There’s a strong connection between reading and brain development in children and adults, and the studies show that the benefits of reading and literacy are even more pronounced for low-income individuals. Back in March, I joined a handful of Weber Thompson employees at the Housing Development Consortium luncheon at the Washington State Convention Center. The guest speaker at the luncheon was Johnathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities, The Shame of the Nation, and Amazing Grace. He’s worked with teachers and children in America’s cities for more than 50 years and has extensively written and lectured about the subject.
In his address to the HDC luncheon crowd, Mr. Kozol pointed specifically to many design elements of low-income housing that have a profound and tangible impact on children’s lives. He mentioned the importance of shared entry points for mixed-income housing developments, so no child is ridiculed for going through a ‘poor door.’ He called for close proximity to transit and neighborhood amenities, so families have access to food, medical treatment and transportation to and from employment. My favorite, and perhaps the simplest of his suggestions, is that low-income children and families need access to books and designers should provide shared bookshelves in their designs.
This last suggestion resonated strongly; I had just photographed Weber Thompson’s recently completed affordable housing project, Raven Terrace, and noticed a very bare bookshelf in the lobby.
On the walk back to the office after the luncheon, I asked WT’s Project Manager for Raven Terrace, Mindy Black, about the shelves. She said she wasn’t sure what the plan for the shelves was, but that she could reach out to Seattle Housing Authority.
Come to find out, SHA has a lending library program and accepts donations of used and new books for redistribution. The lending library at Raven Terrace had yet to be initiated, and there was no timeline for when it would be up and running.
Inspired by the luncheon, we decided to give the lending library a jump start. We sent out a call to staff, friends and family for donations, and purchased books at the Friends of the Seattle Public Library book sale. We found books in English, Mandarin, Arabic and Cantonese. We gathered kids’ books, young adult books, reference books and novels. We found coffee table books and paperback books and even gathered Arabic coloring books from Studio Syria.
After a few weeks, we had gathered over 250 books. It was enough to fill the back of Mindy’s SUV, so we figured it would probably fill a bookshelf, but wouldn’t know until we arrived.
We had just begun loading the books onto the shelves when a woman in a hijab and her young child walked up to us to find out what we were doing. Mindy had a book in her hand the caught the woman’s attention. It was a book in Arabic about caring for your toddler. She reached out for the book, nearly in tears. The child on the front cover looked to be exactly the age of her son, and she only spoke enough English to look Mindy in the eye and deliver a heartfelt ‘thank you.’
By some miracle, we gathered exactly the right amount. We filled the bookshelf, with enough coffee table books left over to artfully scatter the remaining volumes throughout the lobby.
A few months later, we rounded up another batch of books and delivered them to the lobby. We rearranged the lovingly disheveled book collection and noticed that many books had vanished, and new books had appeared. The lending library’s motto is ‘Take – Read – Return’, and apparently it works.
While it was a small effort, we hope it was a profound one. You can never underestimate the impact of a book.