Global Literacy Efforts Aim To Reflect Readers And Their Representative Cultures
Accurate representation of cultures worldwide provides younger generations with the building blocks to thrive in a diverse and global economy. Pangea Educational Development Group aims to author a new generation of culturally relevant reading experiences for young students across the globe.
Pangea has been recognized for its innovative collaboration methods between public and private institutions and government bodies outside the U.S.
Professor Heather Aranyi of Northwestern University, an expert in both entrepreneurship and education and a Pangea advisory board member, describes the key value proposition of Pangea as follows, “The people in the story are telling the story. Children are seeing themselves and their families reflected in the lived experiences of the characters in the books. A relationship is created with the reader in which the reader is seen. This is a powerful mechanism in which to have a conversation addressing difficult topics.”
I spent time with Drew Edwards, CEO and co-founder of Pangea, to learn more about his vision and the international response to his efforts.
Edwards is a social entrepreneur with international development experience across sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. He has spent his career working in education with children in post-conflict and crisis settings. In addition, he has extensive experience in informal and primary education in low-resource settings.
His research interests include early childhood literacy, inclusion and belonging, and the intersection of violence and education. Edwards has spoken on education, migration, and development for several platforms and programs, including UNESCO, NPR, SXSW, and at universities around the globe.
Drew Edwards: We support change makers in their local communities by partnering with them to solve problems through educational resources. We do this by creating culturally relevant content and programs that help children learn to read while inspiring them to read more often.
Most children’s books are overwhelmingly homogenous. A study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that 77% of children’s books produced in 2018 in the United States feature no characters of color at all. Walk down the aisles of libraries and bookstores in other countries, like Uganda, and you will find an identical picture.
Since we started our publishing work three years ago, we have created over 100 different stories in partnership with the storytellers and change makers in their local communities. These books have reached children in 54 countries around the world.
Berger: How have the impacted countries responded to your collective efforts?
Edwards: World leaders are seeing the impact of Pangea’s collaborative-based curriculum in increasing literacy and reducing stigma. Whether in creating stories about how to mitigate the risk of contracting Covid-19 or reducing the stigma of girls attending school in South Sudan, Pangea tackles powerful challenges through non-colonized literacy resources. When children cannot see themselves in books, it not only affects children’s interest in reading, but it also affects how they learn to see themselves and others.
According to Edwards, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Vice President Jewel Howard-Taylor of Liberia, and Save the Children have all seen the powerful social changes occurring through the collaboration with Pangea.
Vice President Howard-Taylor describes the partnership as significant work. “At an early age, we have an opportunity to change the thought processes of children. At the end of the day, we want to see a changed behavior” so that schools and children can continue learning without disruption.
“In Liberia, we don’t have electricity everywhere. The issue of books is important. In rural communities, books are the essential tool for continuing learning. However, we are entering a digital age with infinite possibilities. We need to bring both more books and technology into our education system.”
Edwards is partnering with Vice President Howard-Taylor to bring more culturally relevant content specific to Liberia into schools around the country. There are many issues related to girl’s education, leadership, and values that have shifted since the war that will be integrated into the content plan.
The interview continued with a focus on issues of access and new means of distributing books to young people utilizing western influences of personalized experiences and media.
Berger: What did your service delivery look like before Covid-19? How has it changed since then?
Edwards: We work in three spheres of a child’s life: in the classroom, home, and community. We are proud of our coaching-based teacher training, which focuses on literacy instruction and happens in classrooms alongside teachers. We also run a Mobile Library service that delivers books in a Netflix-style subscription to create more reading opportunities at home.
Our books put more relevant material into communities. Aside from publishing, these services are delivered in-person, with significant time spent face-to-face with individuals. We have seen immense value and growth through the relationships we have built in our programs.
For the first few months of the pandemic, Covid-19 forced nine out of ten children around the world out of school. When classrooms locked up, some reopened their doors online. However, for most of the world, distance learning was not an option. 43% of homes globally and 82% on the African continent do not have a computer or access to an internet connection.
For many children, learning stopped completely as a direct result of the pandemic. In many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, schools are still closed. The World Bank has projected that the current impact will set educational progress back 10 years and cost $10 trillion of life cycle earnings.
In response to this moment, PANGEA adapted to meet kids where they are at. Many of our Mobile Libraries kept delivering books to homes, especially in the refugee communities we work in. We were even given ‘essential’ status. Our teacher training went online for some time and we made it available online for free.
Berger: How did the pandemic specifically impact market demand for your books?
Edwards: That is exactly what shocked us! We saw demand for our physical books skyrocket. Governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), schools, and individual families from around the world have been, and still are, demanding physical books. The demand has been so high that we have shifted our teacher trainers to make at-home learning activities to accompany our books to add more value for parents in this medium of delivery.
Berger: One might guess that analog is dead and has been for a long time — debunk that myth and please share the real-world application of analog and the relation to digital technologies.
Edwards: The digital era opens possibilities in every industry, especially education. The advances we have seen in hardware capacity, software development, and exciting applications for machine learning and disability assistance are glimmers into a hopeful future. Digital solutions are still largely dependent on infrastructure, heavily reliant on scale, and, as a result, not yet accessible to everyone.
These inequities have always existed. They have not disappeared during Covid-19; they have been exacerbated. Analog solutions like print and radio have long been reliable, low-cost solutions and they are seeing a resurgence as a result of Covid-19. Existing infrastructure plays a large part, but so does sustainability.
Berger: Has the pandemic provided a silver lining to the thinking behind traditional business models for charities, and if so, what should we glean from your current approaches?
Edwards: We have a diversified business model. Most nonprofit organizations are small and reliant on single sources of funding. Most small nonprofits are reliant on individual giving for sustainability and, hopefully, longevity. Sadly, Covid-19 has been a perfect storm to put a lot of needed organizations out of business at the worst possible time.
Our income is well diversified through our nonprofit publishing model. Having earned revenue streams that meet market demand while also providing a much needed service has proven to be a cash flow life raft during this volatile time. We are proud to be a stable service provider and that our impact has continued to grow.
There is also the opportunity for innovation. Professor Fernando Reimers of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the UNESCO Commission on the Futures of Education recently issued a challenge for the sector to recognize this moment of disruption as an opportunity for an education renaissance.
For us, this moment has pushed us to realize our strengths in how nimble we are and how quickly we can respond to an adapting reality. We have seen how beneficial this is for students and educators. We can develop relevant content in real-time to support learning in real-time. It has also lowered barriers to collaboration and funding that often benefit much larger organizations with more administrative strength.
Edwards believes the world currently faces its greatest educational disruption in a century, but it also stands to experience its potential greatest impact.
Professor Aranyi agrees with Edwards and added, “In times of massive disruption, there is the opportunity for massive innovation. Pangea’s quick pivot in its distribution model is an excellent example of why it is undergoing massive growth and recognition. Pangea is continuing to scale up and create outstanding educational resources with incredible storytellers and change makers throughout the globe.”
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.