How the Garden Library in Tel Aviv is growing community

Growing up with an Israeli mom and an American dad, I spent my summers in Tel Aviv and the school-year in New York.

South Tel Aviv was not an area we would frequent as a family. Distinguished by its proximity to the Central Bus Station – both the biggest bus terminal in the world and one of the most infamous urban planning disasters – the area is home to asylum seekers and migrant workers, many of whom who are transported there upon arriving to Israel.

Levinsky Park, only a few blocks long and wide, is a short walk away from the bus terminal. Walking home through the park with my sister Yael was consistently emotionally trying. People slept on and around playground constructs – huddled under plastic tarps to seek refuge from the rain – or just spent the day idling due to unemployment.

There is less homelessness now due to selective deportation, though the park remains the heart of the community of migrant workers and asylum seekers.

The communities that share this contentious space are vastly different linguistically, nationally, and culturally, though coexist due to affordability and circumstance. These qualities were what drew us to live in the neighborhood when Yael and I moved to Tel Aviv for our college studies a couple of years ago.

Moreover, these qualities are what inspired ARTEAM, an interdisciplinary art collective, to found the Garden Library in Levinsky Park in 2009, a beacon of hope amidst the often bleak landscape. A self-proclaimed “social-artistic urban community project,” the public library has helped transform the park, stitching together the disjointed, accidental community.


Photo credits: Tanja Rochow, Levinsky Garden Library, and Yael Krevsky.
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Talia Krevsky is a former Idealist team member who went on to actualize her idealistic pursuits in the Middle East, where she recently completed her Masters in Conflict Resolution and Mediation. She is committed to contributing to the transformation, or evolution, of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, creatively and non-violently.

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Why I keep sending books to prisoners

This week’s spotlight: all things books.

Letters

Letters from prisoners requesting books. (Photo via Kristin Stadum.)

I hate Wednesday.

I really hate Wednesday. The day wrecks me. I end up cold, tired and hungry, except in the summer I end up hot, tired and hungry because after work on Wednesday, I spend hours with DC Books to Prisons.

When a couple of friends mentioned the group, I started volunteering and in no time at all, I found myself wrapped in the cogs of this purely-volunteer organization that seemed almost organic in nature, surviving despite itself, because of itself, without rules, without structure, to put books in the hands of prisoners.

Over the years, I have picked and packed books, established a data repository, taken packages to the post office and fought to find a fiscal sponsor. Photography, writing, fundraising – whatever the group needed, I tried to do, but it wasn’t until I spearheaded a holiday fundraiser that I realized how wildly unpopular prison issues could be.

The project doesn’t have a steady source of income. The group survives on meager grants and responses to letters of appeal. The only real costs are the cost of the website, the mailbox, and shipping (media mail), which continues to rise. Even operating with such lean overhead, the organization struggles to survive.

Over the holidays, a local bookstore gave us the opportunity to tie together our skills – books and wrapping – by giftwrapping customers’ purchases for donations. The first year, I worked eight of the nine shifts we had, serving as the public face of DC Books to Prisons.

We don’t have a charming mascot, color or theme. We send books to an underserved and incarcerated population. A lot of people have problems with that. Very few are likely to wear our name on their sleeves and raise funds for prisoners. Many believe that prisoners just ought to be punished.

“Why?” a man asked as I wrapped his books. “Why do you care?”

While I quoted statistics on the current rate of incarceration (higher in terms of both sheer volume and per capita than anywhere else in the world), all I really wanted to say is that I care because somebody has to.

Our system is broken. Our justice system claims rehabilitation as a goal, not punishment, but in a world of diminishing resources, prisoners suffer. Libraries are cut as are educational programs, and recidivism is high. Those who enter prison on minor drug offenses walk out as hardened criminals without skills, resources or hope for the future, with criminal connections, without an education, and literacy helps stop that from happening. Showing basic human decency helps stop that from happening.

“Maybe in a way it’s a form of hope, which is nice considering all this negativity,” a prisoner from California recently wrote, expressing his wonder “to actually know that there are people out there who can do what they want, anytime they want, and still donate and volunteer their time, raise money… now that has an effect on a person to make him stop and think.”

The (mostly) men who write us don’t extoll their innocence. We don’t ask them to. We read their letters, try to find books that match their requests and include a brief note wishing them happy reading.

Even such brief notes reach their readers. Sometimes, I feel more than vaguely uncomfortable with the letters I get in response, the ones calling me an angel, a savior, a princess, the ones asking how many bedrooms I have, the ones offering information about impending parole dates. We don’t sign our full names or give personal addresses but we would not be hard to find, any of us, and I do get a lot of letters.

A lot of letters.

For some reason, though, I keep going on Wednesdays. Wrecked. Uncomfortable. Unsure of my own motivation but for the fact that someone needs to care. Then, something happens to remind me why I volunteer.

The day before Christmas, with a broken water heater at home and plans for one final giftwrapping shift, I found myself engaged in a conversation with the plumber’s assistant. In the July just past, he was exonerated of a crime he did not commit and released after serving 23 years of someone else’s sentence, someone identified through DNA evidence, someone who would never be tried because the statute of limitations had passed.

What do you do after 23 years behind bars? How do you move from 1989 to 2012 without climbing the steps in between? Cameras, music, and communication in pocket-sized computing devices with far too much information about everyone ever met with people checking in, checking out and checking their email all at the same time.

How do you explain a 23-year gap in a resume? How do you develop a relationship after 23 years on the inside? How could you ever go back inside any building ever again with the sun shining and a breeze blowing? I gave the man my attention, some cookies and a book on exoneration from my own shelves at home; then, I went to raise money for the project.

Since 1999, DC Books to Prisons has been answering individual inmates’ requests for reading material –fiction and nonfiction – with requests from all 50 states. Volunteers work with a donated library in borrowed space (from a local church) to pick and pack books. Requests range from dictionaries, drawing books, and westerns (all incredibly popular) to history, psychology, woodworking and electronics. Some of the prisoners are lifers, on death row or “in the hole” (solitary confinement) looking for a mental escape while others hope to learn a marketable trade for after their release.

Most of the prisoners who write us weren’t wrongfully convicted. They very well might deserve the sentences received but the ones who write us have nothing, no family or friends for support, no money, no options. We are their last resort, and whatever they did, they are serving their time. We can afford them basic human kindness and maybe a chance to learn, and so every Wednesday, cold, tired and hungry (except when I am hot), I send books to prisoners.

20130609_NYC0165Kristin Stadum lives and works in Washington DC, volunteering regularly with DC Books to Prisons as well as The Reading Connection where she reads books to (and encourages a love of reading in) children at a domestic violence shelter. In her free time, she travels, writes, walks, and raises money and awareness for breast cancer research.

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Try This! Team up with other literary organizations to pack a real punch

The idea

What do you do when you have an awesome literary nonprofit organization that happens to have a very similar mission to other groups your area?

Well, instead of competing for resources by throwing down in a bookish rumble for supporters and donors, some of the leading literary organizations and independent presses of the Twin Cities decided to join forces. The love child of their cooperation is LitPunch, an outreach initiative with a shared community-building goal.

Originally designed to draw in a new audience, LitPunch is a series of social networking events hosted by the editors, book reviewers, directors, and volunteer coordinators of the five participating literary organizations. Chris Jones, Marketing Director at The Loft Literary Center, explains that sharing responsibilities between the organizations has worked well for LitPunch because of good communication and mutual respect between the partnering groups. “We have a great working relationship because we’re all open and flexible,” he says.

punch cardEver-evolving, LitPunch offers community members a chance to chat with the minds behind some of the most prominent literary organizations and presses in the country. Back when LitPunch got its start in 2011, the gem of the program was an actual punch card that participants could get stamped at “punch worthy” readings and lit events around the cities. After filling a card by attending 12 events (a “knock-out”), the card could be used as a $15 gift certificate at a participating indie bookstore.

While this was a fun idea at first, about a year into the program, participants started complaining about losing or forgetting to bring their punch cards and the program started to lose steam. Rather than giving up on the idea, the organizers decided to tweak their approach and transformed the program into a series of social networking events (from punch cards to punch bowls, some would say).

Why you might like to try this

  • Distributes your marketing efforts. With literary events like readings, there is sometimes a burnout effect that comes from inviting the same core group of followers again and again. Pooling your lists and inviting a bigger number of folks to begin with can help avoid this. Teaming up also lends a razzle dazzle effect to events and makes them really special—people love knowing that this is the literary event to go to.
  • Lightens logistical responsibilities. Nonprofits and small presses are usually strapped for staff time and have a lot to do besides organizing community events. By sharing the responsibilities of who does what, you can lessen the burden on all of the groups.
  • Increases fans and supporters. One of the big questions the members of LitPunch had in the beginning was if they were already sharing the same core group of supporters. They each sent out a survey to try and figure this out, and what they found was encouraging. “Most people were at least aware of the other organizations, but they definitely became more aware after we teamed up. It seems like most felt connected to one or two of the organizations, but few were circled into all five very strongly,” Chris says. He considers this one of the biggest successes of their coalition—that LitPunch really has exposed people in the community to new opportunities.

How you can replicate it

Creating new coalitions can be a challenge, but Chris has some advice for nonprofits looking to team up, whether for a literary endeavor like LitPunch or otherwise.

litpunchmixer

Guests mingling at January’s LitPunch mixer.

1.Pick your collaborators wisely.
There comes to a certain point where without a central leader, trading off on responsibilities just isn’t efficient anymore. For the folks at LitPunch, five organizations is just right: “Any more and I think it would become a little unwieldy.” The most important trick to forming a strong coalition is to make sure that your missions are really on point. You want to be able to focus your efforts in the same direction when it comes to the consistency and style of your events, including collaborative efforts in grant proposals and reports, and reaching out to the right potential audience members.

2.Stay flexible.
Community projects need to be focused enough to have a clear goal that fits into what your organization does, but—especially when you’re working with other organizations—coalitions need to be able to change and grow with time. As Chris says, “If you’re too rigid, it’s just not going to work.” LitPunch has changed dramatically since its start in 2011, and its constant evolution has been a big part of its longevity.

3. Ask for feedback.
As LitPunch has grown up, the participating organizations have been very committed to seeking out and responding to feedback from their attendees. When people reported they were losing their punch cards too often to make it worthwhile, LitPunch did away with the cards. When people said they wanted to meet with more editors and talk books with the best of ‘em, LitPunch delivered. Give people what they want, and your program will be successful.

4. Make it fun.
The spirit of LitPunch comes from that nostalgic drive for racking up points and winning awesome prizes that many folks have carried with them since childhood. This fun energy has electrified all of the events and marketing efforts of LitPunch, even after the end of “knock-outs.” At the next LitPunch mixer in June, for example, attendees will be able to win prizes from their favorite presses and bookstores by playing literary signature bingo which rewards them for mingling with the editors and organizers of the participating LitPunch groups.

This consistent effort of LitPunch to give “normal” readings and literary events extra flare has certainly attracted a great deal of attention for the program and for the participating organizations.

“The turnout was overwhelming,” Chris says about the 2013 LitPunch kick-off this past January. “It was so cool to see a bar packed with people who were all there because they love books as much as we do.”


Interested in forming a similar coalition? Have questions about the upcoming LitPunch mixer in the Twin Cities on June 19? Contact Chris Jones at cjones@loft.org.

Rebecca Olson

 

Rebecca Olson is a writer and arts advocate living in Portland, Oregon.

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How communities around the world are promoting literacy and the joy of reading

The piece below was translated and edited from the original  Spanish version on the blog of our Spanish site Idealistas. The links below also go to Spanish websites. Check them out!

This week is banned books week in the US, where a variety of institutions like schools and libraries, come together to explore what books are challenged and why.

However, while we continue debate what to read, it’s still a great time to share the power and importance of reading. Around the world, communities are coming up with innovative ways to promote literacy.

Books by the pound in Madrid

Photo from “The Butcher Shop,” selling second-hand books by the pound in Madrid.

A former butcher shop now sells books for 10 euros per kilogram (about $6 per pound at the start of September 2012). It’s an ingenious way to keep second-hand books in circulation and brighten up an older city marketplace with the beauty of literature.

Mini libraries in Bogatá

Photo Credit: Fundalectura.org

In the capital of Colombia, Bus Stops for Books in Parks has operated for nearly 10 years with a clear mission: to encourage literacy for the entire nation. Every day, volunteers participate in staffing these miniature libraries where they lend books, read aloud, offer activities for children, and create opportunities for people to engage in conversation. There are 47 of these bookstops in the city of Bogotá and a total of 100 across the country.

Book exchanges in phone booths

Photo credit: Graceful Spoon

Thanks to the growth of cell phones, many of the phone booths in NYC go unused. New York City architect John Locke has found a creative opportunity to re-use these spaces as improvised book exchanges, where passers-by can leave or find books. New York follows Westbury-sub-Mendip in the UK, where a phone booth has served as a local site for exchanging books since 2009.

‘Bicicloteca’ in São Paulo

Photo Credit: Green Mobility, Creative Commons/Flickr

And lastly, from Brazil, this unusual library on wheels carries books to people who are unable to check them out, usually homeless people as they often lack the documents necessary for getting books from the library. Additionally, they use solar panels, which allows the Bicicloteca (a blend of Portuguese bicicleta + biblioteca) to access the Internet.

Do you know of another initiative where people are getting books to people who need or want them? Share in the comments below.

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Ideal to real: How to get books onto public buses?

An experiment: can our community’s collective brainpower help an idea become reality?

Every morning, Idealist staffer Amy Potthast reads books with her son on their 30-minute bus ride to his preschool.

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Experts say you should read with your kids 30 minutes a day. Photo by Khaleeka (Flickr/Creative Commons).

The bus route is long and circuitous, and travels through a mixed-race, mixed-income neighborhood full of families. Frequently other parents and their children board the bus, and Amy draws an attentive audience of kids who sit nearby and listen politely to the stories, looking at the book illustrations.

Amy keeps thinking that on long, family-populated buses like theirs, there should be milk crates at the front full of donated books for young riders and their parents to read on 20- to 30-minute bus rides.

She knows it’s a pipe dream, and realizes bus drivers may resist having to keeping up with books on the bus. In chatting with others, the main considerations seem to be:

1. Getting more parents on board in advance, including actual endorsements from and partnerships with groups such as the local PTAs, neighborhood associations, and Head Starts.

2. Working with drivers’ unions to get buy-in and to ensure that implementing such an idea wouldn’t impact the drivers’ ability to drive safely. The local transit authority is very sensitive to driver safety. They’re also careful with their public image.  If books caused children to misbehave in order to hear stories, the plan could backfire.

3. Placing the milk crates in a secure place is important: is there a way to use unused space that doesn’t compromise any seating or safety, and fastening the crates so they can’t slide around?

4. Building a strong grassroots organizing approach, bus-by-bus, with grassroots funding (e.g. private resources), including a pilot on a couple of lines first.

5. Determining policies regarding book borrowing and donation, then educating bus riders about the rules.

Amy would to love see this project grow and succeed. Can you help her with some advice?

  • Do you know of any other projects that place free reading materials on buses?
  • What organizations should be included in getting the project off the ground?
  • Who might fund this kind of project?
  • What resistance should we be prepared to respond to?
  • Do you know of any research that supports the value of reading to kids?
  • What other considerations should Amy keep in mind?

Leave a comment below and if the project progresses, we’ll keep you posted!

Do you have an idea that’s just starting to brew? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, email julia at idealist.org.

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