250 Million Children Don’t Know How to Read. Here’s What Tanyella Evans Is Doing About It
Badass Women celebrates women who show up, speak up and get things done.
Five years ago, while working with an organization building the Academy for Peace and Justice, the first free high school in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tanyella Evans had an idea.
After noticing a lack of basic reading material in Haitian schools, she came up with a seemingly simple way to make books more accessible for the millions of children struggling to learn how to read and write across the globe. To get her idea off the ground, she created a Kickstarter campaign, raising about $110,000. The funds were used to found Library For All, a "tech-startup"-like digital platform that makes early-grade reading material much more readily available in developing countries.
“The biggest thing for me was getting emails from schools and organizations all around the world saying, ‘If you build this, we'll use it,’” Evans tells InStyle. “That's when I knew we were really on to something with this idea of creating a [literary] network that was going to be available to everyone.”
As of last Thursday, 31-year-old Evans is still expanding her nonprofit (with help from like-minded entrepreneurs Taniya Benedict and Isabel Sheinman), transforming Library for All into a publishing hub called NABU.org where books will not only be distributed, but also written and translated. “I think charity is changing,” Evans says. “Young people don't see barriers between nations and people. And NABU.org, for me, represents the power of us, working together towards a world without exploitation that includes our communities in Rwanda and Haiti just as much as our community here in New York.”
Global perspective: Evans has been involved in nonprofit work since she was 17, when she volunteered as a teacher in Uganda. “I did that for a year, and realized that we put up these barriers between people who come from different places, or look different from us, or sound different, but we're really all the same,” she says. The young change-maker turned her curiosity toward the root of poverty and made it her mission to do something about it. “I wanted to understand why poverty exists, and what the systems are that keep people poor,” she says.
Evans then applied to the University of Cambridge to study the politics and the economics of international development. "There I learned that that poverty doesn't exists because of some kind of natural state, or a natural inferiority of any person, or a superiority of any nation over another,” Evans says. “Poverty exists because there is an exploitive system that keeps people from being able to lift themselves out of poverty and that’s what I want to change."
Model progress: The original Library For All platform operates with two different models, one for mobile use and another for schools. The mobile model is accessible to anyone who has a smart phone in Haiti, Rwanda, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, so far. Users simply go to the GooglePlay store, download the app, and download a book for reading offline. The other “hub” model works with a server that students can connect to while at school. Administrations purchase a set of 30 low-cost tablets and share them with students. Now that NABU.org has upgraded to a publishing network, it's become a place where writers, illustrators, students, and teachers can come together to search, read, and publish materials too.
NABU.org’s origin: “We’re evolving into publishing because, as we were trying to bring together books for children at the early-grade reading level, we saw that there wasn’t enough content available, especially in local languages like Creole or Kinyarwanda,” Evans explains. Last year, Library For All hosted a writer's workshop in Haiti, where they successfully facilitated the creation of more than 200 books in Haitian Creole within a few months.
NABU.org hopes to build on that success, worldwide. For Evans, all roads lead back to her initial dream of eradicating poverty. “For me, it’s not just about providing digital books anymore,” Evans says adding that she sees NABU.org as a way to build a literate world in a broad sense, giving people the tools to fulfill their potential.
NABU.org's own name reflects its greater purpose. The word “NABU” is in reference to a god of writing or scribe symbolizing wisdom and the power of literacy for Evans and her NABU.org co-founders. “Think about our current political landscape—the apathy, alienation, isolation, ripping children from their mother's arms at the border, kicking out refugees—I don’t think that would be happen if we had a real understanding of people who don't necessarily look like us,” Evans says. “I think that understanding comes from being exposed to different cultures early on [through literacy]. And of course, I have world-domination plans: to be the largest provider of digital books in local languages across the world, providing content for communities that are often disenfranchised by traditional publishing.”
Female-focus: While interning with the Campaign for Female Education in the UK, Evans met founder Ann Cotton. “She was one of the pioneers of women and girls' education before it was even sexy,” Evans says, fondly reflecting on her time in the UK learning from Cotton. “She went against everything that was expected of her and really inspired me to think bigger about the impact that I can have on the world.”
Overcoming obstacles: “Personally, I think that being an entrepreneur can be an isolating journey,” Evans says when asked about challenges she faced early on with Library For All. “I think that sometimes it's hard to find people who want to mentor an early-stage entrepreneur, probably because a lot of ventures fail and people give up on things like that.”
Specifically, Evans remembers dealing with the potential loss of about $90,000 in funding when the Trump administration announced cuts to the foreign aid budget. But Evans soldiers on, basing her drive on the words “finish what you begin,” which came to her in a dream shortly after she started her organization.
Up next: Travel. Evans is headed to Rwanda in a couple weeks to launch NABU.org’s first writer's workshop there in effort to bring more local-language books to the area.
Social growth: Running an organization that’s grown like wildfire since its inception poses a unique challenge, like how to brand a new org on social media. Figuring that out can be a life-altering learning curve. “I used to be really skeptical about [branding],” Evans says. “I thought, "Why do we need to invest in our brand or communications? What does it really matter?" But I've learned that a brand is just the artistic projection of your core values.”
Evans adds that NABU.org's core values are to be egalitarian and omnipresent. "At the end of the day, it’s 2018 and 250 million children don't know how to read. There’s no reason for that.” Enter: NABU.org, which promises to be a place where people can "'read to rise,’ Evans says. "Whether they want to publish content, read content, or fund more people getting access to books."