The Mariposa DR Foundation: Digging into the Community
Pam Brooks with library patron Erik Willis and members of the Tropyband Orquestra, who helped celebrate Scotch Plains Library's official Big Read kickoff. Photo by Joshua Feist, Arts Midwest
One of my favorite things about the Big Read is its capability to not only engage a community through a good book, but its ability to reach into a community, bringing forth issues and concerns that otherwise would not have been illuminated. This week, I listened to a first-hand account of this as Pam Brooks, head of teen and adult services at Scotch Plains Public Library in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, discussed the transformative power of the Mariposa DR Foundation, its connection to Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, and the inspiring impact both have had on the community.
On Wednesday, January 9th, the Scotch Plains Public Library presented two talks by Jessica Lawson, co-founder and associate director of the Mariposa DR Foundation, which took place at the local high school in the afternoon, and at the library in the evening. Lawson’s presentation focused on the Mariposa DR Foundation’s investment in the girls of the Dominican Republic, and the importance of educating and empowering young women globally through the "Girl Effect."
“It was a truly dramatic and gripping presentation. People wanted to know what opportunities there were to get involved. How could they help? What could they do?” says Brooks. One way Brooks is encouraging the community to get involved is through the rich partnerships Library Director Meg Kolaya and Pam have established through the Big Read. These partnerships, specifically the library’s strong relationship with the school district, enable the words and mission of the Mariposas, Julia Alvarez, and the Big Read as a whole to reach more deeply into the community.
Below, Brooks provides further insight into the Mariposa’s mission, her continued motivation to dig into her community, and her vision of the future for the Big Read at Scotch Plains Public Library.
NEA: What inspired you to coordinate this particular event with the Mariposa DR Foundation?
PAMELA BROOKS: Early on, we knew we wanted to have some kind of service element as part of our Big Read. There's a bigger world out there, and there is a need for people to step up and participate in it. We wanted to look for something that had some kind of connection to the book, and some kind of connection with the idea of empowering women. We also wanted to get the students in the schools we were partnering with enthusiastic about doing something active to help other people. The high school students are involved in many, many projects, and they seem to like to work on service projects. As I researched the Mariposa Foundation, more and more it seemed to be a nice fit. Our students in the high school have an innovative program called Global Perspectives. It was launched several years ago, and now the program is spreading down to the lower grades as well. The educators who we are working with on the Big Read all were very, very interested in having a Big Read project tie in with the Global Perspective curriculum. We all wanted to get the kids to participate. It's a larger world, and we want them to realize the direction that we're all going in is global. So, to me this was a logical fit because if we have adolescents in Scotch Plains getting involved and adolescents in the Dominican Republic getting involved, we are connecting them globally.
NEA: The Mariposas advocate something called the Girl Effect. What exactly is the Girl Effect?
BROOKS: Their 2011 annual report explains this perfectly: “The girl effect is a movement created by Nike Foundation, NoVo Foundation, United Nations Foundation, and Coalition for Adolescent Girls. It's about the unique and indisputable potential of adolescent girls to end poverty for themselves and the world...The girl effect is about helping girls, but it's also about turning moms, dads, uncles, brothers, and cousins into girl champions. Girls’ life experiences are affected by the men around them in both positive and negative ways. Poverty places a heavy burden on many fathers, husbands, and sons because in most societies, men are expected to be the main providers of the family. At the same time, girls continue to be raised in households where they are expected to shoulder the burden of household labor alongside their mothers. They spend about 33%-85% more time on unpaid care work than boys." So, the Mariposas say that if you can form partnerships within the community and connect the social services not just for the girls but for the families as a whole, then you elevate the girl's status in the community. The rest of the family is getting a benefit, and the rest of the community is getting a benefit from improved school facilities, improved medical care, etc. The families then have motivation to keep the girls in school. This is a hard thing if you're a poor family and you have a choice between having the girl do some work and seeing immediate results, or delaying her education. This shows families that there are other benefits you can see while she's being educated that help the family, and the community.
NEA: How do you think the Girl Effect connects to Alvarez’s In the Time of Butterflies?
BROOKS: The book is about a group of young women growing up in a society that is not only male-dominated, but is also [ruled by] a dictatorship that abuses women. You have the story of a family of sheltered traditional women who, at some point, feel that they have to step out of their traditional roles. They are brave and confront something that is frightening for them and puts their lives in danger, but ultimately they do it for the good of their families and for the good of their society. So I think but it's really a powerful novelization of a true story, and one that is about partly empowering women to make change.
NEA: The centerpiece of the event was a talk lead by Jessica Lawson, associate director and co-founder of the Mariposa DR Foundation. Can you talk a bit about her presentation?
BROOKS: She was here for two events. She came in mid-afternoon to speak to high school students, and then in the evening she came to the library and spoke to the community. For both presentations, she started with a discussion on the Girl Effect, and later talked about more specifics of the Mariposa Foundation. She showed a very gripping, riveting video about some of the things that girls are up against in the world, and how 12 years old seems to be a pivotal age. If you catch a girl at 12 and can get her into a program like the Mariposas, you can probably stop her from dropping out of school, getting pregnant at a very young age, and getting into a cycle of generational poverty. Jessica explained that if a girl can be educated and empowered, have her medical needs taken care of, and has something productive to do over the summer, you can hopefully break the chain of generational poverty. They have about 75-100 girls in the program at the same time, and they tend to come from the same family or neighborhood. So far, their success has been measured in a number of ways, one being that every girl in the initial program has each passed the age their mother first gave birth without themselves having children.
NEA: Were there any questions or discussion following the presentation?
BROOKS: Nobody asked questions at the high school---I think high school students are a little shy about asking questions in public. When there were no questions, Jessica told them a little bit about herself. I think this was so effective because it gave the kids someone to identify with. She's very young and very cool and from the U.S., and she discussed how she got interested, and why at first she was resistant at getting involved. After she spoke, all the kids that were shy about asking questions lined up to speak with her individually. They wanted to know if there were opportunities to volunteer in the Dominican Republic, and how they could help. During her evening presentation at the library, there was a nice mixture of teens and adults of every age. Again, people wanted to know: what can we do? How can we get involved?
NEA: Could you talk about the school district partnerships you have formed as a result of the Big Read? How did working with the schools influence your selection of In the Time of the Butterflies as your Big Read book?
BROOKS: When we first decided to apply for the Big Read, our first phone call was to the schools. We contacted the subject supervisors for social studies, language arts, and world languages. Did they want to partner with us? Did they want to work with us? What book should we choose, and how did we all want to proceed? We chose In the Time of The Butterflies largely because it was such an appropriate title for the Global Perspectives curriculum at the schools. As I mentioned, the schools are very involved in the Global Perspectives curriculum, which started out for 10th and 11th grade and has now moved through the middle schools and into the elementary schools. All the high school students will be reading the book, and they've bought many different copies that will change hands in different cycles, so everyone gets a chance to read it. In the middle schools, the students will be reading another one of Alvarez's works, Before We Were Free, which touches on a lot of the same themes, but isn't as disturbing as In the Time of the Butterflies can be. Then in the elementary schools, they'll be chances for the kids to read excerpts from other works Alvarez has written, as well as discuss the Big Read.
NEA: Are there any other community partners you have that you find particularly meaningful?
BROOKS: Our partnership with the New Jersey City University is one that I'm really proud of. The University is in Jersey City, which is about a 30-40 minute drive from us, so it’s not our closest partner. We did a series of programs with them a couple of years ago called Our Cities, Our Selves. It was a way for us, in our suburban community, to explore the ways that we look at our neighboring big cities, what our relationship is with them, what these cities give to us, and what we give back to them. Shortly afterwards, we got a phone call from the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences there saying, "Hey, I just read about the Big Read. What was it, and how can we work together in the future?" The Big Read gave us an opportunity to knock on their door and speak with them. We will have three of their professors speak here on Dominican and Haitian history, the women in Alvarez's novels, and Latin American history through literature. One of their art students actually designed our big read logo that we use in our materials. When we had our opening concerts, two of the twelve person salsa band that performed were students at the university. Our partnership with the Literacy Volunteers of Union County is one that seemed quite natural to us because most of our non-English native speakers are Spanish-speaking. The Literacy Volunteers’ mission is to help people read English. As a result of our partnership, we bought about a dozen copies of another one of Alvarez's books, the Tia Lola series, made copies in both Spanish and English, and worked with families to read the book. The idea is that the children will help their parents with English, the parents can feel comfortable with the Spanish, and they can all read and discuss the books together. Our last partner is the Friends of the Scotch Plains Library who fund a lot of what we do, and provide volunteers for a lot of our programs as well. We couldn’t do it without them.
NEA: How do you think these partnerships are benefiting the Big Read, as well as the library in general?
BROOKS: I think anything that takes the library and puts it in the middle of a community [like the Big Read does] can only benefit that community. One thing that we're really conscious of at this library is civil discourse. We want this to be a place where people come together to discuss things. They can have opposing views, but be able to sit down as a community and discuss issues, learn new things, and broaden everyone's horizons. So, the Big Read is something that fits directly into what we are trying to do as a library, and what the schools are trying to do. Without spending a dime, anyone in the community can come in and listen to a world class scholar talk about a subject that interests them, or a subject they want to learn more about. What an opportunity for people that like reading to come in and be a part of book discussions. It’s also an incredible opportunity for people who aren't sure they like reading, but want to learn more! People are able to get their feet wet in an environment that's non-threatening and welcoming to everyone. I think that between the reading, music, and art events that we'll have, we will create an open invitation for people to come in, discover what interests you, and spend some time with your neighbors. In a community like ours where people are busy and commute to far-away places, having time to be part of your community is really a wonderful thing.
NEA: What would you say is the overall goal, or desired result, of these partnerships?
BROOKS: I think it's certainly to bring the community together. It's also to find out what the other non-profits and organizations in our communities do, who their constituents are, and how can we can all open our arms to embrace the community. I also think it's a way to join forces, not just for the Big Read, but to create ongoing relationships within the community that will continue after the Big Read. Our partnerships can only really enrich the community.
NEA: Where do you see the library going in the future with the Big Read?
BROOKS: I certainly see us continuing to add programs to this Big Read. We've redone our leaflet maybe a dozen times because we keep having new ideas and we keep adding more. For instance, when we were all set to go a couple weeks ago, we said, “What about El dia de los niños?” This is a day that various library organizations have designated as a time for children from all cultures to appreciate reading and diversity. So, before long, we're working with Michelle Willis, the head of the children's department and brainstorming activities we can do that tie in the Big Read with El dia de los niños. Our read-a-thon is another example of extending the Big Read into the future. Michelle suggested that the end of our read-a-thon could be Read Across America Day, which creates another opportunity to bring readers on board with the Big Read through other programs. So, the future of the Big Read will be certainly be to make the programs that we already decided on a success. We want people know what the Big Read is, and to want more. We hope to just keep finding these serendipitous things that we can do with the Big Read right now as we move forward.