Twitter's Claire Williams Shares Why Literacy Is Her Cause | Beth's Blog

Twitter’s Claire Williams Shares Why Literacy Is Her Cause

Networked Nonprofit

Note from Beth: As a supporter of the work that the Sharing Foundation does for children in Cambodia, I’ve seen first hand the value of literacy programs in developing countries.   The Sharing Foundation started this Khmer Literacy program for young children of farm workers in Cambodia – that helped these children learn to read and write in their native language and enter school.      I’ve followed Claire’s work in Kenya and her passion for literacy programs – and invited her to share her personal take on why this cause is so important.

Guest Post by Claire Williams, Twitter

Here at Twitter, we believe in being a force for good.

Over the past year, one of the ways we’ve been working to be a force for good in the world is through our partnership with Room to Read. When we began to work together, I was thrilled. Like many, I had duly devoured founder John Wood’s riveting bestseller and I fully admired the incredible work of Room to Read to promote literacy around the world.

This week, nearly a year after first beginning to work with Room to Read, we’re proud to be taking part in promoting Literacy Day. Read our blog about it, check out our literacy micro-site, and tweet with the cool widget we made. If you’re really excited, you can even buy Fledgling wine – the wine Twitter and Room to Read made together to support Room to Read.

As I reflect on what Literacy Day means, I can’t help thinking about the origins of my interest in Room to Read as an organization, and one particularly sticky literacy-for-development related issue that came up during that season of my life.

[What a photo find!! This is Lara Vogel, co-founder of Hope Runs, reading John Wood’s Leaving Microsoft To Change the World (look closely at the spine!) in Kenya with Mary, 10, circa 2006]

A handful of years ago, I traveled around the world for a year. On the last stop of that trip, I went to Kenya to climb a mountain. The night before climbing, I spent a night in the guesthouse of a nearby orphanage. I never climbed the mountain.

The story of what happened after that trip has been told in other publications. My traveling companion (and best friend) and I lived in that orphanage for the rest of the year, kept coming back, and started a non-profit organization based there: Hope Runs. In different years, we each generously received fellowships from the Skoll Foundation to study for MBAs at Oxford University’s Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. I then went on to lead social innovation at Twitter; she went on to study medicine. Our connection to Kenya remains strong; we are also the guardians for one of the children from that orphanage, @sammyikua, who now studies in Maine.

That first weekend in Kenya, when I didn’t climb the mountain, I stayed in the orphanage library. I remember a Spanish-language version of Eva Luna, and a biography of Lance Armstrong. In the years to come, I spent endless hours in that cramped space. Today, if you go through the green gate at Tumaini Children’s Home in Nyeri, Kenya and make a left at the matron’s office, you will find the labor of my love of literacy. Alongside dozens of 9-year-old Kenyans in discarded party dresses, I worked diligently for months to organize the books. I wrote the labels in permanent marker. They cut the scotch tape.

No one can dispute: Literacy is important. But this is not what this guest post is about.

On literacy day, I can’t help but remember the real-life story of something that happened the year I met Kenya. It is a story of literacy, and I hope it will serve as a powerful question for those of us who think about how we can help on an important day like Literacy Day.

Here is my story:

During the year I lived in the orphanage, I had requested many donated things for the orphanage. Many people, organizations, and churches, had responded, and my parents had the role of boxing and bagging many of these entirely random items. Shipping costs are astronomical, and, depending on the items, it can be far less expensive to check items as excess baggage on flights with travelers coming to Easy Africa.

A group of graduate students from Berkeley were coming to Kenya. A kind acquaintance put us in touch, suggesting the students might be able to carry some things for us to Kenya. I took them up on it.

Some weeks later, we got an email from one of the students, freshly in Kenya. She had a bag for us, a bag which originally had held both running shoes and books. It was there the email veered from the typical logistical information. The group had opened the bag before leaving the US and had noticed that some of the books inside were religious. They had left them behind. They did not want to bring religious materials to Africa.

This is what I thought that day: Religion is already here. Bring them the books.

When history dictates that the vast majority of all East African orphanages are Christian founded and funded, the (obvious) result is Christian children. At the East African orphanages I have worked in, upwards of 75% of the orphanage’s annual operating budget has come from North American churches. The children in the orphanage are the lucky ones in their areas; they have a much better shot at a bright future than their peers who do not live inside. Depending on the community the children come from (and excluding Ethiopia as a separate historical case of Christianity sans missionaries), the children are much more likely to be Christian by the time they are young adults (if they were not already Christian when they entered). Some of the most amazing people around are working for social change as Christian missionaries. So are some of the most destructive individuals on the planet.

As I think back on the incident, I am devoid of most of the emotions associated with that day of sitting looking at want and laughing at an email of plenty. On that day, I saw no grey area. I saw empty bookshelves juxtaposed with the impracticality of a Western intellectualism.

Now, I believe I better understand both sides. I am Christian. Lara Vogel, the co-founder of Hope Runs, is not. Although I might personally cart any and all religious materials that do not represent my personal beliefs to those who already believed in those faiths, I would draw lines somewhere in regards to my personal convictions. I would not, for instance, bring books promoting racism.

This is my challenge to you on literacy day: What do you think, and what can we all learn from incidents like this? When you are in the privileged position of being the one to bring the educational items, how do you present a balanced view? And how do you do so with limited resources? If the choice is no book or Christian book, what do you do?

I beg of you: Don’t go for the easy answers. The “secular books are better than religious books” answer is obvious. Avoid it. The “missionaries have ruined the Africa” answer is also another easy out.

Push yourself to really test the limits of your beliefs when thinking about our individual roles in extending literacy globally. What is literacy for development when the West has such a hand in deciding the literature behind the developing?

Claire Williams leads Social Innovation and Philanthropy at Twitter. Find her at or on Twitter.

3 Responses

  1. Dan Brady says:

    This is an inspiring post. Thanks, Claire, for sharing, and thanks to Beth for giving this conversation a venue.

    Claire’s question of “If the choice is no book or Christian book, what do you do?” is a big one, and not limited to a secular vs non-secular debate. The question of literacy is often conflated with the content of literature.

    Reading is a lifelong activity, the first step of which is learning to read. Period. After that, the question of what to read is one of the fundamental joys and frustrations of being a reader. It should also be remembered that we don’t automatically subscribe to the ideas that we find presented in the books we read. In fact, we often go to literature to find out what other people are thinking. Do we think the same? Are we alone? Or are there others out there just like us?

    It’s important that new readers are exposed to works that expand their horizons and challenge their thinking. Reading is a chance to engage, debate, and work through ideas. If you don’t agree with the content, you have an opportunity to discuss what was said, testing reading comprehension and impressing upon the new reader that reading is a social activity. Or better yet, the opportunity to suggest another book with an opposing opinion.

    I spent a few years working on The Big Read, a national initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts that provides citizens with the opportunity to read and discuss a single book within their communities. Some of the hardest discussions were about which books to add to the program. This was a literary program, not a literacy initiative, but we always had non-readers and lapsed or reluctant readers in mind. What books would make people want to read? Which titles would create the most discussion? We often struggled with the question of are the “best” books the books that people would most want to read? The answer was often no.

    Does it matter that people choose to read Twilight rather than Ulysses? Not really. Maybe they’ll finish Twilight and want to know more about gothic fiction and pick up Isak Dinesen or Flannery O’Connor. Each book is a springboard to the next. If only you can give people the tools to read and show them the pleasure of it, they’ll be empowered for a lifetime of deeper engagement with the world and themselves.

    I think Claire’s point, and that of Room to Read, is that once you have basic reading skills, the world is yours to explore. Reading is an avenue to being more informed, more self-possessed, and less alone, and it has to start somewhere, with a single book.

  2. Eva says:

    I must say I am dumbfounded and challenged by your story and enthusiasm. My friend and I started a education NGO in Nigeria. Our main focus is providing high quality education to match the current government effort to improve access to education. We knew we could not access many children so we focused on training teachers.
    Our experience showed that the underlying problem here is poor literacy foundation. Our first steps took us training
    primary and secondary school teachers on how to teach literacy. Monitoring issues are also fundamental with our system.
    We are looking at Action Research as a way to help us understand the situation better and see new possibilities in the field. The major challenge so far is how to provide resources for trained schools.
    I am happy to learn much from your experience and determination when you started. Well done Claire.

  3. I really like twilight! I might sit and watch all day long if I didn’t have school..or life to keep me from doing it! lol Superb Simply Amazing!

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