This social entrepreneur has provided 225 million free books to low-income families

54% of educators report having 10 or fewer books per child in their classroom libraries.

54% of educators report having 10 or fewer books per child in their classroom libraries. Image: REUTERS/Edgar Su

Julie Masiga
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
Chris Hamill-Stewart
Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Having lots of books at home is a good predictor of success later in life — but access to literary materials is patchy and unequal across the US.
  • Kyle Zimmer, President, CEO and co-founder of educational NGO First Book has worked to fix this, providing millions of books and to children.
  • But for her, her work is now about more than books: it’s about delivering educational equity, at home and abroad.

The number of books in a home is a remarkably good predictor of success in education and thus later in life.

Kyle Zimmer, President, CEO and co-founder of educational NGO First Book didn’t grow up in a rich area — but her family always prioritised education. They made sure she had books to read.

Today, her organization First Book does the same for millions of children across the US, Canada and increasingly further afield. It provides them with books, and increasingly acts as a leading voice and advocate in the educational equity research field.

Education has “been a passion of mine since I was a kid,” Zimmer tells the World Economic Forum.

“I was lucky to grow up in a family that prioritised education and it made a world of difference to me. I grew up in Appalachia. It's an area of the United States that has a lot of poverty and a lot of challenges,” she says.

“But my family's focus on education allowed me to throw the doors open. Go to law school. Start my own non-profit and really live the life that I wanted to live, make the contributions that I want to make. The difference between my ability to do that and others is that I had books in my home. I had education at the forefront.”

225 million First Books

She wants to make sure children everywhere have that same opportunity. Since 1992, First Book has distributed more than 225 million books and educational resources to programmes and schools serving children from low-income communities across the US and Canada.

“First book is about books, but it's not just about books. We are fundamentally focused on educational equity for kids in need in the US, in Canada, and increasingly globally.”

But there remains much work to be done. According to First Book, roughly 30% of school libraries fall short of meeting literacy-rich guidelines, and 54% of educators report having 10 or fewer books per child in their classroom libraries.

But it’s not just about schools, Zimmer explains: “We really started with a focus on how do we bring more books and educational resources into the lives of kids in need in every setting that they're in.”

This could be, and often is, the hairdresser or barber shop, soup kitchen or homeless shelter.

In addition to proving books, First Book also has a leading research programme, which delivers insights on an area that Zimmer believes is under-research: educational equity and attainment.

First Book also runs an online book marketplace, entirely not-for-profit, to support their activities, where more than 15 million books are moved through every year.

Have you read?

Education, technology and the complex world we live in

Critically, Zimmer knows that rolling with the times when it comes to the relationship between technology, reading and books is essential.

“It's about that engagement and it's about storytelling. I see the power of social media. At the heart of social media, frankly, is storytelling. Sometimes it's little stories, sometimes it's movies or shows. And I think there is that is an extraordinary tool.”

She also acknowledges the limitations of reading as a tool to build up a child’s life and give them opportunity. If a child hasn’t eaten, hasn’t slept, she explains, you can’t expect them to be ready to learn.

“Education is complex,” Zimmer says. “Sometimes we talk about it like it's a single issue, but it's not. Education encompasses hunger. It encompasses housing issues, it encompasses mental health issues. And all of that is being dropped at the doorstep of the educators in our community.”

Issues like COVID-19 and macroeconomic changes often threaten to exacerbate these issues, particularly mental health. Zimmer told the Forum that over 80% of the educators in the First Book network report seeing active critical mental health challenges with the children they serve — for Zimmer, “that's a gut punch.”

We're going to desperately need the next generation of engineers, of creators, of innovators. And that means they have to be educated.

Kyle Zimmer, President, CEO & Co-Founder, First Book

Education in a complex world

As the world gets more complicated, it becomes ever-more important that we are educating children as well as possible, and as equitably as possible.

“We're going to desperately need the next generation of engineers, of creators, of innovators,” she says.

“And that means they have to be educated. They have to have had that fuel that inspires them to imagine what the solutions to some of these critically challenging problems are. We need that. That's survival for all of us.”

As information changes around climate — and often other issues like technology, too — it is critical that we are "lifelong learners” equipped with the ability to learn and re-learn as new information emerges. Not only is this essential for staying up to date on the climate issue, but it is also a valuable skill in the ever-changing world of work.

“The problems are getting bigger. They're getting more challenging. And collaboration between sectors. Collaboration between organizations. Collaboration between countries.”

She adds: “We are not going to catch up to some of the issues that are confronting us unless we learn to collaborate on a daily basis.”

Watch Kyle Zimmer's full interview with the World Economic Forum here:

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