“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
Spotlight on Katherine Karmen Trujillo of Libraries Without Borders
For these children in under-served communities, "A library could be anything" or everything.
In sixth grade, Katherine Karmen Trujillo competed in an academic decathlon with her school. With fourteen of her classmates, one coach, and photocopied pages from prep manuals their school couldn't afford, one of their team members placed in fourth. Though the performance was not very good, "we were so proud," she told me. "Meanwhile, in other schools, everyone placed first or second." But it wasn't because those students were necessarily smarter or harder-working than the students on Trujillo's team. They came from schools that could afford to have one coach per student and endless prep resources. "You could just feel the difference," she said.
That was the first time Trujillo saw the long-term outcomes of inequality. Having been born to immigrant parents in a poor community in South Central Los Angeles, her Honduran refugee mother and Mexican father never wanted their daughter to work menial jobs or struggle constantly like they did. Fortunately, Trujillo's parochial school allowed her parents to pay a small fee per month for her tuition, which afforded them the freedom to give her a great education. They would sacrifice everything to make sure that their daughter could reach her potential.
Social injustices were not just happening in South Central Los Angeles, but all over the world.
But academic excellence also required social consciousness. Early on, Trujillo had a bent for social justice and was involved in a variety of efforts promoted by her school. Her parents and neighbors helped organize an effort to bring the first grocery store to her neighborhood, which piqued her interest in community organizing. From there, it was a clear path to a life of advocacy.
Social injustices were not just happening in South Central Los Angeles, but all over the world. While in college considering a career in public health, Trujillo applied for a fellowship in Denmark, her first-ever trip outside of the United States, where she joined a cohort of Americans and Danes to examine human and civil rights issues. Considering her background, the only immigration discourse that Trujillo had been exposed to was anti-Mexican rhetoric that blamed immigrants for taking jobs and threatening the safety of the United States. Expecting the supposedly progressive country of Denmark to be completely different, she was surprised when she talked to second and third generation Danes of Turkish origin: "Our grandparents suffered and we continue to not be considered Danish citizens; our nationality and our loyalty to Denmark is constantly questioned," they said. The trip taught her that immigration was a universal issue, and one that could have devastating, inter-generational consequences.
Trujillo returned from Denmark completely changed and "fascinated in studying world cultures through a sociological lens." She created her own major, graduated from college, and moved to Washington D.C. to work for regional advocacy agencies like the Latin America Working Group. She landed opportunities that focused on financial literacy and mentoring, then became entrenched in early childhood education at the National Head Start Association. But her connections from her fellowship are what drove her to her next stage in life.
After communities are distributed basic needs like food, water, and shelter, the next question is, "what now"?
Allister Chang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants and the first in his family to attend college, was sent to France as part of the same fellowship that Trujillo attended. His interest in global education inspired by his personal struggles led him to head Libraries Without Borders, a nonprofit organization that brings mobile libraries and educational resources to under-served communities. Knowing her strong work ethic and tireless commitment, Chang brought Trujillo on as Director of Communications and Advocacy, where together they help lead initiatives merging technology and education to provide for the people that need them the most.
Trujillo was inspired by the versatility of the organization's mission, which echoed her interdisciplinary interests in college. "Libraries Without Borders appealed to me because they were creating opportunities in situations where people had no other recourse," she told me. "Or if they had another recourse, it wasn't physically, intellectually, or psychologically accessible."
Libraries Without Borders is the United States organization that formed as an expansion of the international Bibliothèques Sans Frontières, which was founded in 2007 by French historian Patrick Weil. The mission of BSF is to provide under-resourced communities with access to education in the form of physical and digital, academic and creative resources. They work largely in refugee camps and in areas that have been hit by disaster. After communities are distributed basic needs like food, water, and shelter, the next question is, "what now"?
That's where BSF comes in. Many camps do not have access to schools, community spaces, or other methods of cultural and creative stimulation. This means that refugees or disaster victims are not only physically disadvantaged or displaced, but they're also bored, scared, and unoccupied. BSF provides innovative and intellectual resources like the Ideas Box, a mobile unit that covers 330 square feet, contains a satellite internet connection with a server, a generator, 25 tablets and laptops, 6 HD cameras, a large HD screen, board games, arts and crafts, and a performance stage that can all be assembled in 20 minutes. It's not only fun, but a space that encourages academic and moral growth. Adolescent soon-to-be mothers (who are oftentimes rape victims) can have the opportunity to learn how to care for their babies. Young kids can stretch their imaginations by creating written stories, films, and plays. According to one study of students in the Burundese refugee camp of Bwagiriza, those who met in the Ideas Box for 12 weeks experienced a 23% increase in academic performance compared to their counterparts in a traditional classroom.
Other tools include their KoomBook, a revolutionary digital library that creates a Wi-Fi hotspot and is able to connect to devices and project thousands of learning resources. They even have free digital learning platforms like Khan Academy and BSFCampus. Libraries Without Borders has worked throughout Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe and the Middle East to spread the beauty, value, and healing capacities of knowledge.
A library could be anything.
In the United States, two areas of focus for Libraries Without Borders are Detroit and the Morris Heights region of the Bronx, the nation's poorest congressional district. While these areas do have educational organizations, poor school achievement and economic and social inequalities keep communities away, as they are unable to recognize these spaces as "their own." This feeling of unwelcomeness in libraries is something that Trujillo refers to as a "psychological barrier." But what if this conception of a traditional library was turned on its head?
"I was really drawn to the fact that Libraries Without Borders re-imagines what a library space is," Trujillo said. "It doesn't have to have four walls, a roof, or anything. A library could be anything."
Libraries have always been a place where Trujillo feels comfortable. Because her brother was so passionate about books, trips to the library became a common household activity, unlike in other households in her neighborhood: "I realized that a lot of the kids I grew up with never stepped foot in a library; when they did it was because they were forced to." Libraries Without Borders could be that sanctuary all over the world, for people of any circumstance.
Initiatives like the Ideas Box can be powerful as points of cultural exchange, even in intense periods of conflict. "In one of the places where we were operating, there was a big outburst, a riot of sorts, and the camp itself was destroyed," she said. "But the Ideas Box was untouched."
For some of these kids, this is going to be the only book they have in the house.
In 2015, in collaboration with the New York Public Library, Bronx Pro, DreamYard, and the Alexander Soros Foundation, Libraries Without Borders ran an Ideas Box through the summer in the Bronx, which was open five afternoons a week to children and parents. All hands were on deck to curate content, facilitate workshops, and integrate feedback to create a place for academic encouragement and exploration, providing that welcoming environment that lacked among traditional organizations.
As one half of a two-person team based in Washington, D.C., Trujillo's daily responsibilities include meeting with organizations and schools to identify community needs. One of those needs is to provide books to students that have nothing. An exciting new partnership initiated by Libraries Without Borders is with a Detroit librarian, an upstanding community member determined to fill the gaps of failing Detroit schools and libraries. The partnership involves the support of the United Way of Southeast Michigan, Detroit Public Library, and the Mayor's Office of the City of Detroit. Trujillo proposed an idea to provide free magazines and a full-year subscription to magazines from Cricket Media: "When I told her about the year-long subscription, she said, 'This is going to be so wonderful, because for some of these kids, this is going to be the only book they have in the house.' I wanted to cry, even thinking about it now."
Despite Trujillo's modest upbringing, her house was always filled with books. The reality facing Detroit schoolchildren was something she couldn't imagine. "It really compelled me to work harder," she said. "It made me sad and frustrated, but it also drove me."
It drove Trujillo to devote her passion to helping to execute new projects with Libraries Without Borders. One such project in the works is a mentorship program that would pair Detroit children with professionals in the corporate world: "These kids are going to hear about what it means to be a Social Media Strategist or a Director of XYZ," she said. "Then the folks at the companies we're working with are going to learn what it's like to be a five-year-old in Detroit." This cultural exchange is just one of the ways Libraries Without Borders aims to reach a new audience of not just book-lovers, but advocates of applied literacy.
It is literacy, Trujillo says, that is among the most valuable aspects of a functioning and thriving society. Literacy "helps people be independent; it promotes agency and self-reliance. But it also promotes civic engagement. We are living in a time where we're not satisfied with things as they are. But what are we doing to change them?"
If that's the cost of a more self-sufficient, culturally-informed, and empathetic society, what are we waiting for?
In order to run for office, to protest, or to get involved in a smaller way, Trujillo believes it is essential to know how to access educational resources for self-empowerment. And solutions don't have to come at a high price. The initiatives of Libraries Without Borders are a low-cost, high-impact intervention, especially since a KoomBook can be created from a 3D printer for about twenty dollars. If that's the cost of a more self-sufficient, culturally-informed, and empathetic society, what are we waiting for?
The next steps for Libraries Without Borders in the United States include a laundromat library that will bring educational resources to laundromats, focusing on early learning and literacy in Detroit and professional development in the Bronx. Also, in response to recent legislations on immigration, the organization is adding a third staff member to gear up for their "E-Legal" library program launch, which will utilize digital libraries to provide legal resources for immigrants and mixed-status families.
"It's hard to imagine a reality beyond what you see day to day when you don't have an escape," Trujillo told me. For her, that escape is literature, education, and advocacy. And she has more than given back to her community; the same community in which her parents sacrificed for her pursuit of social change. Libraries Without Borders is true to its name, offering a source of comfort and agency to people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, and experiences, in uncertain and often frightening times. Education is a tool that encourages more than just curiosity, but it breeds generations of engaged citizens that never run out of questions. Fortunately, Libraries Without Borders can provide some answers.
To find out more about Libraries Without Borders, get involved, or donate, click here.
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