Indian American teenager Swetha Prabakaran was among those honored worldwide in the second annual International Literacy Association “30 Under 30” list.
The ILA, a global advocacy and membership organization dedicated to advancing literacy for all, announced the honorees Sept. 1.
The list recognizes the next generation of innovators, advocates and educators who are leading efforts to advance literacy for all, whether in their community or around the world.
“Today, there are still 781 million people around the world who can't read or write, 126 million of whom are youth,” ILA executive director Marcie Craig Post said in a statement. “This list highlights the next class of leaders who are taking steps to advance literacy and helping us reverse those alarming statistics.”
While Prabakaran is the lone Indian American on the list, a number of Indian origin and South Asian literary leaders were honored, including Babar Ali and Aarti Naik of India, Qasim Aslam and Humaira Bachal of Pakistan, and Surya Karki of Nepal.
All told, the leaders represented 12 countries and includes nonprofit leaders, classroom teachers, authors, volunteers, researchers and social entrepreneurs.
Each honoree has created and implemented an initiative that has directly improved the quality of literacy instruction or increased access to literacy tools in the classroom, community and/or online.
Prabakaran, 16, is the founder of Everybody Code Now! based in Virginia.
According to a Literacy Today report featuring the honorees, Prabakaran caught the programming bug when she took a ninth-grade computer programming class, inspiring her to found a nonprofit that introduces underserved students of all ages to her new coding passion.
Today, Everybody Code Now! offers computer science camps, workshops and mentorship opportunities in 12 states to teach students —especially girls — that determination and hard work could create their future in the STEM disciplines, the report added.
Plans are in the works to expand internationally.
“I really wanted other girls to have strong mentors and exposure to tech the way I did. The realization that most schools don’t offer any sort of computer science course for any students further strengthened my resolve to create a program to introduce more kids to computer science,” Prabakaran, who was inspired by her computer engineer mother and her high school computer science teacher, said in the report.
Ali, 23, is the founder and headmaster of Ananda Siksha Niketan in Murshidabad.
He was named the “youngest headmaster in the world” by the BBC in 2009 when he was just 16. The school, which means “Home of Joyful Learning,” lives up to its name, the Literacy Today report said.
At 9 years old, he was teaching eight children in his backyard who couldn’t afford to attend school. Now a volunteer-run brick-and-mortar school, it offers free education for about 300 students, mostly girls, and emphasizes nurturing compassion, morality and social responsibility, the report said.
Ali, who has now taught 3,000 students, is pursuing a master’s in English literature in the morning and teaching at his school in the afternoon along with other teachers, including six female former students who are also in college programs.
“The village elders were very skeptical about educating their children as they were not educated themselves and hence did not understand the importance of education in our lives,” Ali told Literacy Today.
“When we went from door to door [to persuade] parents to send their kids to this school, the first question I was asked was, ‘How can education help people who cannot even afford two square meals a day?’ ‘Educate girls and they will not find husbands,’ others quipped. But people also came forward to help me [because] they were convinced that positive changes are going [to happen] through my school,” Ali added.
Naik, 28, is the founder of SAKHI for Girls’ Education in Mumbai.
Sakhi, which means “a female friend who inspires, guides and supports other girls for a good cause,” encapsulates the mission of Naik’s nongovernment organization.
Naik founded the organization in 2008 to provide slum-based girls in the Mulund area of Mumbai with a quality education. She was inspired by her experience as a dropout and her three-year struggle, unable to earn a living wage, before returning to pass her exams, the report noted.
Focusing on literacy and life skills, Naik has created safe learning spaces serving 400 girls, up from just five when she started nearly a decade ago.
“Eight years ago I was school drop-out girl, but now I feel so happy to see that my SAKHI has become [a] hope for many girls from my slum community,” she said in the report. “My girls are going to school confidently. It is the great achievement of my life,” she added.
Aslam, 29, is the co-founder of The History Project, which presents students with competing national historical records to empower them with critical thinking skills — essential to both literacy and life, the report said.
The organization is dedicated to inspiring tolerance through critical thinking, starting with Pakistan and India, by showing students how the histories told in their textbooks differ from each other and by encouraging students to delve deeper into what they learn and to ask the right questions, it added.
The History Project sends its trainers into schools to lead sessions with students. They empower teachers by having them as observers, then co-delivering and then leading the curriculum with students. The project has impacted 913 students in 17 schools to date.
Aslam said he was inspired by his experiences at the Seeds of Peace camp where he met young people from the “other” side and learned about the competing history narratives that shape national identities on both sides of the border, the Literacy Today report said.
“We live in an age where information is ubiquitous and it’s a matter of accessing it, questioning it, and learning to analyze it, and then forming your own conclusions, defining your own identity, and not necessarily inheriting it,” he said in the report.
Bachal, 28, is the founder of Dream Model Street School based in Muwach Goth, Pakistan.
Criticized and even abused when she became the first girl in her family to be educated, Bachal was a brave 12-year-old when she taught her first class to impoverished neighborhood children, sharing the lessons she’d fought so hard for the right to learn, the report said.
By 21, she opened the Dream Model Street School to teach some 1,200 students in the slums of her hometown of Muwach Goth on the outskirts of Karachi.
With her 18-year-old sister as principal, Bachal developed an interactive teaching style that is the opposite of the passive teaching methods of most Pakistani schools, it said. She also started the Dream Foundation Trust, which funds projects in education, community development, youth development and social welfare.
Recognized by the Women in the World Foundation as one of five “Bravest Women on Earth,” Bachal was a finalist for the Global Teacher Prize in 2016.
She uses conversation to engage community leaders and elders to challenge biases and archaic thinking about women’s education. Her goal is to build schools in neighboring communities in addition to inspiring more children, especially girls, to seek empowerment through education, the report added.
Karki is a 25-year-old founder and CEO of the Diyalo Foundation and the country director of United World Schools Nepal with distinctions in both Heluwabesi, Nepal, and Maine in the U.S.
His own access to a quality education inspired him to found organizations that make it possible for other children to have the same advantage, according to the report.
“If not for the schools I attended and the teachers I had as my guides, I would have been working in the Gulf as a cheap laborer,” he said.
He began by co-founding Maya Universe Academy in 2011, a free private education institution in Nepal that focuses on literacy in many forms, from educational to agricultural, the report said. Parents are required to volunteer at the school and help conduct community initiatives.
Now, Karki runs the nonprofit Diyalo Foundation, which promotes sustainable development through education, renewable energy access and community-supported sustainable agriculture, as well as United World Schools Nepal, which builds free schools for rural children.
Today, Diyalo’s and United World Schools Nepal’s holistic approaches reject the memorization model so often used in Nepalese primary schools.
“The work of these impressive young leaders is closely intertwined with our mission to transform lives through literacy, so we are thrilled to welcome them to our growing list of 30 Under 30 honorees,” Post said.
ILA's “30 Under 30 honorees” are featured in the September/October issue of Literacy Today as well as ILA's bi-monthly magazine.