BOOK HARVEST

Based in North Carolina, Book Harvest aims to transform lives through literacy. Book Harvest provides an abundance of books and ongoing literacy support to families and their children from birth and serves as a model for communities committed to ensuring that children are lifelong readers and learners. Their vision is of a world in which reading, learning, and access to information are considered rights, not privileges, so that all children thrive.

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness

I am so pleased today to be joined by Ginger Young from Book Harvest in
Durham, North Carolina. Thanks for joining us today, Ginger.

 

Ginger Young

Thanks so much, Molly, glad to be here.
 

Molly Ness

Start by telling us, what is Book Harvest, who is the population that you serve
and how did you guys get started in this work to end book deserts?

 

Ginger Young
Book Harvest is an organization that is based in Durham, North Carolina, trying to...let
me start over. Book Harvest is an organization I found in 2011. I was long bothered by
the idea that my three children had loads of book sitting everywhere. We would trip
over them in our family room and they were just totally within reach in every room of our
house. Not surprisingly my three kids grew up to be really avid readers. I knew that just
a half-mile from my house were kids who had no books at all and that deeply troubled
me. In 2011 I decided to just try an experiment, which was to ask my kids to clean off
our bookshelves of books that they had read and loved but were no longer reading.
They were all teenagers at that point. I made the perhaps fortunate mistake of
mentioning that to a couple of friends who thought it was such a great idea to shake out
the books that they were done with and had found meaningful to their kids. I said to my
friends, any books that my kids give me I am going to make sure end up in the hands
and homes of kids who need them. My friends ended up bringing me so many books of
their own for that same purpose and I felt that I had to honor that commitment I had
made to make sure that the books that were donated to me could end up in hands and
homes of kids who needed them. Within six weeks I had six thousand books in my
garage. The title wave of books had started and I was really blown away by how much
our community had an activist grassroots muscle to try and solve this problem of book
access and book inequities. That was the point in which I began reading some of the
research and realizing that my anecdotal observations were actually systemically
significant and I began thinking hard about our own systems here in Durham, North
Carolina and across our state about how can we eradicate book deserts in our own
community and across our state with the muscle that our communities have who have
had the privilege of owning books and understand how powerful and important that is.
In 2012 I hunkered down, even more, to make it the experiment of collecting and
providing books to families who needed them a little more rigorous and comprehensive.

Just fast forward to today, we did run that effort out of the back of my minivan for a
couple of years. It was a mobile effort that was spent driving books to places where
kids go who might be able to select books to take home; picking up donations from
people all around the community; watching it grown continually. It’s never stopped
since that first simple experiment. What we have today is a really wonderful portfolio of
programs that address the challenge and the problem of book deserts, of access to
books and literacy support for families and children starting at birth. In fact, that is Book
Harvest’s mission. We do aspire to provide books and literacy support to children and
families from the time the children are born all the way through the child’s first decade.
We do it in a variety of ways. We have a rich portfolio. The foundation of which is a
book bank that basically makes sure books are present and available to be selected to
take home and keep to build home libraries everywhere families and children go. There
are three places families and children show up in their daily lives. Those are home,
school, and community. We have an intervention, a program, that addresses each of
those three domains, and within each of those is the ubiquitous book access
opportunity...the opportunity to build home libraries and fill up bookshelves and
bedside tables with books. We are deeply in the midst of figuring out how we take book
access and book ownership to scale both in Durham and inner-state, and we're working
hard to come up with a variety of scaffold delivery supports for children and families that
want their power to be literacy champions for their children’s early brain development.

 

Molly Ness

Let me pause there. I am sort of chuckling as you speak because your
foundation or your origin sounds very similar to what is happening literally on the
front porch of my home. I live outside of New York City in an upper-middle-class
area that sounds similar to you. People have been bringing books to my front
porch. We call it the Porch Project. Since August...so the past six
months...we’ve collected 10,000 books.


Ginger Young

Wow. Congratulations!
 

Molly Ness

Yes. Like you, I think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew because in addition to

raising a kid and having a full-time job and doing this podcast, I don’t necessarily
have the time or the manpower to literally move all these books so I am now
actually searching for places to give them, and I have no visions and no hopes to
start a nonprofit. This is my work in Book Deserts. I am laughing because you’re
starting block sounds exactly like what is going on. What I’ve noticed in my
community is people are so eager to say my kids love these books and I just hate
the idea that they’re just going to end up on a shelf in Goodwill or at the bottom of
a dumpster or what have you, and by just doing that and putting literally a
recycling bin on my front porch and putting notifications out on social media, the
response has been overwhelming, and it’s brought awareness to this idea that
people don’t know about Book Deserts and book access, and that’s even an issue
in the town on the other side of the highway or in the community five miles down
the road. What you started from your humble beginnings has really turned into a
much more holistic, systemic, thoughtful approach to book desert. Start
explaining some of the projects that may have had the origins in just a book 
repository, a book collection, but really have become more thoughtful
programming to provide access at early ages.

 

Ginger Young
Absolutely. Let me just congratulate you on what you’re doing because this is what
excites me so much, is that there is not a single community in our country that can’t take
the civic engagement and the passion of our community to solve this problem. We can
do enormous things together community by community, book by book, child by child,
family by family, just by doing what you’re doing with the front porch. I love that. When
I was in the midst of figuring out that there was something there in the early years...I am
an information junkie, so I was reading a lot about brain development and early literacy,
and what I figured out was...way back then...that there are a couple of periods in a
child’s first decade that are especially...have great opportunity and pose great
challenges in terms of the ability to lay the foundation for future school success and
further reading proficiency. Those are really, to put it simply, the period from birth to
five when 90 percent of the brain is developed and the infrastructure for a lifetime of
reading and learning is laid, and once a child is in school, every summer, because even
in the most under-resourced schools children are getting tons of stimulation and
vocabulary and other things nine months of the year. Then they go into a space of
great vulnerability every summer where they slide and have a lot of challenges if they
can’t keep up on their own. I began thinking about how can we take this wonderful book
flow that I am witnessing and being a part of and add to it some heft around providing
support to families in the first five years, and then again in the summers, really being
targeted about those as a critical period of vulnerability and opportunity. In 2012, we
began a pilot that addressed a summer learning loss challenge that children from low-income families have an especially big challenge around with a program we called then
and still call today books on break. It’s a very simple program. It’s a very elegant
program and it’s a much-loved program. We basically take our best and most wonderful
books that have been donated for children ages five to ten...kindergarten through fifth
grade...and we bring them to our schools at the end of the school year. We put on what
is a giant book fair, give the children a string backpack to fill up with books that they
choose, and encourage them to take those home and read them over the summer. It is
the most joyful experience to watch the kids select their books. In our full intervention
schools we’re providing ten books for every child. They always select their own books.
I want to underscore that. In our schools that have less significant needs, it’s three
books or more. Last year in Durham every single child in K through 5 was able to take
books home for the summer. If you can provide simple tools to help summer
enrichment take place, you’ve done a ton. As we know from the research of Richard
Ellington and Anne McGill-Franzen out of Tennessee that was done in Florida back in
2010, you’ve done a ton to help address summer learning loss head-on. It’s not
enough, but it’s an important start. So, Book Harvest was born in 2012. It’s not gone
system-wide in Durham. Basically, we are now doing a lot of technical assistance with
other communities across our state. We’ve created toolkits and templates for any
community to be able to do this work. We believe that at the heart of it has to be
students choosing their own books and getting as many books as possible. We do add
to our book donations now...books that we purchase...so that we can make sure that
we’re bringing to the school's books that are culturally diverse and inclusive and that 
when the child picks up a book the child can see characters who look like themselves.
There is a lot about this that has gotten better each year. We have a long way to go,
but I am very excited about the trajectory that we’re on. If I can turn back to the more
fundamental part of a child’s life, the first five years, I’ll tell you what we develop there.
Books on Break began in 2012 and it’s taken off and it’s really got deep roots in the
community and across the state now, and I am very proud of it. I invite anybody who
wants to tackle summer learning loss with a book provision program to get in touch.
We’d love to hear what they’re doing, learn from them, and share our own materials.
The period from birth to five is a Wild West frontier in our country. We know that every
child starts kindergarten with the same general experience. Public education provides
that. What happens in the five years up to that is anybody’s guess. What it tends to do
is privilege those who are already privileged and have resources. Parents with means
will make sure their kids are in a good pre-K or are getting enrichments, are taking
advantage of resources to help develop young brains. Parents who have less
resources have fewer resources, have a much harder time. It does not need to be this
way. There are some very simple things we can do to accompany parents through
those first five years of their child’s life that have nothing to do with the color of their skin
or how much money they make. I say it 50 times a day. There is nothing...within every
parenting caregiver is the power to create the ecosystem for a child that brings them to
the kindergarten door ready to learn. We don’t act like that as a society and we need to
change that. In 2013 I had read a whole bunch of research and I had the year before
developed a prototype for what we could do to accompany parents from the time their
child is born through those first five years with books and literacy support. We launched
it in 2013. We called it back then Book Babies. It’s still called that today. Like Books
on Break, it’s come a long way. The idea was Book Babies is simple. We show up on
the doorstep of parents from the time they have a newborn...three times a year,
roughly...with a stack of brand new age-appropriate developmentally appropriate
books...and we sit with them on their couch, at their kitchen table. We model dialogic
reading/interactive reading, and we answer questions, we ask them what their goals are
for their child and we respond in ways that address what their goals are. We keep
showing up over five years. We develop loving/trusting relationships with the parents
where they see us as true collaborators in this work to make sure their child has
everything they need to show up at kindergarten ready to learn. It makes no difference
if the parents are literate if they had bad experiences themselves with the educational
system, which is often the case. We can help them see that they have enormous power
to help nourish their child’s early intellect and brain development. Our babies who
enrolled as newborns in 2013 graduated from the program in 2018 are now in first
grade. We had another cohort of babies born in 2014 graduate this past June and are
now halfway through kindergarten. We continue to enroll babies every year since then.
I believe that this is the kind of light touch literacy support and book provision
intervention that could be population level. It’s affordable. We think it’s showing some
really powerful results around kindergarten readiness that are in direct contradiction to
what is typically the case from children for low-income households starting kindergarten
where the numbers can be quite daunting about their readiness. We’re optimistic.
We’ve got a long way to go to measure and evaluate this. We’re deep into evaluation
right now with two community longitudinal randomized controlled trial evaluation. We 
intend to get answers and to show the power of this program...if indeed there is
power...which I believe there is. We hope that this can become part of the portfolio in
our country of what has to happen for every child from birth. We cannot wait till
kindergarten to start this work. It’s just unconscionable that we tend to do that as a
society, and it’s unnecessary.

 

Molly Ness
Let me just applaud...first of all, you said two words that make my inner-reading
geek just stand up and applaud, which are randomized and control. When I talk
to organizations about their impact, many people are very quick to say we’ve
distributed X number of books over X number of years, which is absolutely a
huge step in the right direction, but you guys are really being thoughtful about
collecting data that is going to show a pre-post or growth over time. That’s the
data that we really need to start understanding what approaches are working,
how we can replicate these approaches, and it’s just a whole other level in terms
of science and quantitative research that I am not super aware of many other
organizations doing it. I know I am going to direct listeners out there to your
webpage through the EndBookDeserts.com webpage so that you can share out
some of that information to those who are interested.

 

Ginger Young
Well, thank you. I am deeply committed to this external evaluation. I will say there is a
good reason that there is not much of a field out there, and that’s that it is really hard to
raise the resources to do it, and to do it right. I hope we can make it. This is an
evaluation that will care us through the year 2025. Cross your fingers, we are deeply
committed to it, and yet there will be some challenges and roadblocks along the way to
get there. I will also mention that when I think about our work, I think that you have hit
on some really important...as has Dr. Susan Neuman at NYU and many others...really
important markers for what we need to all be doing, and that is there are really two
things in our world that we’re paying attention to. One is simply book provision. It’s
very hard to tell a parent to read bedtime stories to their child every night if they don’t
have books. That’s an evaluation thing we can measure in very simple ways without
raising the funds for a longitude randomized controlled trial. Book Harvest provided our
millionth book to a local child in November of last year. We will get to two million a lot
more quickly than we got to one million, and I am thrilled at that. I want to share how
we do it with anybody who wants to do it themselves...you and others who are thinking
about this...because that’s the most elemental piece of the entire equation. I always
talk about how when I was raising my first child and I was nervous as heck because
every mom and every parent has imposter syndrome and thinks they have no idea what

they’re doing and everybody else does. I went to the dentist with my beautiful 18month-
old, two-year-old, for the first dental appointment. The dentist said to me, you’ve got to

brush your child’s teeth twice a day. I thought, okay, I really want to do that, I am going
to be a good mom. If I hadn’t had a toothbrush at home and I’d been told that, that
would be really devastating. It’s the same thing here. We’re all messaging to parents
all the time...ready to your child, ready to your child. We need to make sure they have
the books at their fingertips to make that servant return bonding experience and brain
spark for a child possible. It’s really simple. Before we even get to all of the stuff about
how we support parents and being literacy champions for their kids and building their 
brains, we just need to make sure those resources are there. One of the things we’ve
really doubled-down in the past few years with our own work is our book
bank...making sure that everywhere families and children go, whether it’s the school,
the laundromat, the health clinic, the social service agency...you name it...that there are
books there for the taking to take home and build home libraries with. We can’t do that
enough because there are such...as Dr. Neuman has shown...a problem around that in
our society. She found, I think, in Washington D.C. in 2016 if I remember correctly parts
of...wards within D.C. that had one book for every 800 children; where if you went a
couple miles down the road to where it was a higher income jurisdiction it was a
completely different story. We can make every single community...pocket of the
community...rich with books. We have what we need to do it; we just need to all do it.

 

Molly Ness

I couldn’t agree more. I’ve obviously heard those statistics that Dr. Neuman...Dr. Neuman was the guest on our first podcast, so if listeners are out there haven’t heard that, I would encourage you to list to the very first podcast that launched this whole series. Every time I hear it, I still shake my head because it’s inexcusable. These are resources that are relatively easy to get out to the community, and that we are not lacking for.
 

Ginger Young

Correct.

 

Molly Ness
That still continues to just disgust and appall me, but I’ve been amazed by how
many people out there recognize that it’s an issue and are working as you are to
address that issue. I like so much about your approach in that when you say we
tell parents that they should be reading to kids...I am a parent, I’ve heard that
message. I am a literacy educator. I’ve delivered that message many times. My
belief is that unless you give parents the what and the how of reading to your
kids every day, it sort of becomes white noise. To me, it’s sort of like we all hear
you’re supposed to eat five to eight vegetables and fruits a day, but I need more.
What should my plate look like; what should my lunch look like; what should my
dinner look like? I need more concrete steps. The work that you guys are doing
with Book Babies...showing parents effective ways to read aloud, sitting with
them in their homes, becoming a long-term partner with them, investing in
personal relationships is the how that is really going to help those children not
only go into school ready to learn but start on the path of lifelong reading.

 

Ginger Young
Yes. You know, the greatest underutilized resource in this entire literacy ecosystem is
parents. We have all overlooked them. They are superheroes with superpowers. All
we need to do is sit with them in a loving, respectful, and non-judgmental way and ask
them what their goals are for their kids. Every single parent will deliver something
powerful and important that we can help support them in- in making real. Time and
again, every time we think about how are our programs evolving, what is next on our
horizon, we turn to our parents and ask them what it should be, and they always have
the best answers for us. This is really about creating collaborative support system. It’s
not delivering a program or a service to a client. I can’t emphasize that enough. What
we see coming out of it is the very way you see systems change happen, which is if led 
through joy and love and participating and enthusiasm and one parent telling another
parent how important this is, which is way more effective than me telling them. It’s just
a beautiful grassroots movement that has so much joy in it spreading. I don’t see why it
can’t happen in any community. Parents' love for their child is a formidable thing. A
parent’s desire for their child to have a great life and to have the success they need in
school is something that we need to just say to them, how can we help? We certainly
want to make sure you have plenty of books if they’re ready, and guess what, if all you
do is describe the colors on the page, that’s throwing vocabulary into the mix that a child
needs. A child is like a giant sponge that needs to soak up words, and you have that
within you; that capacity is there right now.

 

Molly Ness
Let me pick up on what you just said about asking parents what they need and
what they want. Where do you see Book Harvest going in the future? What’s
down the road for you?

 

Ginger Young
I am always asking that question every day. I think that we have to do three things
simultaneously. One is to expand our work within our test kitchen of Durham, North
Carolina. I think of Durham as the demonstration pilot community where we can try
on the ground programs support systems and see what works fed by parent feedback.
We need to expand that work in Durham so that we’re reaching a larger swath as a
population and we can look to see if it is indeed starting to show some trend lines
around school readiness and school reading scores. I am not a big fan of using reading
scores as a marker of success, but it’s an unfortunate reality in our world. To the extent
that we can take some of our work to scale or closer to scale in Durham...as we have
with Books on Break where every child participates across the entire county...I think
there is a lot of internal date we can mine about what works and what doesn’t to help
feed our plans for how to make it better and make it go to a larger platform. So,
expanding within our test kitchen community of Durham is the first thing. There, again,
it has to be fed by parent feedback. We’re always asking parents what’s working and
what’s not. We are running advocacy programs and support programs for parents all
the time. When their children start school we accompany them with customized
navigation about the transition from home to school. I think if that transition is done
well, there is potentially a 13-year payout that parents feel that they are actually
welcome in the school system and they will continue that philosophy all the way through
their child’s education. That is enormous. We want to be a part of helping them
navigate the transition from the domain of home to the domain of school. We do that
with dedicated staff. Beyond expanding within the local community, I think it’s how do
we create the access to resources, templates, and toolkits for other communities to be
able to do this work in a way that fits their community’s needs. We don’t feel like we
want to take the Book Babies program and say here is the replicable framework that
you would need to drop into your community to make this work for you. It may be that
they want to call it something else to do some pieces that fit them but not others. We
will all learn from them. To the extent that we can provide access to our resources,
templates, and toolkits...and if we had the resources, if we can raise some funding for
this...we would love to provide professional development, technical assistance, targeted
to other communities. We’re not there yet because we are doing our best to keep the 
work that’s here in Durham. We would love to think about having a training center
where people could come to see it in action, ask questions, receive boot camp support,
and then go back to their own communities to adapt it as it makes the most sense for
them. That’s the second piece of my trifecta...replication frameworks that are really
going to work to help spread some of this approach that is both book provision and
literacy support. The third piece is evaluation, both internal and external. We all are
smitten with what we’re doing in our own communities. I know many, many literacy
warriors across the country who believe deeply in what they’re doing and see
anecdotally the power of what they’re doing every day. Until we have some agnostic
dispassionate evaluation data, we don’t actually know if it’s working. We have to keep
asking those tough questions and we have to keep figuring out how we measure what
needs to be measured. That evaluation piece is the one where I am learning a ton
every day. We can’t drop it. We also have to stay the course over a longitudinal period
of time so that we can see what may be sleeper effects right now but may turn out to be
very potent five years from now. It’s complicated, and yet we’re just putting one foot in
front of the other every day. I have a staff of 15. Everybody on my staff has been
through racial equity training, as has my entire board. There is a whole lot of work we
need to do to ask basic questions about how systems are and are not serving families
of color and families with low income. There is a whole lot we want to do to make sure
we’re not just enabling systems and privileges that already exist that we don’t want to
be furthering. The basic building block of everything is access to books and giving
families the choice of books that they can use to build home libraries. From there, there
is so much important work we can do, and believe every community can do, with that
bedrock in place.

 

Molly Ness

Wow. It’s amazing to hear what happened just in a relatively short timeline...time
frame...from collecting books in your front porch and your community, like I am
doing now, to issues of race and class and community and social justice and
research and data and all of that. To think through that is very impressive. You
guys really have a holistic approach and are doing much more than just
distributing books. So, bravo for your hard work.

 

Ginger Young

Thank you.

 

Molly Ness
As we come to the end of our time today I wanted to ask you the question that I
ask of every guest. I ask this question in the spirit of building a reading
community. We know that Ending Book Deserts is...as you’ve explained to us
today so eloquently...it’s more than just access it’s building a reading community
where students and parents and the entire community see themselves as readers
and talk about their reading identities and their reading lives. In that spirit I am
hoping that you can name a book from your past or present...children’s book,
adult book...any level book is fine...that has really had a profound impact on you.
It’s sort of a different question than the question that we most frequently ask
people, which is, what is your favorite book? I really want to know the book that
has mattered to you, that has shaped you as person, over the course of your life.
What’s that book that resonates with you?

Ginger Young

What a fabulous question, Molly. Thank you for asking it. Keep asking it of everybody
because it makes us think and be intentional about this. I have to give you two
answers. I can’t give just one.

 

Molly Ness
That’s fine. Most people hedge their bets and say it’s too hard, I am a lifelong
ready, I can’t narrow it down to just one.

 

Ginger Young

Right. The teenage me, the young Ginger, carried around every day for probably a year
and a half a book that meant a huge amount to me and shaped my identity as a reader,
and that was Middlemarch by George Eliot. I was so in love with that book. I don’t
know why. I think part of me was proud that there was such a thick complicated book
that I could actually show the world it mattered to me, so it made me feel kind of cool.
The story behind it was powerful to me. It sounds a little odd, but the adult me
counterpart to it is actually very similar in some ways. That is the March graphic novel
trilogy by Congressman John Lewis. If you don’t know it, you should. It’s the story...his
biography told in a graphic novel in three volumes. Both of these books highlight and
underscore in really eloquent and powerful ways the way that systemic social inequities
keep people back. They also show happily the power that people have to overcome
these inequities. In one case it was a woman resigned to a horrible marriage and the
other is obviously the story of racism in the American South. I just think seeing the
parallel in these books and seeing the power of my ability to fall in love with each of
these reminds me that every child...every child...can have a favorite book and can
therefore with the love of that favor book identify as a reader. Identifying as a reader is
something that every child has a right to feel, and we need to make sure that we keep
the joy and the ability to choose and the excitement about a good story alive for every
child and every parent. We don’t have to do a lot. As you know from Matt de la Pena
and others, if you hand a child a really captivating book, wow, just look at what
happens. It’s so powerful and amazing to watch. I get to see it every day in action, so it
fuels my work. I think all of us need to see it because it just reminds us that children will
lead us here if they just give them the resources and support.

 

Molly Ness
Well, I don’t know that John Lewis book. I am going to have to add it to my stack
of books to read, which that stack is probably taller than my house at this point.
Obviously, he’s been in the news a lot. I know that so many of us are thinking of
him and pulling for him. I mean, what a champion for decades now for social
justice. Obviously, we’re thinking of him and sending good thoughts his way.
Thank you so much for the work that you do to provide access, to provide joy,
and to build a sustainable reading community in the Durham, North Carolina area.
I know listeners are going to want to find out more about the work of Book
Harvest, so I will be sure to link some of your resources through the
EndBookDeserts.com website. Thank you for your time today and for all of the
work that you are doing in your community and creating something that is
replicable in many areas and that we can all learn from.

 

Ginger Young

Thank you so much, Molly. It was a real pleasure to be with you today, and I am so
hopeful about what we can accomplish together in the next decade.

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