As children, books play a big role in building our worlds. They answer our questions, inspire our curiosity, and activate our imaginations around who we are and who we can become. Yet for far too many families, a home library is financially out of reach. And children from under-resourced neighborhoods often have less access to books in their schools and public libraries too.
Fortunately, people like Rina Madhani of Start Lighthouse are working to remove these barriers. Located in the South Bronx, Start Lighthouse supports lifelong literacy in marginalized communities and uses literacy as a tool to empower. As executive director and cofounder, Rina began the organization in response to the challenges she saw firsthand during her time as a classroom teacher.
We learned about Start Lighthouse when Rina reached out to Compendium to include
What Do You Do With an Idea? in literacy kits the organization was assembling for local students and families. We were thrilled to help and to hear that the book is also taught in Start Lighthouse’s “Little Woke Activists” summer program curriculum.
We asked Rina to share about her work in literacy advocacy and racial justice.
Where did the name Start Lighthouse come from?
We believe that a community’s destiny should not be defined by its zip code, and change begins with literacy. Therefore, we wanted the first part of our organization’s name to convey just that: “Start.” Then, we chose the metaphor of a lighthouse because just as a lighthouse is a beacon of light for ships to navigate safely to shore, so too is literacy a beacon to lead our communities towards lasting impact.
How do customized literacy kits support your mission?
Our customized literacy kits are designed to build students’ home libraries and foster their sense of ownership. We provide books that are inclusive, diverse, and culturally responsive. It is so important for students to have access to stories that reaffirm their respective identities and stories. Along with the books, we include bilingual comprehension guides and reflective activities that correspond with each of the books. The guided activities create a more interactive experience for students alongside their families. Through our literacy kits, we cultivate a love for reading that transcends the walls of a child’s classroom and into their own homes.
This past May, Start Lighthouse held its first literacy kit distribution at our partner school site, PS 5 Port Morris in the South Bronx. During this distribution, our literacy kits were gone within the hour. The response to our work has been tremendous and has highlighted a key area of need.
Is there a children’s book that has made a difference in your own life?
I came across Kashmira Sheth’s My Dadima Wears a Sari while I was searching for books for my own classroom library. This book gave me the opportunity to share my identity and culture with my own students. While sharing this story with my students, I realized that I needed a book like this while I was growing up. As a child, I lacked access to children’s books that were representative of my culture where I saw strong South Asian female protagonists telling their stories. After discovering it as an adult, this book reminded me of how meaningful the cultural traditions of my family truly are. Every time I read this story, I think of the special bond that I was so lucky to share with my grandma while I was growing up and how I always admired how proudly she wore her sari.
Tell us about Start Lighthouse’s summer program and how it equips young people in the work of racial justice.
Start Lighthouse’s “Little Woke Activists” cultivates a safe space for students to join together to stand up against injustice. We begin by teaching students how multifaceted their own identities are so that they can begin building relationships and creating connections between themselves.
Our students also discuss the notions of fairness and equality against historical and present-day backdrops. It is imperative for us to make clear that the fight for equality has been ongoing and that individuals are continuing to be discriminated against merely on the basis of the color of their skin. We connect them with local youth activists, so they can hear from the leaders who are directly impacting their community. By encouraging conversations on race and racism in a developmentally appropriate and relevant way, our students can work to eradicate these unjust systems that have continued to operate in our society for far too long.
When did you first come across What Do You Do With an Idea? and why did you choose to incorporate it into your summer curriculum?
I first came across What Do You Do With an Idea? when I was working with Reading Partners, a children’s literacy nonprofit organization. At Reading Partners, each tutoring session begins with a read-aloud. My student proudly brought over the book that they had selected, and I began reading What Do You With an Idea? to them. When I closed the book, I turned to them and asked, “What idea do you want to bring into the world?” to which they replied, “I want to build a new playground so all kids can play.” That moment reminded me of how powerful literature can be and the lasting impact that stories can have on readers.
Four years later, I picked up this book again, and this time, it was for myself. As we have built out Start Lighthouse, there have been times where I have felt uncertain about my leadership abilities or how to cultivate this idea to be larger so we can impact as many students as possible in the South Bronx community. However, reading this book again, I realize that we are all capable of greatness, and we have to nurture the ideas that we have, regardless of the obstacles that may be in our path.
As we developed our summer program, we knew that it was crucial to not only include literature that reaffirms students’ identities but also reminds them of their potential. We are preparing our students to be activists within their community and speak out against injustice. We chose What Do You With an Idea? as one of our featured titles in order to remind our students that no idea is too small, and they are capable of leaving their mark on the world.
Find out more about the amazing justice work of Start Lighthouse and how you can help at Startlighthouse.org.