Bronx Literacy Organization Serves BIPOC Students Affected by Book Access Disparities

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Start Lighthouse was launched in March 2020 when students struggled to find reading material. The organization currently serves seven South Bronx schools, from kindergarten through eighth grade, and aims to close the literacy gap by providing a three-pronged approach to students. Their method includes literacy adventures, diverse performances through books, and community workshops. Since its inception, it has produced over 500 hours of programming, distributed 21,015 multicultural books, trained 105 volunteers, and created 5,117 home libraries in the South Bronx. The organization also won the support of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in March 2022, and it became one of her 15 community projects seeking funding to create permanent literacy centers in schools in the South Bronx, where 63% of children are born into poverty, less than half of school-aged children meet city and state learning standards, and less than 10% of adults have earned a college degree.

“The funding would help us orchestrate daily literacy programs for all students in this school community,” Madhani said.

PS 214 in the Bronx has worked with Start Lighthouse to engage its students with diverse literature. Students can own their first book through their literary adventures, read books by authors of color, and collaborate with family members.

“Students are excited about the work we’re doing here with Start Lighthouse,” said David Cintron, the former director of PS 214, who is now transitioning into a superintendent role.

“They look forward to their literary adventure tours and the workshops the organization offers our students. It has always been important to me that my children see themselves in literature. We know, especially for teenage students, that seeing themselves reflected in literature gives them that first step toward imagining life’s possibilities.

According to a study from the American University in Washington, DC, students who do not complete their studies are more likely to experience negative outcomes, including poverty, poor health and incarceration. The study shows that students from low-income areas are more likely to end up in the school-to-prison pipeline due to practices and policies that disproportionately target and criminalize Black, Indigenous, and people of color.

Melanie Baez is a parent who heard about Start Lighthouse after attending one of their events at her child’s school in the Port Morris neighborhood of the Bronx. Baez loved that the books showcased different cultures, gave kids the opportunity to engage with literature, and spoke to students and parents.

“I’m a firm believer that books can change your life,” Baez said. “There was a book that talked about celebrating Puerto Rican heritage, and it’s my heritage, it’s my blood. When I saw this…I made sure to put it on my desk at work, and I I’ve also shared this with some of the families at the school where I work… It’s just a wonderful thing, and I think it makes the kids want to open a book as well.

Although the number of nationally banned books is increasing, most of the books that Start Lighthouse displays for students and parents to view are all on the banned books list, such as Not all the boys are blue, the hate you give, ghost boys, and The Poet X

“These issues need to be centered as we have gone through many attributes of time where marginalized voices and stories continue to be oppressed. And we’re just not going to allow that to hold true,” Madhani said. “And that’s why we’re so intentional about the books and stories that we allow our students in the Bronx to have access to.”

Although Start Lighthouse works with schools in the Bronx, organizations nationwide, like Our Kids Read in Maryland and The Conscious Connect in Ohio, have the same mission. Start Lighthouse funding helps purchase books, furniture, author residency fees, and supplies to help students master reading in third grade. It also supports interactive workshops to develop home reading routines for students and their families.

“Students have come up to me and just said, ‘I like the color of my skin and the way my hair looks,'” Mahani said. “We were talking about the texture of their hair, but we’re talking about students as young as 6 and 7 years old being able to internalize those feelings and verbalize them.”

Alicia (her) likes to tell stories through different mediums. His writing and short stories have appeared in the Mott Haven Herald and the NYCity News Service. Her passion for journalism began in high school, and she continued her career thereafter. She received her BA from Brooklyn College and is pursuing her Masters at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. She strives to be a well-rounded journalist covering different news beats and working in a variety of mediums. In her free time, she enjoys playing with her French bulldog, Bruce.

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