Marley Dias is a 17-year-old change-maker whose career as an author and activist boasts a long list of accolades. Dias is the founder of #1000BlackGirlBooks. “A campaign that’s garnered over 13,000 books with Black girls as the protagonist into one database.”
Marley’s activism has taken her worldwide and, undeniably, left a distinct imprint. She is also an ambassador for the National Education Association’s Read Across America initiative, and her participation in Read Across Jamaica Day 2021 resulted in a donation of over 500 books to the country. Now, the young ambassador has returned to Jamaica to continue her work. In collaboration with GrassROOTS Community Foundation and Book Industry Association of Jamaica (BIAJ), Marley has collected over 1,500 books to donate to youth learning institutions in Jamaica. The overall goal is increasing the country’s youth literacy rates.
Read as Marley shares what inspired her to join the Read Across America initiative, why she is so driven to transform literacy rates worldwide, how it feels to be making such a transformative impact on the world at the young age of seventeen and so much more!
Jadriena Solomon: It’s no secret that you have been a major champion and activist for diversity within the realm of literacy. But before we dive more into your work and activism, I have to ask, what sparked your initial love for reading?
Marley Dias: I think my initial love for reading was sparked through my parents, and their investment in me understanding the joys that come from storytelling. My parents made a routine of taking me to the bookstore when I was younger, and always made sure that I had a certain amount of books based on whatever age I was – so if I was seven-years-old, I would have seven books. By the time I got to 10-years-old, it was a little bit too much for their pockets. So we started to go to the library and take out however many books we could.
But reading has always been an essential part of my growing up. It always felt like something that brought me joy very consistently – from when I was born, and even before I was born – with my parents making an effort to read to me when I was in my mother’s belly. So it’s just been a consistent part of my life. And it’s always allowed me to explore and never been framed as a way of punishment, or as only an academic resource, but as a social and emotional resource for me.
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JS: At the age of 17, you’ve already accomplished so much and made an impact in the world through launching your campaign, #1000BlackGirlBooks. You’ve already addressed and filled such a void for young readers. What inspired you to take your activism a step further and join Read Across America as an ambassador?
MD: One huge part of activism is that we seek to change systems. Often, we seek to change systems from the outside – but to work with one of the largest unions for educators – if not the largest – The National Education Association, really meant a lot to me because I can be a part of a larger group of individuals that care about the same ideas, have similar policy goals, and have resources and connections that I don’t have to make these changes happen.
So as an activist, I want to make sure that I’m working with institutions and organizations that have more power than I do and are really interested in the way that I see social justice. And Read Across America is always a great way to bring together kids, and make sure that they have books that are accessible to them, and bring together educators and really make learning fun. So all these things really align with what I try to do with #1000BlackGirlBooks. And I really see it as an opportunity to create more systemic change – with resources and finances that I don’t always have access to. It really means a lot to me to be able to have these new avenues to share my story, and to ultimately elevate others as well.
JS: This year’s Read Across Jamaica Day was themed “Ministry Of Imagination – Where Reading Is Magic.” What does this year’s theme personally mean to you?
MD: Reading has always been a huge part of the imagination. And I’m a person that has this direct idea of creating a world where every girl, and every Black girl can see themselves as the main character – that’s a part of a world that I’ve imagined and that I’m now seeking to create. So the work that we’ve done as a theme for this year’s Read Across Jamaica Day, and for Education Week, has meant so much to me because it is allowing kids the freedom to also use their imagination, to create solutions, to create change and to ultimately be themselves.
One really important part of this week, and in all advocacy related to youth and literacy, is letting them know that reading and storytelling is not just academic. It’s not used as a way to solely measure who they are, to determine their worth, or to determine their proficiency, but it is also a great tool for them to dream. It is a tool for them to connect with other people. It’s a tool for them to create goals, and have the resources and understanding to put their mind to things, and to achieve them. And I really like this theme because it helps us, as a global community, reframe the way that we view education. I hope that this theme helps a lot of kids who may not be as reading proficient, still understand that joy and fun can come from seeing themselves in a story, and help them learn about new people, places and experiences.
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JS: In 2019, a report about the performance of Jamaican students who sat for the 2019 Primary Exit Profile Exams showed that “33% cannot read, 56% cannot write and 60% exhibited difficulty in comprehension.” How does it make you feel hearing these statistics? And why is it so important to you to increase the youth literacy rates, not only in Jamaica, but around the world?
MD: It’s very important. First of all, it’s very disheartening to hear these statistics. And as a Jamaican American it is incredibly important to me to use the resources that I have as an American – as someone who is proficient and has never known someone with issues with literacy and comprehension, beyond any sort of small circumstances that are very rare.
It is disheartening to know that there are communities full of people that lack these abilities that are core to the way that we live. My mom put it very well when she was speaking to the U.S. Embassy and explaining that Black people and African-American people were historically not given the ability to read. And we as a people have had that ability oppressed, because with it, would give us the freedom we needed to release ourselves from physical oppression and proceed with freedom within our own minds. So to think that we are still experiencing oppression through a lack of support in our education system, through poverty, through equity – really does hurt. And it makes me feel a lot more passionate to continue to do this work because there should be no reason that in 2022 we are still seeing these levels of freedom being kept from kids – even if it’s not by the intention of teachers, or administrators, we still have to recognize that there’s still not enough resources for them.
Also, the framing of these statistics through an academic lens and through these long, difficult tests only end up making kids not feel good about themselves. And this whole experience of learning about the literacy issues in Jamaica, makes me think about how we can work on makinng sure that kids don’t see reading as just a way to be judged, or to make themselves feel “dumb” or “incompetent” in any way. But to instead show them the gift that reading has brought our people historically. The gifts that we as a Black community, and as a diaspora, have received from having the ability to read.
We’re striving to reframe this narrative of Jamaica having literacy issues into giving the Jamaican children the freedom to dream. We don’t want to make kids feel that they won’t be able to get a job, or make money just because they struggle with literacy. When we do this, those kids end up missing out on the joys, the connecting elements, and the personal experiences that come with reading. And I think that reframing this narrative is essential to tackling the issues of literacy, particularly in smaller countries and in predominantly Black countries.
JS: Yes. Jamaica is your mother’s native country and through your work last year, the campaign was able to receive a donation of over 500 books. And this year you’ll be able to receive a donation of over 1,500 books. Which will be given to students, in addition to a book bag of stationery items such as crayons, pencils, notepads and more. How does it make you feel to know that you are not only making a positive impact on the literacy rate of the country, but also an everlasting transformative impact on these children’s lives?
MD: It’s been a very emotional trip. I used to travel before COVID, but I had not done one of these trips outside of the United States in a long time. And to do this work in Jamaica and to have the opportunity for my mom and dad to be there – two of my closest aunts and family friends to be there – and talk about how far this campaign has come is very emotional for me. And often hard to grasp – especially now as I’m preparing to go away to college. There’s a whole host of things that I do that will be shifting as that experience comes. And it’s made me really proud to think that we can continue to make an impact doing this work. The #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign has evolved into so much more than I could have imagined. And we’ve actually selected 3,000 books for this trip and exceeded our goals.
It just makes me really happy to think that I’ve been able to connect with so many people, and that so many people have connected with me. The kids that I’ve gotten to meet have completely shifted the way that I view the importance of literacy. They’ve taught me so many ideas about how we can approach talking about race, talking about inequity, talking about illiteracy, talking about racism. And to think that these kids have given me such a better vocabulary and understanding of how I can make change in my community, and communities abroad, is just one of the most unique and incredible things that I’ve ever experienced. And to only experience that at 17-years-old makes it so much more emotional.
They’re so much more ahead for what I’ve done, and for the kids that I’ve gotten the chance to meet. And to think that in the future we’ll be able to look back on all these ideas and projects that I’ve gotten people to support me on – and for these people to know that they’ve made a great investment, and great return on their investment for kids in Jamaica – for kids across the United States, and for young Black girls to see themselves, feel represented, and love reading – feels amazing.
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JS: Here in America, it seems like reading has become a lost pastime. Once young adults part ways with their educational studies, it just seems like reading becomes a thing of the past. How do you think we as a society can better protect and uphold the importance of reading despite such a high engagement and importance placed on technology and social media today?
MD: A huge thing that I always try to emphasize is that social media and technology are not at odds to literacy. In order to enjoy so many Instagram posts that we see – so many TikToks, so many movies – we have to have this important element of literacy that’s present in our favorite ideas, our favorite movies and music, and creative projects that come from books. They come from stories, whether they’re written stories on napkins, or published books, or screenplays – literacy plays a great role in how we enjoy technology, how we enjoy social media, and how we enjoy so many other forms of art.
Segregation has been occurring in how we’re separating books, storytelling, and written forms of expression from the more visual forms that often come with technology, like movies, music or audio, and books are not being respected in that same way. And I think a huge part of what I try to do in solving this is making sure that we play music at all of the events we’ve had in Jamaica, and making sure that there’s always elements of reading on social media, as well as videos that people can watch. Which shows that the work that we do is not against eBooks, or against technology, or against kids using phones, or any type of online learning, but that these mediums actually work together.
And as long as we are able to make sure that people understand that there can be learning and methods of learning – and these things should never be one against the other but a mix of both. There’s no one type of learner, and there’s no one type of reader. There’s no one way to understand and comprehend. So we offer kids solutions and options that compliment any of their learning styles, in any of the ways they want to imagine and to dream. We can emphasize and affirm the idea that books are not punishment – books are art. Books are stories that create movies, music, and explain the relationship between all of these different forms of expression. I believe this really can help kids engage with reading in a new, and more fun, way.