Karlos Marshall and Moses B. Mbeseha noticed a big problem in their community in southwest Ohio. Children didn’t have access to books. And they decided to do something about it.
In 2015, Marshall and Mbeseha founded The Conscious Connect, a multi-faceted organization that seeks to eradicate “book deserts.” According to Marshall, a book desert is “a geographical area in which the residents lack the access and/or resources to high-quality, affordable, and culturally-relevant and responsive print books.”
This isn’t an easy problem to solve. After all, book deserts exist for a number of reasons. First, books are expensive, as is Internet access to online booksellers. Second, there’s a decline in brick-and-mortar bookstores, with the existing stores housed in higher-income areas. Third, even though libraries typically offer free services, such as borrowing books and Internet access, not all libraries are within walking distance for low-income individuals who may not have transportation.
“Book deserts are found in high-poverty areas in both urban and rural settings,” Marshall tells Babble. “An inability to access books is extremely problematic because it creates a vicious cycle of educational disparities related to access, resources and outcomes. This begins with the ‘word gap’ before children enter school and is exacerbated by traditional schooling approaches that do not center diverse voices.”
In 2016, the organization launched, and today they offer a number of services, supported by 250 volunteers. They distribute 30,000 books annually, including via their Words on Wheels bike, which can carry up to 400 pounds of books. Their Read While You Wait program puts culturally relevant books into the hands of children awaiting appointments at barber shops and beauty parlors.
And that’s not all.
They’ve installed Houses of Knowledge, which are birdhouse-like book boxes, at local schools, daycares, churches, community centers and gardens, and residential homes. They plan to install eight more Houses by this fall.
They’ve even acquired previously vacant properties from the county government, where unsafe structures were demolished with the assistance of a land bank program, in order to create beautiful, clean, safe reading parks for children and their families. Marshall notes that this has built a “sense of communal togetherness.”
I grew up in a low-income community, surrounded by other low-income communities. As a child, I desired and loved to read. I would read anything I could get my hands on: the cereal box sitting on the breakfast table, the shampoo bottle in the shower, and even my mom’s issues of Good Housekeeping. Because we lived outside city limits, we had to pay for a library card in order to have access. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a home where my parents could not only afford the library card fees, but could also put gas in our car to drive my siblings and I to and from the library every summer.
But many of my peers didn’t have this same luxury. And neither do thousands of children living in our nation’s book deserts.
As a former college writing teacher, I encouraged my students to read — not just read “the classics,” but read anything and everything they could get their hands on that interested them. Reading isn’t just educational, increasing one’s vocabulary and understanding of the world; it is magical. It allows for imagination and escape. Reading is also a great mental health tool, encouraging anxiety reduction and a good night’s sleep.
Marshall, his partner, and their volunteers work tirelessly and creatively to get books into the hands of children.
“Many times, we will be outside planting flowers or tending to our Reading Parks or riding around on Words on Wheels and people will just come up to us and thank us for taking initiative and putting other before ourselves,” Marshall tells Babble.
Maya Angelou once said: “Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.” Thankfully, The Conscious Connect is doing just that: putting good books in the hands of our future generation.