Maria makes reading a public matter, based on research that shows how reading is associated with creative and entrepreneurial thinking. Through her Seven Golden Rules and her organization, The Universal Reading Foundation, Maria is advancing collaborative work with key stakeholders promoting reading as a powerful, yet underutilized, mechanism for shaping the future of resilient citizens and more equal, vibrant, and peaceful democracies.
Reading has been pinned down to the skills children acquire in school. However, reading is also an activity that has a powerful impact not only on individuals but on the whole of society. Maria, professionally associated with the book industry for many years, realized that the future of any society depends on the number of citizens who read because democracy and reading go hand in hand. What is more important, training in the habit of reading cannot be a personal, family-driven matter, but a public concern to guarantee social cohesion, or it will stay in the realm of the current reading social spheres. Maria co-founded The Universal Reading Foundation (URF) with 20 persons, each representing one of the key stakeholders needed for her envisioned change. Based on research, best practices, and her own experience, Maria formulated The Seven Golden Rules on how to promote reading: 1) define the key target groups (the non-reader: the earlier, the better), 2) ensure book access, 3) encourage reading for pleasure, 4) remember the role of the authorities, 5) keep constancy, 6) form habits, and 7) keep direct contact. The Universal Reading Foundation initiate collaborations following The Seven Golden Rules.
The Seven Golden Rules applied in practice showed that over 80% of 22K preschools in Poland engaged in the "Superpower of Books" program. Books Give Refuge program allowed US$150K in support for Ukrainian Publishing Housing and distributed over 200K Ukrainian books to over 1000 locations in Ukraine and Poland. In #ReadingRules, URF engages mayors of the 12 biggest cities in Poland to promote reading. Firstly, mayors, working with social-media influencers technics, very openly share their reading habits on YouTube. In the first month, the campaign had 47 million views (the population of Poland is 38 million). Secondly, Maria works on practical strategies with mayors and the local decision-makers to support them in effectively promoting reading in order to build social cohesion in their communities.
Maria focuses on the collaborative entrepreneurship process which she has called the Reading Poland. This process brings together the key figures and decision-makers from the world of culture, business, education, and politics to co-create and implement systemic solutions in the promotion of reading. One ongoing process is introducing the "reading municipality" standard, an accreditation for municipalities popularizing reading following the Golden Rules. The URF in spring 2023 organizes Literacy for Democracy, International Conference in Warsaw and Kyiv, highlighting the need for immediate and systemic investment in reading and education in Ukraine right now. Maria's ultimate vision is readers, creative and entrepreneurial people who create equal societies and vibrant, peaceful democracies.
Not reading is a powerful driver of social exclusion. Reading societies are healthier and have a higher level of education and a higher level of social capital. Indicators of entrepreneurship and social cohesion are also higher for countries where citizens read frequently. In Poland, over 60% of adults do not read books. In the Scandinavian countries, Germany, Czech Republic, France, and England, only about 20-30% of the population do not read. Moreover, 30% of Poland households have no book to read apart from school textbooks.
While reading is such a strong driver of progress and society's well-being, it is not and has never been a strategic priority of any of the Polish governments. Decision-makers overlook the relationship between reading and democracy, and social growth. Michael D. Boatright and Mark A. Faust say reading is a crucial practice for engaged democratic citizenship. The research on how reading habits affect democratic citizenship by Benett (2000), and others indicates that reading is the core of civic literacy. The authors also say that reading contributes to political participation, which is critical to democracy.
Poles read less and less, and the quality of democracy in Poland is decreasing. In 2021 Freedom House's ranking found that Poland can no longer be classified as a full democracy. The country's decline in the "judicial framework and independence" category was the largest ever recorded for that indicator by the Freedom House. According to the research of the National Library, only about 10% of Poles regularly read; historically, from 1994–2004, the percentage of those who were reading was closer to 3/5. Broder access to the Internet, smartphones, and very engaging reality show formats are among the causes of that decrease. However, the decline was not so spectacular in other European countries, including the neighbouring Czech Republic and Germany.
Developmental benefits of reading are lost in the next generation. It is proven (Madeja-Bień, 2016) that reading books daily to children from an early age helps develop proper speech, listening, and reading comprehension skills. It also contributes to remembering details of content they have heard, expressing their judgments, and providing arguments for their opinions. Moreover, it affects the ability to calm down, the ability to focus, the motivation to act, and cause-and-effect thinking. Booktrust, the UK's largest children's reading charity, also highlights the role of reading in developing empathy and boosting creativity. Nevertheless, the majority of kids in Poland do not read daily (CBOS, 2022). What is more, daily reading is not part of the official curriculum in preschools and primary schools; generally, it's not happening even though the OECD PISA study (Reading for change, 2011) shows that the fact that a student likes to read (e.g., reading for pleasure, looking out for books) impacts their educational success in a more relevant way than their socioeconomic background or any other indicator.
The Universal Reading Foundation is built on the certainty that reading and the benefits that it brings are not a private matter. Every reading person is a step towards a more coherent and equal society. Maria is aware that the scope of needs exceeds the capabilities of one social organization; that is why all her work is done through a multistakeholder collaboration and aims to engage the decision-makers and administration, as well as business and the “books industry.”
Maria researched successful initiatives all over the globe and found that successful projects had developed rules that structured their work and led to their success. She tested her ideas through the prism of her knowledge and a set of Seven Golden Rules. The first rule refers to reaching the target groups of non-readers and children; the earlier, the better. Ensuring access is the rule that focuses on a simple fact: you cannot read without books. The goal of the Universal Reading Foundation is not to persuade humanity to read all day a few times a year. Instead, their goal is to forge the habit of reading every day, even for a very short time. That is why the rule of habit is crucial. Activities we like become our needs. For this reason, Maria understood that if they want to develop a habit in others, they should base it on enjoyment and make the need for it exciting – the rule of fun. The role models, in particular of authority figures are important as well: setting an example works magic. While doctors, nurses, midwives, social workers, teachers, and librarians could all be role models in different settings, it has been shown that families pass on the reading habit to the next generations, reinforcing the power of role models. Here is where the rule of direct contact comes in, as it is confirmed by research that direct contact with reading influences family dynamics. The last rule of constancy is more of an internal attitude that requires long-term, repeatable actions.
To take reading from the education or culture department and bring it to conversations about health, social welfare, and development, Maria initiated Reading Poland, a collaborative co-creation initiative. People from the book industry, the National Library, teacher unions, and plenipotentiaries of city mayors and decision-makers co-create solutions like the "reading municipality" standard, an accreditation for municipalities popularizing reading, increasing the number of people who already read, and producing more readers. In that approach, the non-readers are the target group, and it is a long-term program that also follows the golden rule of consistency. On the other hand, in cooperation with the union of the twelve main cities in Poland, Maria involved all those cities in popularizing reading, firstly by the joint, personal commitment of the mayors of the largest Polish cities. Mayors, using social-media influencers technics, very openly share their reading habits. In the first month, the campaign had 47 million views (the population of Poland is 38 million). Secondly, Maria uses the momentum created by the campaign to support local administrations to raise funds outside the cultural and educational budgets and to implement ambitious long-term commitments.
Maria knows those processes require time to bear fruit, and results are needed now. That is why The Universal Reading Foundation, in strategic partnerships, aims to reach out to children asthe group for whom reading is the most beneficial and urgent. Together with Teacher Training Centres, The URF runs #LiteracyRescuers, a community of over 1600 educator-leaders who support each other to promote reading among children, teachers, parents, and the local community. #LiteracyRescuers team invites teachers and school librarians to participate in free trainings that show effective methods and tools for promoting reading in 400 local communities in Poland. The golden rules of contact and fun are very visible in this work. Whereas the golden rules of habit and contact are outstanding for "Superpower of Books." The program targets critical groups like preschool teachers, nurses, and social workers, who are able to advance reading habits among populations in a user-friendly and fun way. The series shares good practices and answers on why reading is essential. The publication “Superpower of Books” is the database, toolbox, and inspiration, allowing to work with books. Its preschool edition reached over 80% of 22K preschools in Poland. At the same time, with the medicine journal (Practical Medicine Paediatrician) and industrial associations, Maria introduced #BookForPrescription. This program was inspired by her learning from good practices introduced by Ashoka Fellow Barry Zukerman, co-initiator of Reach Out and Read. However, Maria involves not only paediatricians but also nurses and midwives (who have more time for contact with parents) who recommend parents read books to their children. Over 300K prescriptions for books were distributed based on the Golden Rule about authority and role models.
The Russian full-scale invasion in Ukraine made Maria and the team restructure their strategy and focus directly on the Golden Rule of access because the group of those needing books was extended to refugees and internally displaced people. The Universal Reading Foundation knows that family reading reduces stress, stabilizes emotions, helps to work through trauma, supports bonds, and introduces a routine; regular daily reading builds a sense of security. In the first days of the invasion in February 2022, Maria and the team collected and donated US$150K to 51 Ukrainian publishers. Thanks to that, books from Kyiv, Tarnopol, and Czerniowce were distributed in Poland and Ukraine, URF distributed over 200K books in total. The #BooksGiveRefuge was covered in Polish and international media (including the Kathimerini Greek daily magazine, the Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor) and could happen through massive pro bono involvement of partners who provided transport, space for storing books, and distribution. Maria also activated writers and illustrators to publish a book for children, "The world is beautiful. A Book Against War", as a tool for parents and teachers to talk about the current situation and which also served as a fundraising mechanism for #BooksGivesRefuge.
Maria is aware that it is not an accident that over 500 libraries have been destroyed in Ukraine since February 2022. That is why Maria organized a “Literacy for Democracy International Conference” in Warsaw and Kyiv - to mobilize the West in immediate and systemic investment in reading and education in Ukraine. The First Lady of Poland, President Zelensky’s team member and the Vice-president for the European Commision supported the Conference with speeches and messages. Because the future of Ukraine and this region of Europe largely depends on society's openness and the level of intellectual formation of the next leaders in the region.
Maria graduated from Roman studies at Sorbonne University and worked as a translator and editor of books. In 2002 Maria met with her friends and discussed the world's ills. As young mothers, they complained about the lack of valuable children's books that could build social cohesion. Maria and her friends did not stop there. In 2002 they started the first independent publishing house for children and in 2005 she won the International Young Publisher of the year granted by the London Book Fair.
Maria had a good understanding of the market, but also of children's needs, so she initiated a format of a top-rated book for children, Basia, with tens of books in the series and over 500K sold copies until 2018 (and still selling). This book series was one of the first of its kind in Poland. It collected a girl's everyday life situations that accompany most children of her age. Later, Maria joined the Egmont Publishing Poland team in several capacities, from a publisher to Managing Director. She initiated new segments of children's books – Czytam Sobie (I am reading to myself), books for independent reading for those children learning to read. These were part of a publishing program for teaching how to read and social campaigns promoting reading and equal opportunities according to the insight: Learn to Read. Read to Learn.
At that time, every year, when the National Library published an evaluation of reading in Poland, it was a feast of national grumbling that Poles did not read. Maria decided to reach for data, consult with international friends and check for the reasons for such despair. There were, in other countries, much more people who read, and the promotion of reading was intended and on a bigger scale. It stroke Maria how democracy and reading go hand in hand. As the daughter of a scientist engaged in the solidarity movement, it was clear to her that besides family and work, there is also space for social activity. Maria understood that she and not even the big company she worked for could not do it alone, so she engaged 20 individuals and organizations to launch The Universal Reading Foundation.