Before there was even a Global Literacy Project, there was a group of friends who met while in college at Rutgers University. They were excited about the world of ideas so they would do somewhat eccentric things. This included holding Wednesday night discussion sessions where they would invite interesting people that they met on campus to discuss, debate, and sometimes (often) agree to disagree.
The great thing was that by the end of the first round of their college experience at Rutgers they had committed to staying in touch. That was a fortuitous connection when a member of the group, Denniston, ended up working in the Caribbean. He was approached by a teachers and students in a Carib (the remnants of the indigenous people) area school who did not have books and supplies to prepare for the national exam. Remembering that fellow group member Olubayi solved the same problem (in a school by his home area of Western Kenya) by tapping his network of acquaintances to provide the supplies Denniston replicated the strategy successfully. So, even before there was a formal Global Literacy Project, the friends helped to donate books and literacy supplies to individuals in need.
By 1997 Denniston was back at Rutgers along with Olubayi, Edward, Kavitha and Wendel. They all agreed that they had an obligation to not simply horde the skills that they had been lucky enough to master—the problem was in deciding on what vehicle to use for this process. They then proceeded to develop series of ideas/business models around education and scholarship, ideas which all seem to run aground. As their friend Emeka was demonstrating the power of educational publishing at Elsevier, they also picked his brain for ideas… still slow going. Edward and Kavitha came up with the first concrete product, W.I.S.E., an idea for a series of publications coupled with workshops that would be of use to first generation college students as well as any aspiring college students. Even with this idea, not much momentum occurred.
In 1999, a crucial intersection occurred. Olubayi was asked about his visit back to Kenya and he told of how shocked he was by the state of the schools that he had attended. This led to a discussion about what was the crucial element that impacted everyone in the group during their earliest school years. The consensus was that having access to books and people close by who modeled a culture of reading had the most impact. This led Olubayi to suggest that a bigger version of the group’s habit of book donations be tried. In fact, he contacted a former mentor, a Minister in the Kenyan government, Hon. Albert Ekirapa (who was also related to another close friend, Mabel Epelu) and received a commitment that the minister would help pay for freight and clear the donation through customs for us. Eventually the African Studies Association (U.S.) – Book Donation Committee would also provide a grant of $927.50 towards shipping costs–this ensured that the 1/4 of costs not covered would be met.
Thereafter a more concerted book collection effort began. One of Dr. Leonard Bethel’s students, Sivan Yosef, got interested when she heard about the idea and spread the word to many groups that she worked with, such as the American Association of University Women which invited the group to collect some books that they thought would be appropriate for us. We thought we were going to pick up 10-15 boxes of books. They had over 5,000 books waiting for us! After a few pleasant surprises like that, we had a shipment of 17,000 books heading to Kenya in spring 2000!
We kept getting offers for more book donations and before we knew it, we had three times the first amount collected and in storage. Unfortunately we were broke and simultaneously struggling to pay for everything out of our own pockets and were wondering how we could afford the cost of shipping two containers. At that point, Thelma Tate (in picture to left), a senior Rutgers Librarian who had begun volunteering with us, stepped in and assisted in funding the freight costs of one container.
Thelma then helped obtain donations of science journals which attracted the attention of Jomo Kenyatta University in Kenya. That university would eventually sponsor a shipment as well as establish a scholarship system for ten poor students per year from the schools that we selected in Western Kenya. By this point, Thelma Tate (along with Bill and Diana Dade who sponsored the storage of all those books for a year), insisted that we had to get organized and incorporated as an NGO as it was obvious that we had an organization that was growing.
And so, by 2002, the Global Literacy Project, Inc. had accomplished enough to be recognized with a commendation by the New Jersey State Assembly!