Teresa Boullón is activating citizens to solve their own problems in Peru, starting by infusing communities with the tools and desire to read. Communities that read together engage together, not only improving education but also trust, ownership, and ability to advocate for themselves in many other areas.
The New Idea
Teresa Boullon, through her organization ReCreo, is showing parents, teachers, communities, and the government that reading is a tool for reviving low income and failing communities and countering a culture of dependency on handouts. In areas of Peru where there is little access to books, much less a culture of reading, Teresa is bringing community stakeholders together to change that. By removing physical, intellectual, and cultural barriers to literacy, ReCreo works with residents to create their own channels for acquiring listening and reading skills. Through that experience, citizens see they are able to change a fundamental problem in their own communities. Learning from that success, community members feel ready to take on other community challenges.
To reinforce the work in low income communities, Teresa is building national movement where reading is not only accessible for all, but even “cool.” To do this, Teresa works on the national and local level. Nationally, through her “1 Million Young Readers” campaign, Teresa is activating citizens to hold the state accountable in improving the quality of the education system. Locally, Teresa works with community members on multiple levels to together to tip towards a reading culture. This includes: retooling school curriculums, with the buy-in of principals; building school libraries, with the support of teachers and parents (mostly single mothers) from waste materials; and working with these parents and the local government to ensure the transformations are permanently adopted.
In this way, Teresa is making space for reading. By working with different actors in a way that is uniquely appealing to each, she involves them in reading so they become multipliers. She has given companies’ corporate responsibility arms an important project in launching and stocking libraries; she offers mothers and teachers new was of earning income through spreading reading and library building skills; she is showing the Ministry of Education a way to improve learning; and she proposes to municipalities a way to strengthen social fabric in low income communities. However, most importantly, Teresa’s work is offering citizens practice in resolving their problems, thereby gaining confidence in their own skills and in their ability to demand support from key allies. The model is already being taken up across Peru, and she has invitations to spread to other countries in Latin America.
For the last several years, Peru has ranked very last of the 65 countries and regions that use the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment ) test of student achievement. According to the results, 60 percent of Peruvian students lack basic reading ability and 75 percent are unable to perform basic math exercises. The PISA also indicates that low income students are the poorest performers, showing a two and a half year gap in education levels from their peers. In the country overall, 75 percent of the population does not understand what they read – and of these, three quarters are women.
There are currently 7.8 million students in enrolled primary school in Peru. Of these, only 150,000 have sufficiently equipped libraries, nearly all of which are in private schools. Monthly private school tuition fees are typically the equivalent of two salaries average Peruvian salaries, making this option unobtainable for most. Public schools on the other hand, usually lack libraries and books, and there is no sort of national public school library system. These children who are not learning to read will not only have trouble interpreting the world around them as adults, but they will also be excluded from many jobs. This lack of future economic activity in turn means they are likely to become dependent on welfare later in life.
According to Peruvian law, “all children in Peru have the right to read one book a month.” However, the state only provides books where there are libraries. This means that in schools with no libraries, there first must be resources to build a library before the school can access public resources to stock the shelves with books.
At the age of 20, Teresa Boullón attended a meeting with the Ministry of Education where she learned that only 2 out of 10 Peruvian children are able to reach their educational and professional goals. Thinking of her own sister’s and cousins’ dreams of rising above their economic situation through education, she decided to act. The next year, she won a national beauty contest, and that gave her the platform to start talking to children about their futures. During this experience, she began to form the idea for a movement that enables children and adults to access quality education, beginning with getting libraries in all public schools across the country.
To make this possible, in 2006, Teresa co-founded ReCreo (“Recreate” or “Rethink”) with the mission of creating the social conditions for all Peruvian children to access books and quality education. After building the organization’s sustainable support base through partnerships with companies and foundations and leading the initiatives to get books into schools, Teresa began bringing to life her idea for a “1 Million Young Readers” Campaign. Started in 2012, the Campaign encompasses the actual building of libraries as well as rallying support in key areas of society. So far, 7 libraries have been completed in public schools (reaching 4000 students, 3250 parents, and 150 teachers) and 2 have been built in conjunction with the Public Park Service (SERPAR) in Lima.
Concentrating on low income communities and schools, Teresa sees that reading is a way to offer references of characters who have overcome challenges, encouraging these students by example to develop confidence and see other scenarios beyond their current environment. But she is insistent that this awareness has to come from within the communities, both from books and from the experience of accessing them. She also sees that reading together, parents and teachers alongside children, is a way to strengthen community’s social fabric. In order to kick start both the interest in reading and obtain the necessary resources, Teresa has developed an activity to involve schools, students, and parents: building a library out of materials on hand. Building libraries is not the end goal; but bringing together the educators, parents (mostly women), and students as volunteers in the construction lets them succeed together, and achieve something that is theirs. In 38 hours, these different community members learn how to organize as a team, and work through challenges to build something they can share and maintain with the rest of the community.
Over 5 days, the volunteer community team is fully in charge of building the library. Because of the limited time period, natural leaders arise, and the team either sinks or swims. The designated classroom space is transformed using trash, recyclables, and other materials at hand, and the team decides how they want to design and implement the project. As a result, many volunteers realize they have valuable skills that were once overlooked or underappreciated. This has been especially important for the adult women participants, some of whom have discovered new skills they could use to generate income, or simply feel more capable. For example, Teresa talks about a mother of 7 who helped to build a library in Catacaos (a town on Peru’s northern coast) alongside nearly 250 other single mothers. The woman was able to use her artistic abilities to decorate the library and furniture. During the library’s dedication, she was recognized for the work. Afterward, she thanked Teresa, saying she had always been told she was useless, but now she realized that was not true.
After the construction of the libraries, the following six months are dedicated to the Promoting Reading Program. ReCreo leads this phase, training local teachers to be able to carry on without ReCreo afterward. The Program’s goal is to not only produce readers who are able to understand what they read, but who are capable of exploring their world with a new vision. The Program works with parents to help encourage their students’ reading, and with the community to raise the money to buy the first books. Finally, it works with the local Units for Education Management (UGEL) to make sure that the schools with libraries are incorporated into the State’s library system, which will add them into the state’s budget and sustain them over time. In the past 2 years, many of the trainers that ReCreo contracts to teach seminars are teachers who went through the training on a local level. This allows them to generate extra income through lecturing or training. Similarly, the project contracts local mothers to lead new mothers’ groups in the process of building libraries. They teach what they learned: painting, drilling, sanding, restoring metal, carving wood, plastics recycling, and transforming what many consider trash into useful things. In the future, Teresa intends to deepen the leadership work with mothers, creating, for example, an Agency for Mothers in Construction, to transform neglected spaces in beautiful places.
Before ReCreo starts working in a school, the parents, teachers, and school leaders vote on whether or not they want the project. Each group receives the proposal, and each group decides if they want to commit to carrying it out. Once they accept the proposal, each group offers its volunteers to represent them throughout the process. School leadership participates in full; teachers choose a volunteer for each classroom; and parents select one volunteer per approximately 100 parents. Each school must have a minimum population of 500 children to be eligible, including secondary, middle, and primary levels. Schools of this size tend to have about 20 to 30 teachers and almost 60% of parents who are single mothers. The reason for choosing schools with a large number of students is to better leverage the investment and facilitate replication of the model in other schools.
Teresa spreads from school to school with a top down approach within the community. She begins with one person (the principal), then a group (teachers, parents, and volunteers), and then reaches the community. To back this community pyramid, she ties together allies – businesses, other CSO partners, and the state – and uses that alliance to get the Ministry of Education to assume responsibility. The work is now spreading by invitation. Before the end of 2014, ReCreo will implement four libraries in the city of Arequipa, which will open a space for reading for 2,400 children, more than 1,000 parents, and 100 teachers. Two of those are possible because the municipality that has taken the lead in offering the public library service in Arequipa and the surrounding area, where there are 42 public schools, all without libraries. When the mayor heard of the plan, he offered logistical support for the first two libraries. The construction of these two will be a pilot for replication throughout the district, and a model of collaboration for other municipalities.
ReCreo has already reached more than 150 schools at the national level and in intervention activities has achieved a 93% success in developing a love of reading and reading habits in children in extreme poverty. It has come to raised the importance of reading with over 60,000 thousand parents, trained more than 15,000 teachers to lead programs promoting reading and integrate these into their classrooms and the school curriculum, and has reached over 120,000 children directly. However, the movement is much more than building libraries and implementing reading-centered education in low income communities. It is a movement whose goal is changing the culture in two ways: first to develop a culture of reading, and second to develop a culture of responsibility and action.
Although the short-term goal of "1 Million Young Readers" is to launch 1,000 libraries in 1000 low-income schools with an average of 1,000 students each, the overarching objective is to infect all segments of society with the reading bug. Teresa plans to fund the 1000 libraries through private and public companies’ corporate social responsibility programs – thereby involving them in the goal. To further popularize the campaign, Teresa convinced Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa to endorse the movement. His role as spokesperson for the campaign will be aimed toward activating a public school library system. Other national and international companies are sponsoring the campaign, and these in turn are leading to new alliances. For example, the International Book Fair got a recycling company to donate leftover sheets of recycled plastic to use for library shelving, meeting ReCreo’s goal of one million shelves. Another partnership with the social enterprise Lifeout of Plastic, will sell bags and wallets made of recycled plastic with illustrations of books to raise both funding for ReCreo, and awareness of reading. Teresa is working with other CSOs and government ministries to expand the campaign. For example, she is in talks with the Ministry of Women to help with publicity around the importance of books and reading for children’s development, both at home and in schools. Teresa and another CSO, Ania, are working on book on the topic (that also includes the ReCreo method for starting libraries and reading in communities) that will be released at the upcoming International Book Fair in Arequipeña and presented by a pre-eminent Peruvian journalist and author, Cecilia Valenzuela and Oswaldo Reynoso.
Another way Teresa is trying to spread a culture of reading is through her Bibliotaxi campaign to get books into taxis. In a partnership with Easy Taxi, ReCreo has made 1,000 taxis into “libraries”. With books provided by ReCreo, riders can read during their journey and even take books home, returning them on their next ride. With the campaign only begun in 2014, so far 80,000 riders have come through, and 1,000 taxi drivers have also been influenced. Not only is this making books more prevalent, it is opening spaces and creating opportunities for people to read them.
In Peru, only one bookstore exists per one million inhabitants, so Teresa is planning an internet television channel to recommend books to encourage reading for parents and teachers, and promote reading online as an alternative. Through a partnership that already exists between the ReCreo and publishing companies, the portal will sell the recommended books.
Teresa sees that reading and the library as a common axis in a community is powerful for reconstructing social fabric. As such, she is working to partner with the National Comprehensive Program for Family Welfare (INABIF) to take up the model to encourage reading in all of its Temporary Centers for Abandoned Children (CARS), starting with a pilot program in 2015. The Vice Minister of Education has taken in interest, and Teresa hopes that may lead to resources from the Ministry. As a next step Teresa is considering bringing libraries into households under an idea of women's entrepreneurship. Finally, she has received a proposal from the FILSIC, the organization responsible for producing the international book fair in Antofagasta, Chile, who is interested in replicating the model as part of their social responsibility programs to enable school libraries in Chile and get to the goal of encouraging reading in all Chilean children and adults even faster. In Peru, "1 Million Young Readers" was recognized by the Ministry of Culture as a best practice for skills development in Peruvian children and by the Global Shapers, an initiative of the World Economic Forum.
In 4 years, Teresa expects to have started 100 libraries directly and to have the model adopted by regional governments. In 5 years, she her goal is that the Peruvian population that sees that "reading is cool. By 2021, Teresa hopes to have realized a National System of School Libraries, which would ensure that no schools are built without a library. The System would work with the government to start libraries at existing schools, and manage all schools manage existing libraries to make sure they are always well-supplied. Her ultimate goal is that no child is left without a book in his or her hand.
Teresa says that reading saved her life. When her father left her family, she credits a well-stocked family library with helping her overcome her parents’ separation and leading to her strong sense of independence, but also a level of education that helped her support the family. Her mother sold beauty products and food to earn money, and Teresa began helping her at a young age. She also earned money doing her classmates’ homework. Nevertheless, it was a struggle for her mother to meet Teresa’s tuition fees, and the school “punished” her by sending her to the school library. Even though it was against the rules, she convinced the school to let her take books home, so she could continue feeding her passion for reading.
As her mother struggled to make ends meet, Teresa started working odd jobs, taking after her father’s entrepreneurial spirit. She dressed up in character for children’s birthday parties beginning at the age of 12, and then as she grew older she took the role of presenter at the parties. At 16, Teresa launched her own cleaning products business, which ended up going under. Then at 18, she became a distributor for a line of nutrition products and within the year, became the top vendor and designated leader in the network of 1,000 other women distributors.
Teresa’s grandmother was Quechua, a shaman, and illiterate. She told Teresa stories as vividly as though she were reading from a book. When Teresa was 6 years-old and learning to read, she began also teaching her grandmother. Her time with her grandmother, on a rural farm, was vastly different that Teresa’s experience at school in the city. Even at a young age, she was struck by the difference between the two environments. She also noticed how people treated her differently when she was alone versus with her grandmother – Teresa’s fair, European complexion drew different attention than her grandmother’s dark and clearly indigenous profile. These realizations led to her conviction for achieving equal opportunities for all. However, also from her own childhood experience, Teresa continues to advocate for single mothers, taking particular pride in the transformations she has seen in the women who realize their own potential during the ReCreo initiatives.