Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Alicia Levi of Reading Is Fundamental Is Helping To Change Our World
Live by the 80/20 rule — I mentioned that I am very goal-oriented. I like to be aspirational while setting achievable goals. I have learned that you can achieve your goals without meeting them 100 percent.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alicia Levi.
Alicia Levi, President and CEO of Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), has dedicated her career to education, children’s literacy, and transforming the lives of children through smart strategies to improve academic outcomes. Prior to joining RIF in 2016, Alicia served as Vice President of Education for PBS, as well as Vice President of Educational Publishing at Discovery Education. Alicia is a recognized thought leader in educational media, and she currently serves on the National Advisory Board for United Through Reading and is a former board member of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I have always been interested in the intersection of media and education. The media side is easy. I am part of a generation of firsts: I remember getting cable for the first time, our first “car phone” that evolved to mobile technology, my first computer, and my first social media account. My generation didn’t grow up with these things, they were invented and evolved in my lifetime, and I have watched the power of media and technology transform how we consume information. The education side is equally easy for me — I come from a family of educators, and my earliest memories are tied to the importance of knowledge and the opportunities that learning provides.
I believe strongly in the concept that education can be and should be the great equalizer. I also believe that the power of media and technology is that they are endlessly adaptable and enable children to learn at their pace, aligned to their interests. It needs to be moderated, of course, but the power of technology, coupled with the promise of education, is something that has always inspired and motivated me.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I am really lucky to work on an issue that offers interesting, inspiring moments every day!
One example that comes to mind was when I was attending an international literacy conference several years ago as a panelist. One of the other panelists pulled me aside to share that she was “a RIF kid” (meaning, she was a recipient of books at her elementary school because of RIF). Here she was probably 30 to 40 years later, and she still vividly recalled the feeling of being able to pick out a book from our diverse selections to call her own. And at that moment in time, that book set her on a path to becoming the chief librarian at a Kansas library. It was a mission-centric moment for me — it truly is about one child and one book at a time that defines the value of RIF and our role in inspiring a nation of readers.
What her story, and other stories at this organization have in common is that reading is universal, personal, and sustainable. Every child’s reading journey is uniquely their own and by providing them with choice of and access to books and literacy resources that appeal to them, they will become engaged readers and life-long learners.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I am not ashamed to say that I make mistakes on a regular basis! Your readers would be consuming a novel if I listed them all out. I believe that innovation is the most important part of my work, and you cannot successfully innovate if you are afraid of failure. The importance of failure is learning from it and adapting to achieve your goals.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Reading is the foundation needed to learn, and learning is a life-long endeavor. I can’t think of any social impact that is greater than empowering a child to read, learn, and grow. The benefits of children’s literacy literally last a lifetime. This is sustainable social impact at its best. There are approximately 25 million children in the United States who do not read at a proficient level.
And worse, school disruptions caused by COVID-19 have erased 30 years of progress in children’s reading achievement, with reading scores dropping to levels not seen since 1992 as recently shared by the National Association of Education Progress (NAEP). The impact has spared no state or region or demographic, while the most vulnerable students, especially those of color, experienced the more significant declines.
Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) believes that every child’s reading journey — no matter their background — begins with book choice and access. Over our 56-year history, we have distributed over 422 million books to over 129 million children across all 50 states. We are able to do this important work through the generous partnerships we have formed with companies and organizations large and small that support our work, including investing in our programmatic work such as Books for Ownership and Read for Success, investing in supporting family and community engagement and enabling their employees to get involved with RIF through a variety of employee engagement opportunities from putting together literacy kits that are distributed to local schools, to volunteering at school book distributions, to even creating motivating employee book talks to share with children across the nation.
Thanks to this support, we have also been able to create unique, fun ways to engage young readers and the networks of educators, families and others around them to explore the joys and benefits of reading through campaigns like Rally to Read 100. This six-month initiative, built with the help of a number of partners and now in its second year, encourages kids to read 100 books by Read Across America Day in March 2023 with accompanying features such as notable author read-alouds, engaging reading activities and a special sweepstakes for educators — we are giving away 10,000 books!
In sum, together with our community of partners we will not stop until every child reads.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
There are countless stories about the impact RIF has made on individuals, classrooms, schools and families. One that recently comes to mind is that we received an email from The United Way about a school that we had worked with to deliver our flagship program, Books for Ownership. Sadly, they reached out because someone set the school, Dike-Newell Elementary School, on fire and it was pretty much destroyed including all of their library and classroom books. The United Way of Midcoast Maine asked if we could donate books once they found a temporary school location for the students. We of course said yes! When a school and its community go through the trauma of losing their building to a fire, we were able to offer books as one small step in helping a community rebuild.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Yes, there are three we like to focus on!
Read — model good behavior
Innovate — adapt to meet the needs of today’s children
Fund — invest in this issue
In some cases, we have worked with corporate partners that have been able to do all of these things, such as our partnership with Amazon. As part of Amazon’s Global Month of Volunteering, Amazon partnered with RIF to provide youth with resources to drive more reading engagement opportunities. Through specialized literacy kits and various reading activities, the program served over 27,000 children nationally to inspire the next generation of lifelong readers in underserved and underrepresented communities.
One example from this partnership stands out. In early September of this year (which also happens to be National Literacy Month!), RIF and over 30 Amazon volunteers visited TH Slater Elementary in Atlanta to do read-alouds, reading activities, and distribute 1,500 new books to their students. One hundred percent of TH Slater’s students receive free lunch and over 30 percent of families in the area live below the poverty line. The students’ cheers of excitement could be heard all the way down the hall from the gymnasium where an Amazon volunteer in a signature delivery yellow vest was reading aloud to the group of over 100 children. Amazon volunteers then helped each child select three new books to take home and own– for many kids, this ownership is a real source of pride.
After a very rambunctious high energy event, all of the students could be seen filing out to their buses with big smiles on their faces and tightly clutching their new totes with their new books. As the volunteers gathered in the library to say farewell, one of the teachers gave an impromptu speech about how special and impactful this was for their students, who have very little and face a variety of adverse situations every day. They repeatedly asked RIF and Amazon to please keep them in mind for more events to bring their students the joy of reading.
Our goal is to get more partners to be able to do this around the country, especially in our nation’s most under-resourced communities.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
To me, leadership is about setting a vision and activating networks to move that vision forward. Good leaders have a vision, build consensus, empower their teams, and inspire confidence.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Live by the 80/20 rule — I mentioned that I am very goal-oriented. I like to be aspirational while setting achievable goals. I have learned that you can achieve your goals without meeting them 100 percent.
- Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good — to be successful, you need to be agile in your approach to delivering on your mission.
- Don’t think you can boil the ocean — learning to prioritize is at the heart of solid leadership.
- Every cause is worthy — the challenge is ensuring your cause for support raises to the top and draws engagement.
- Operate your non-profit with a for-profit mindset where your mission is your margin, but your operations must ensure business best practices for sustainability.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I believe that if every child could read, we would change the world. I believe children’s literacy is the most sustainable cause we can support. And I’m so happy that influencers in the space — including corporate leaders, government officials, and even best-selling authors and illustrators, have joined RIF in the cause. If we empower children to read, we are opening the door to endless opportunities, knowledge, and possibilities. So, I am asking everyone who is reading this to read with a child in your life, offer to do a read-aloud at a local school, donate books to those in your community who may not have books at home, or of course support RIF. No act is too small to help move the needle in supporting our mission to create a nation of readers.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“A goal without a plan is just a dream.” As I shared above, I am a goal-oriented person. But I am also a bit of a dreamer. I absolutely believe that every child can — and should — read. My goal is to achieve that dream and it can only happen with a plan!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
MacKenzie Scott — I believe her approach to philanthropy has been transformational and inspirational. She has demonstrated that grassroots activism is in desperate need of support. She doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel; she wants to empower those who are pushing wheels uphill to drive change in their local communities. If I could have lunch with her, I would start by thanking her, then ask her how she thinks we can encourage other philanthropists to take a similar approach.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Alicia Levi of Reading Is Fundamental Is Helping To Change Our… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.