control and identity loss. Aggravated by the fact that Arab youth are not taught to think for themselves, be critical, or to create and innovate whenever possible, many have found no alternative but to succumb to the status quo. This lack of an “I Can” mind-set has come to define an entire generation, regardless of the current political situation of his/her country of origin.
One of the obstacles in the face of instilling an “I Can” mind-set in children and youth is the lack of a reading culture across Arab countries.
In the Arab World, (i) reading is closely associated with school, where the experience is characterized by stressful and high-stake testing as well as rote memorization. This directly causes students’ aversion from reading, pushing them to resort to alternative means of entertainment, such as digital media, that becomes the default avenue of enjoyment. Further, parents do not act as role models for their children in this domain, as they do not read for pleasure enough themselves, and most importantly, do not read aloud to their kids.
Moreover, (ii) reading for pleasure is perceived as a luxury in the Arab World, and children have limited opportunities and spaces to engage with books and literature. National reports in Arab countries reveal that a large number of correspondents possess no libraries at home, and read less than one book per year, confirming that book sales and reading rates have been declining in the last decades . Even countries that have largely overcome illiteracy (i.e. Jordan and Lebanon) still confront problems related to reading comprehension and engagement with literature . Reading for pleasure or free reading is not a developed habit the Arab World over, and its individual and social benefits are widely overlooked.
Thus far, (iii) all efforts to popularize reading in the Arab World were unsustainable due to their high-cost, and lack of adequate support. Existing initiatives do not address the behavioral causes of the lack of reading for pleasure, but rather the symptoms with the ultimate end of growing the reading population (number of books read). Other efforts in the field mostly worked on increasing the supply of reading materials, as opposed to attracting children and youth to the activity itself.
Finally, (iv) the lack of fun, relevant and culture-sensitive reading materials has not made it easier for those who were interested to start reading or the fraction of the population that was already on board.

The Strategy

One of the approaches that can reverse the effects of hopelessness and lack of control, and instil an “I Can” mind-set in children and youth is through the spread of reading for pleasure that could be a gateway for them to take control of their lives, futures and communities, and to develop solutions for their everyday challenges. Though there could be several ways that may lead to implanting a critical and entrepreneurial mind-set in children, Dajani found a simple, agile and lean model to do so. An avid reader herself, she experienced first-hand how reading for pleasure had the power to transform individuals.
Under the umbrella of “Taghyeer” organization (Arabic for “change”), a non-profit she established in Jordan in 2010, WLR is building a popular culture of reading by directly targeting children and youth between the ages of 2 and 18, and adults (especially women) interested in community engagement in their neighbourhoods, with a special focus on underserved areas. While most reading initiatives in the Arab World only focus on literacy and book provision, WLR focuses on the overlooked step of creating an appetite for and love of reading. The strategy developed by Dajani depends on (i) a simple, cost-efficient model driven by local communities that is (ii) rooted in research on the psychosocial impact of reading aloud to alter mind-sets and heal trauma, and backed by peer-reviewed rigorous academic research.
Dajani reaches out to local organizations who already work on the ground in certain neighbourhoods to disseminate a call for volunteers to join WLR’s two-day-training program. The one and only prerequisite for volunteers is they have to know how to read in their local language, and can be anywhere from 16 to 100 years of age. The training comprises of best practices and the importance of reading aloud, as well as detailed guidelines to manage a local library and regular reading circles in one’s neighbourhood. It also covers entrepreneurial topics such as leadership, public speaking, confidence building and communication, all delivered through interactive workshops and debates.
Once the training is over, participants are dubbed “WLR ambassadors”, and are requested to “pay it forward” by conducting peer-training sessions to create a ripple effect. While WLR provides a certain number of books to jumpstart the library (a seed library), ambassadors are expected to be entrepreneurial, and secure adequate funding. WLR libraries can be set anywhere, from a room in the ambassador’s residence, to a local house of worship, or public space. Ensuing from the community itself, ambassadors are better situated to identify and leverage available resources. They need to decide on the location, the schedule, and how to market for the reading sessions in their local community. The majority of ambassadors are women who had never previously played key roles within the community beyond the realm of their homes. After the library and sessions launch, women find themselves thriving as leaders, normalizing the public presence of women in their communities, and therefore changing the social perception of female public roles.
Once created, the local library offers regular reading aloud sessions to kids as young as 2 years old. It can be considered a “living library” providing children with an immersive experience as opposed to confining reading to a solitary act. Childrens’ interactions with each other and with ambassadors are a core element of the whole experience. As WLR beneficiaries are largely from underserved communities and refugee camps, some children have little to no access to proper schooling or literacy education, and WLR reading circles are their main source of meaningful interaction with books and an opportunity to increase their knowledge and improve their decision-making without the need to leave their neighbourhoods.
At the end of each reading session, ambassadors disseminate books to children to take home to be exchanged the following session. The aim is for children to discuss their books with their siblings, parents and families to create an interactive dynamic within households, transcending the impact of WLR beyond its direct participants.
Furthermore, upon pinpointing the scarcity of fun and interactive quality children books in Arabic, WLR started developing its own culturally-sensitive children books in Arabic, so the values they stand for can move even beyond the direct and indirect ambassador circles. To date, WLR has developed 32 books that address various topics such as environment preservation, gender, disability, non-violence, diversity, and empathy.
To date WLR has directly trained 7503 Jordanian youth, women and men, established 4463 WLR libraries all over Jordan, enriched the lives of 448,912 children and conducted over 152,498 reading sessions. Dajani has printed and distributed 263,563 children books, and developed and published 32 books in Arabic. The WLR model has organically spread through volunteers and locals, who have remotely heard about it across 55 countries around the world.
To ensure the movement is replicated without forgoing quality, and that volunteers stay motivated, Dajani has developed a mobile application to connect ambassadors all around the world to create a virtual community of WLR ambassadors. The platform serves as a tracking tool for ambassadors, where they can set their own goals, and the reading journeys they want to embark on. It is also a tool to share experiences with ambassadors in the same country, or beyond, making volunteers feel they are part of a trans-boundary social movement. The application is still in its Beta testing phase, but WLR’s team is working on its upgrade and full-functioning.
Dajani has also created an online training course in both Arabic and English to permit easier replication of the model without it losing its essence. She is currently working on including videos and user-friendly, interactive tools, as well as making it available in eight more languages to widen access to residents of different countries.
At an inflection point to further deepen and institutionalize her impact on a policy level, Rana is currently engaging with the Ministry of Social Development to implement reading aloud sessions in all nurseries across Jordan, the Ministry of Education to introduce WLR as an activity for school teachers for Kindergarten and grade 1, and the Ministry of Culture and Youth to introduce WLR into cultural centres targeting youth across Jordan. These efforts aim to change policy to make WLR mandatory across all early childhood centres, nurseries and schools.
To be able to sustain her activities away from a donor-centric approach, Dajani developed a business model that is based on licensing the program through international NGOs and donors. The licensed program is used by organizations who can afford it to implement as part of their activities, while generated income is used to launch libraries in underserved communities which includes training ambassadors and disseminating seed libraries, as well as developing and publishing books. Published books are sold to generate more revenue that in turn funds the creation of more libraries. The licensed program has recently been used by Plan International, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and Mercy Corps. With an annual budget of $1 million, Dajani has secured funding till the end of 2020, but is currently looking into other funding opportunities.
The human-centric design has been heavily supported by universities such as Yale and Harvard. Continuous research is still in progress with Brown, Chicago, Queen Mary and NYUAD Universities as well as local and regional universities. Furthermore, the data gathered from the online application is also used to better assess reported experiences. Conducted studies monitor the impact of WLR on young children. Such studies have included research on how the program affects levels of empathy in children and impacts the psychosocial (executive functions) well-being of children in Jordan’s Za’atari Camp, but also how their environmental knowledge developed after the sessions.
In her study on the impact of WLR on the psychosocial health of participating children In Zaatari Refugee Camp, Sarah Yazji, a researcher at Yale University reveals that 80% of children who attend WLR sessions have shown increasingly positive attitudes towards reading, and are more willing to go back to school because they associate reading with enjoyment. They are more empathetic because they learn about other cultures and people, and as a consequence perform better at school and become more confident. One Syrian refugee child in Jordan says “When I read in school, I get yelled at. When I read at a WLR session, I have fun and enjoy it.”
Another study conducted by the University of Chicago in 2014 reflects how reading about people’s feelings increases empathic concern and generosity in children.
According to a peer-reviewed study by the Journal of Environmental Education, results indicated the effectiveness of this informal educational intervention showing a significant increase in children’s knowledge about environmental issues and a positive change in behaviour related to electricity and water consumption and littering, as reported by parents.
On-going research on the effect of WLR includes assessing the influence of WLR program on children’s cognitive development during the critical preschool years by Brown University, evaluating the Positives Changes in Attitudes and Practices of Children Towards Reading and Evaluate the Willingness of Children and their Parents to Attend School by UNICEF, Assess the impact of We Love Reading on parent- child relationship by NYUAD University, assess the impact of the program on visual perception by Queen Mary University and measuring the behaviour of children towards social inclusion and empathy by the University of Chicago and UNICEF.

The Person

Dajani is a unique scientist who wears the academic and social entrepreneur’s scarves (as she points out she doesn’t wear hats) in an equally outstanding way. Ever since she was little, her mother instilled in her a sense of profound commitment and responsibility towards her family and community at large. Her father was an exemplary model of physician by day, and captivating storyteller by night.

For Dajani, being a community leader evolved from a curious reading habit fueled by her father’s stories, into learning and reading sessions for her siblings and kids, to an international reading movement powered by locals. She has always taken the responsibility of widening her younger siblings’ horizons by organizing summer camps, scientific trips and city exploration tours for them, as well as telling them all about the books she reads. As a teacher and later a professor, she realized that children and adults in her community do not possess an “I Can” mindset, and she took it upon herself to change that. That’s when she combined the lessons learnt as a researcher and her own passion for reading to transform children’s mind-sets by popularizing reading for pleasure.

Dajani has never settled for the conventional path frequently travelled by scientists and academics. She is always open to new adventures. Whether by applying problem-based learning to her courses, integrating drama and novels as creative approaches to learning science, securing funding for new fields of scientific research in Jordan, licensing the first TEDx event in Jordan, or inviting Nobel prize winners to talk to her students, Dajani has successfully set the bar high for her colleagues and Arab women. Her strategy always entailed starting and supporting initiatives until they relayed sufficient momentum to independently “get a life of their own”.

“I am specifically interested in raising the health, educational and social status of women and children in the region. By conducting studies and participating in planning, implementing and actually carrying out polices intended to achieve such goals, I hope to help in shaping my future world.” That was part of Dajani’s statement of purpose in her application for the Fulbright student grant in 1999, and to this day, her aspirations still hold.

Alongside her PhD in molecular biology, Dajani is the holder of a large number of awards and recognitions from UN agencies, governmental and non-governmental institutions for her achievements in the health, scientific and academic fields, as well as for the innovative and impactful work created by We Love Reading. Among these awards are the Jacob Klaus Social Entrepreneurship Award (2018), UNESCO King Sejong International Literacy Prize (2017), WISE Award (2014), complimentary membership to the Clinton Global Initiative (2010), and the Arab World Social Innovator Award (Synergos, 2009).