Harnessing the Power of Reading to Create Changemakers

Dr. Rana Dajani’s organization We Love Reading is a global movement based in Jordan that is utilizing the simple but powerful pastime of reading to increase children’s empathy, cognitive development, and creativity in over 60 countries around the world. 

Dr. Rana Dajani, Founder of We Love Reading

Amman, Jordan

Rana holds up a picture book in a read-aloud session.
Dr. Dajani is proving that reading holds a unique power to unlock a person’s power and potential, teach them to dream, be creative, and solve problems. Photo by WLR

Before becoming an Ashoka fellow and molecular biologist, Dr. Rana Dajani was a daughter, a big sister, and an avid reader growing up in Jordan. She spent evenings reading with her father, a scientist, asking questions and discussing articles from National Geographic or Scientific American.  

As Dr. Dajani grew up, she realized not everyone was raised in an environment that encouraged asking questions. Instead, she noticed that society, beginning at the highest levels, stifled curiosity which then trickled down into schools and families treating curious children as nuisances. Dr. Dajani set out to change this reality and instead reward children for their curiosity, self-confidence, and energy. She realized the best way to revive curiosity, discover potential, and empower people to become changemakers was simple: reading.

After conducting several studies, Dr. Dajani found that children who read for pleasure exhibit stronger language skills, better academic performance, and greater emotional intelligence. 

However, Dr. Dajani noticed that Jordan, as with many other countries, lacked both a culture of reading for pleasure and accessible libraries. In order to inspire kids to read for fun, she realized they first must fall in love with reading. To achieve this, Dr. Dajani needed two things: role models who could lead by example and accessible libraries.  

She started hosting read-aloud sessions in a local mosque for 4 to10-year-olds, carefully choosing books that championed values of empathy, responsibility, and respect. Soon, the mosque was packed with children eager to learn, so she began training local men and women volunteers to be ‘reading ambassadors’ and host regular read-aloud sessions for children in their neighborhoods. At the same time, she started founding libraries, beginning in her neighborhood then encouraging the reading ambassadors to start libraries in their communities as well. 

Dr. Dajani officially established We Love Reading (WLR) in 2010; what began as a weekly reading session in a local mosque blossomed into a transnational movement spanning 63 countries and resulted in 4,500 new libraries. 

Scaling Deep: Creating Changemakers

We Love Reading has transformed the communities where the programs operate. Through reading and skill development, WLR is catalyzing a cultural shift in which ambassadors and children are more independent, creative, and innovative—the hallmark traits of a changemaker. At Ashoka’s Women’s Initiative for Social Entrepreneurship (WISE), this form of impact–when dominant mindsets, behaviors, and ultimately social norms are changed–is “scaling deep.”

We Love Reading is designed to allow the participating children to take an active role in the sessions with the reading ambassadors instead of placing the onus on the parents. Dr. Dajani said, “We wanted the child to fall in love with reading and be the champion. We flipped the system to give the kids agency, the kids made the decision to come, and this changed the mindset of the child.” Ensuring that children have agency then improves their confidence, cultivates their curiosity, and empowers them to try new things.  

WLR reading ambassadors have read to a combined half a million children, which has resulted in profound impacts on the youths’ reading skills, cognitive development, and empathy. According to a study funded by UNICEF, these sessions improved children’s attitudes about reading and increased their reading practice scores in comparison to kids who were not a part of the program. Another study done by Brown University found that WLR read-aloud sessions improved the executive functions development, or cognitive skills needed for self-control and behavior management, especially for children from lower-income homes. Reading about stories that promote certain values like empathy can help foster those values within children. In fact, according to a study by the University of Chicago, “Integrating the values of empathy into children’s stories increased children’s generosity by nearly 100%. In addition, it increased children’s interest in and concern for others.” 

WLR not only changes participating children’s mindsets but also the mindsets of the adults that are trained as ambassadors. These ambassadors experience increased feelings of agency, improved mental health, and reduced stress.  Dr. Dajani said, “WLR acts as a stepping stone for volunteers to discover their own potential and to become changemakers in their own right as adults.” 

One way WLR empowers ambassadors to be leaders in their communities is by tasking them with establishing and maintaining local libraries. WLR provides ambassadors with a seed library of 30 books, but they are responsible for raising money in the community to purchase more books and sustain operations in the long run. Operating this project teaches individuals how to manage the finances and operations of the libraries while building a network in their communities to provide support.  

To date, WLR has a global network of thousands of ambassadors who are gaining leadership experience and public speaking skills. Photo by WLR.

In an evaluation done by Hashemite University, WLR volunteers showed an 84% increase in leadership skills after joining the program. WLR is also designed to trigger a domino effect, changing the mindsets of each trainee who passes those mindset shifts to others, eventually affecting entire communities. Each ambassador is asked to teach the next round of volunteers the same values of responsibility and passion while teaching skills like public speaking, critical thinking, and debate.  

Additionally, a large percentage of ambassadors are women. According to a study conducted by Cambridge about the effect of WLR on their female volunteers and their capacity to be changemakers in their communities, “WLR isn’t delivering services which need support systems, it creates capabilities in hundreds of local women enabling them to be creative for themselves.” 

Scaling Out: A Reading Movement

The successful ripple effect of We Love Reading’s organic, grassroots model proved to be the catalyst for the program to replicate across the world. WLR’s profound success resulted in a swell of international attention and support: international organizations and leaders in the education world saw the impact and wanted to reach even more communities. Dr. Dajani started receiving grants exceeding a million dollars, enabling her to increase the staff at WLR from three to 30 employees and build the organization’s infrastructure in addition to its legal, financial, and HR systems. With these new resources, Dr. Dajani could expand the program’s objectives. She said, “We Love Reading began as an education program, then it grew into a social entrepreneurship and mental health program.”  

Since inception, WLR has reached almost half a million kids around the world. Photo by WLR

Now We Love Reading is accessible and easily replicable. It offers a free, online training program that is being translated into a total of 12 languages. We Love Reading receives requests from individuals all over the world who want to become ambassadors. Their ambassador training program teaches participants about the importance of reading aloud for fun, how to change mindsets and create changemakers, and how to establish regular read-aloud sessions in their local neighborhoods.  

We Love Reading’s model has proven to be effective in all types of neighborhoods, including more informal communities like refugee settlements and camps in Jordan. Dr. Dajani said, “Most refugees don’t know what’s going to happen in the future… and this impacts their mental health. We Love Reading gives them a purpose, something that is tangible and a sense of agency. This sense of control is so important for building resilience and improving the positive mentality.”

The WLR model is simple but easily replicable—it has been adopted in many countries around the world. In Turkey, the Mother-Child Education Foundation harnesses the WLR model to increase female literacy in mothers. In Mexico, WLR is being used to preserve indigenous populations’ heritages and history. In South Africa, one company provided WLR with a free platform and sponsored access to online training to an unlimited number of users. 

We Love Reading is more than an organization – it’s a movement. Dr. Dajani’s model has been replicated in countries around the world, reaching more than 500,000 kids, and distributing almost 200,000 books.

By Audrey Lodes