John Wood is the founder of Room to Read. This post, authored by John, originally appeared in The Huffington Post on Septmember 8, 2014 in honor of International Literacy Day.
Give up your phone in the name of clean water? Give up drinking to help cancer research? Give up spending to alleviate poverty? Giving back has increasingly become synonymous with giving up in the nonprofit world. Critics might call it slacktivism, but by forfeiting something we care about in the name of philanthropy it encourages some to realize how easy it is to change the world in our everyday lives. And, by becoming aware of how dispensable our daily conveniences are—and reminding ourselves of those that are living life with much less—it suddenly diminishes the value of luxuries that we have been conditioned to define as necessities (or what some have popularized with the hashtag #firstworldproblems), and provides an eye opening moment of clarity.
It’s a successful fundraising model that many non-profits have adopted and the financial results of these “give up” initiatives are tangible. By and large, the relinquishments we are asked to make are manageable. Yes, skipping that morning coffee does leave us a bit irritable during our 9 AM meeting and even the most generous and well intentioned teen laments the loss of the latest tech gadget as their birthday passes without a gift to open. But we can all reflect back on these self-inflicted sacrifices with a smile and a bit of pride, congratulating each other on our success.
Today, on International Literacy Day I would like to issue a more provocative challenge that I anticipate—and sincerely hope—you will fail. Try giving up something truly vital to our existence.
I challenge you to give up reading. Reading? Yes, reading.
[Buzzer sound] Sorry, you lose!
Now try again. Do not read this sentence. Do not read any online posts. Do not read your emails. Or your text messages. Do not read ingredients on your lunch selection or the warning label on your medication. DO NOT READ ANYTHING.
Impossible? Yes. Which is precisely my point. Literacy is not a latte. You can’t give it up and cross it off the list of daily amenities. Because once we have been given the privilege of knowing how to read, it is impossible to relinquish. Literacy is perhaps the most valuable asset that is given the least amount of appreciation.
Now imagine that you are one of the 774 million people in the world who live their lives with the omnipresent directive DO NOT READ THIS. Not because they are choosing not to read, but because they are incapable of doing so.
This population may never be given the chance to decipher letters or words in their lifetime if we do not take action. According to UNESCO, of the 58 million out of school children over 40% will never enter a classroom. The U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy estimates that 32 million adults in the U.S. cannot read, a statistic that hasn’t budged in the 10 years between studies conducted.
Room to Read’s DO NOT READ THIS challenge seeks to raise awareness about the importance of literacy, both at home and abroad, through each and every botched attempt to give up reading. If we want to advocate for an unmet need that is plaguing the world, what does it prove if we can easily give up that same need in our own lives? Isn’t it a more powerful lesson to fail in this attempt? After all, if we can go without something and succeed, it likely wasn’t a vital part of our lives to begin with.
So, go ahead. DO NOT READ THIS. Do not share this video. Do not change the world today. Do not visit DoNotReadThis.org.