The side of a Bernie's Book Bank truck says "Books Can Change the Story"
By Therese Van Ryne | September 08, 2022

Why You and I Must Empower the Underserved to Read (Their Way to Better Lives)

One study has found early reading skills are at a 20-year low – that’s a problem. Today, International Literacy Day, let’s talk about how we can address this as companies and individuals.

Literacy – the ability to read, write and comprehend – cannot be taken for granted. It’s one of the most foundational mechanisms for sharing stories, data and history. It’s the propellant for creativity and innovation. Reading others’ ideas helps us come up with our own. Hearing about others’ experiences helps us shape our own. Literacy is what drives people to dream bigger, think differently, and do better. It’s how we’re able to immerse ourselves in novels, communicate promising discoveries, digest information, and learn. 

Of course, there are other ways we learn. Before keyboards, braille, typewriters and paper, even before the written word entirely, humans were communicating and retaining information by means of speech or by signs and gestures. That’s because the human brain is hard-wired for speech, and it requires training to be able to read and write. 

But just because literacy doesn’t come naturally doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be accepted as inherent. 

Some say literacy is a privilege, and that may be true – but only in the sense that it gives people an advantage. Not over other people, but over other species. We can’t view air, food, water, and shelter as the only “human essentials” anymore. Literacy needs to be added to that list, too, and literacy training needs to be provided as commonly as other “essential aid” would be provided in communities around the world.

Of course, the prerequisite to training is access, which we know is not equitable right now. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be tomorrow.

How We Can Support Literacy Worldwide

Our friends at Bernie’s Book Bank have been helping to provide a foundation for literacy to under-served infants, toddlers and school-age children across the Chicagoland area since they gifted their first book to a child in need in 2009. Not even a pandemic could stop them from continuing their book distributions. Our world couldn’t afford for them to stop – literacy is essential, and there were already great disparities in book accessibility across Chicagoland. So, they sprang into action in 2020 with a campaign to help narrow the opportunity gap that was widening as many students struggled with e-learning. They weren’t the only ones, though. Nonprofit organizations, educators and concerned citizens around the world stepped up in their local communities to provide literacy training to anyone who needed it. Their methods varied – some set up “Little Free Libraries” and filled them with books, others hosted outdoor book readings and virtual book clubs. But all committed to providing “aid” in the same way food, water, and medical care is traditionally offered to those in need. 

While inspiring, we must accept the truth: people lacking literacy skills still significantly outnumber those with them. 

In fact, one recent study has found early reading skills are at a 20-year low. If this path is not diverted, the implications may be profound – a greater percentage of the population requiring welfare, increased healthcare costs for taxpayers and the potential for an increase in crime and incarceration. We also risk a future where brilliant ideas are stifled, innovation is stalled, and problems go unsolved – all because people don’t have the means to effectively communicate in this digitally-charged (written word) world. 

Luckily, there’s a lot we can do as businesses and individuals to help everyone read their way to a better life. We can…

1. Increase accessibility to books

Research suggests that having books in the home is a strong indicator of academic performance. This is why Bernie’s Book Bank provides a sustainable distribution continuum of books from birth through sixth grade, aiming to build a personal library of 96 quality books for each of the children it serves.

With thousands of book banks and more than 150,000 Little Free Libraries around the world, a place to donate used, quality books is never too far away. Donating used books is also great for the environment, for those who cannot afford to purchase new ones, and for those with limited or no access to a library.

2. Provide youth with opportunities to increase various types of literacy – financial literacy, digital literacy, information literacy and more.

Language teachers are not the only professionals who can help improve literacy. With so many types of literacy, there is an opportunity for every professional to engage in skills-based volunteering. 

One way we do this at Zebra is through our work with the National Literacy Trust, a UK-based charity working to improve the reading, writing, speaking and listening skills in the country’s most disadvantaged communities. Zebra employees from our EMEA headquarters in Bourne End have been working with this organization over the past year, inviting children from local schools on multiple occasions to visit our Zebra Experience Centre. Our visitors, whom we dub the next generation of innovators, are given the opportunity to engage with and learn about our technology, and understand what Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) careers are all about.

We also support those who are providing literacy training by helping others connect with them – and providing resources that help literacy coaches reach those most in need. For example, NFL pro Brandon Copeland has been teaching financial literacy – and “Life 101” lessons – to youth and adults around the world in college classrooms, online and through his nonprofit “Beyond the Basics.” We recently hosted him on our Chalk Talk podcast to learn more about the challenges of teaching – and learning – financial literacy. (That episode will drop in a few weeks, so subscribe to the Your Edge blog now to get the alert when it’s live.) 

And, in honor of Partner Appreciation Month, we’ve made a donation to Bernie’s Book Bank in the name of our partners and invited them to join us in supporting literacy by purchasing and distributing copies of the book in their own communities or making a direct donation to the organization. This is something you can easily replicate within your organization. It doesn’t have to be Zippy’s Special Gift (though all proceeds benefit Bernie’s Book Bank). But you could donate books, your podcast/video platform or your personal skills to help those with a literacy mission – and message – reach those most in need of hope and help.

3. Volunteer with organizations that help increase literacy among adults 

It is a common misconception that everyone is literate by the time they reach adulthood. Today, nearly 800 million adults around the world are illiterate. 

Supporting local libraries, which play a fundamental role in society, is a powerful way to increase literacy among adult learners. Libraries are most associated with providing access to books, though many also offer tutoring, community engagement, tickets to museums and more. 

Libraries can be supported in many ways – by donating cash or books, advocating for government funding, teaching a class and volunteering as a tutor, to name a few.

Simply put, the power of literacy cannot be understated. With education being one of the focus areas of our philanthropy and volunteer initiatives at Zebra, we will continue to support the organizations and people who aim to increase literacy rates worldwide. We encourage you to join us – in ways big or small – to help everyone read their way to a better life.


Zebra is sponsoring the Bernie’s Book Bank Walk as One Chicago event on September 22 for a third year. David Kaplan, host of Kap & J. Hood on ESPN Chicago, and Darrin Utynek, CEO of Bernie’s Book Bank, will walk 20 miles to raise awareness and support for the organization. Interested in joining us for the Walk or making a financial contribution? Learn more here

David will also be joining Adam and Hale on the next episode of Chalk Talk to share more about how the Walk as One Chicago event got started. Tune into the Your Edge blog and podcast later this month for the full scoop.

Inside Zebra Nation, Corporate Social Responsibility,
Therese Van Ryne
Therese Van Ryne

Therese Van Ryne is Senior Director of External Communications for Zebra Technologies. She joined Zebra as part of the acquisition of Motorola Solutions Enterprise business in October 2014. She and her team are laser focused on growing the company’s brand awareness globally aligned with business objectives. Her accomplishments include leading Zebra events with Harvard University and TED as well as the creation of the annual Intelligent Enterprise Index, resulting in positive media coverage, customer engagement and revenue growth.

Prior to Motorola Solutions, Van Ryne worked at SC Johnson where she led corporate communication strategies and drove PR and branding efforts for leading consumer products. One of her top achievements was leading the Windex® placement in the film, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” resulting in a 25% sales increase for the brand.

One of PR News’ 2019 Top Women in PR and Crain's Chicago's 2021 Most Notable Executives in Marketing, Therese also has experience as a journalist, editor and producer, reporting nightly from Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Van Ryne holds a bachelor’s degree in Communications and Journalism from Marquette University and an Executive Leadership Master’s Certificate from Cornell University.

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