Meet Jamaica’s inaugural Literacy Heroes

Rachael McDonald, one of four winners of the inaugural Book Industry Association of Jamaica (BIAJ) Literacy Hero Award, stands in front of D Cawna Library, a fun and funky community gathering place that facilitates literacy building for both adults and children. Screenshot taken from this BIAJ YouTube video.

A version of this post was first published at the author's blog; an edited adaptation appears below.

Teachers, parents, readers, writers, and homework helpers everywhere could probably be considered the (unsung) heroes of literacy, but the Book Industry Association of Jamaica (BIAJ), the longest established trade association in the English-speaking Caribbean, wanted to take the concept a step further: a formal Literacy Hero Award.

Since 1989, the BIAJ has been working to promote literacy and the habit of reading for fun through its flagship event, the Kingston Book Festival, so an annual award recognising the people who promote literacy and reading as tools for change, development, inclusive prosperity, and cultural preservation seemed like a logical progression.

BIAJ announced the inaugural winners of the prize on February 23. The four honourees were selected after an intense national competition. More than 100 nominations were submitted by individuals and organisations spread over 10 of Jamaica’s 14 parishes.

BIAJ's Director of Special Projects Latoya West-Blackwood, who conceived the idea of the award, put it this way:

At the core of reimagining and reigniting a nation for greatness, must be a vision for literacy. Without this vision, we leave our youth in an extremely vulnerable position to face a present and future driven by knowledge.

The inaugural cohort includes a sustainable community library project, a mother/son-led social media reading campaign, a mobile bookstore and bibliotheraphy project, and a foundation established to honour the memory of a beloved “bookworm” sister. Here are Jamaica's first four literary heroes…

Photo of Rachael McDonald by Imani Williams, courtesy the Book Industry Association of Jamaica, used with permission.

Rachael McDonald

So named because of its location at the corner of Duff and Moore Streets in Rose Town on Jamaica's south coast, Di Cawna Library was designed to support the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Number 4 and Number 11, by promoting access to quality education for both adults and children, while contributing to the creation of sustainable and peaceful communities.

McDonald, a trained educator and early childhood specialist, repurposed refrigerators into bookshelves and allowed people to borrow, read and return books at any time. The library also programmed activities to support mental health and positive thinking, as well as environmental awareness. Birthed through consultation with community members who expressed a desire for support in order to elevate the literacy rate in the area, the Rose Town model is now successfully expanding into — and benefitting —surrounding communities. There are plans to launch new Cawna Libraries in Montego Bay, Bull Bay, and Treasure Beach this year.

Photo of Kirk Scarlett by Imani Williams, courtesy the Book Industry Association of Jamaica, used with permission.

Kirk Scarlett

Two decades ago, I-Nation Books and Necessities was created after its founder, Kirk Scarlett, was unable to find sufficient Pan-African literature in local bookstores. His passion for inspiring change in the youth in his community led him to use the power of books to make a difference. I-Nation came into being as a mobile Pan-African bookstore, but it can also be credited for feeding the minds of now-established reggae artists Jah9, Protoje and Kabaka Pyramid.

By selling and donating books annually, Scarlett's business is creating a much wider social impact. Its most recent donation was a batch of financial books to residents of Tivoli Gardens (which has the dubious distinction of being Jamaica's first political garrison community), which helped prepare them for their participation in a financial literacy forum hosted by NATTY Platforms and Stocks on The Rocks.

I-Nation also launched a reading programme for children at the historical landmark Devon House, where celebrities volunteer their time, and have helped fuel this powerful movement.

Simone Sobers and Geraldine Reid

Photo of Simone Sobers (L) and Geraldine Reid (R) by Imani Williams, courtesy the Book Industry Association of Jamaica, used with permission.

Since its launch in 2021, the Winsome Wishes For Kids Foundation has worked to assist struggling learners. A natural philanthropist who was inspired by her late sister Winsome's love of books, Sobers set out to serve her local community of children who were living with intellectual disabilities.

Through the foundation, the Sobers/Reid duo has provided them with access to literature in an effort to nurture a positive relationship with reading, and it has equipped teachers with innovative tools to match students’ various learning styles. The organisation has also partnered with eight schools island-wide and donated 235 books, directly reaching 105 students. In 2022, the group's three-week summer camp supported these children in improving their reading levels and overall literacy proficiency, and increased their love for reading.

Photo of Marion Carter and her son Luca Phillips by Imani Williams, courtesy the Book Industry Association of Jamaica, used with permission.

Marion Carter and Luca Phillips

Mother/son team Marion Carter and Luca Phillips began their journey to becoming literary heroes by starting an online community on Instagram, where they share their love for books and reading. At first, Carter simply shared books that Luca was reading on her personal page; she noticed she would get questions from many of her followers, most of whom were also parents.

Her book choices were deliberately selected to reflect Caribbean culture, history, and other experiences that Carter wanted her son and his peers to relate to. Today, the page is a growing resource for parents, educators, and anyone who wants to easily identify fun, educational books with positive cultural representations. Carter believes that reading should not be a punishment, but a fun way to bond, share stories, nurture values and instil positive attitudes. As such, parents and guardians learn how to get children into reading as a habit from a young age. Carter and her son also want to inspire Caribbean people to support regional children’s book authors. Their latest effort has centered around collecting children’s books to donate to those in need via schools, homes and community libraries.

Each of the awardees received a medal and a cash grant of JMD 75,000 each (just under USD 500), which they will no doubt put towards more literacy-building efforts.

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