A Penn Graduate School of Education alumna co-founded a nonprofit to help students in the South Bronx build their literacy and activism skills.
2019 GSE graduate Rina Madhani co-founded Start Lighthouse last year. The organization provides students with customized literacy kits containing reading materials at a time when many may lack access to their schools or local libraries due to COVID-19, and also offers monthly community workshops and programming related to their reading. Madhani said Start Lighthouse focuses on educating students about racial justice and advocacy.
As a former high school and elementary English teacher in the South Bronx, Madhani became increasingly aware of the inaccessibility of books and other literacy resources for children in the community. Spurred to action by worsening inequalities during the pandemic, she worked alongside colleagues Anya Morales and Brittany Kramer to build Start Lighthouse. Madhani and Morales met each other during their first year as teachers and were both motivated to try and remedy the inequities they witnessed. Kramer and Madhani met as undergraduates at New York University.
Now, in the literacy kits Start Lighthouse distributes, students each receive two new multicultural books, bilingual comprehension guides, and reflective activities. Some readings include “Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice,” “Julián Is a Mermaid,” and “Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story.”
Madhani emphasized the importance of students seeing themselves represented in the books they read, as well as the need to engage them with important issues.
“We also have our very own racial justice literacy program, Woke Activists, and Woke Activists cultivates a safe space for students to have conversations about identity, race, racism, and social justice in a developmentally appropriate and relevant way,” Madhani said.
The program also enables participating students to meet and learn from authors, community leaders, and other inspirational figures. Madhani recalled a mother who, after struggling to have age-appropriate conversations about George Floyd’s murder and Black Lives Matter protests, enrolled her daughter in the Woke Activists summer program. Through the program, she was able to watch her eight year-old become much more empathetic and motivated to fight for justice.
“We really believe that if we provide access to multicultural literature, especially within learning spaces, we can really help students to become these critical thinkers who are able to unpack complex issues," Madhani said. "And through these conversations, they can learn whose voices are not represented within their communities and the world, and ultimately it can prepare them to be the leaders and change-makers in their community."
Bridget Santiago, a fifth-grade teacher at P.S. 5 Port Morris in the Bronx, implemented the Woke Activists curriculum into her classroom earlier this spring. Three days per week, in hour-long sessions, students learn about activism and literacy through books — many of which are from a child’s perspective, which helps students relate even more to the stories.
One of her favorite books is “Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation” by Duncan Tonatiuh, whom the students had the chance to meet and interview. She said she was amazed at how her students have connected with the issues discussed and have used what they have learned about social issues and advocacy. Santiago’s class is looking forward to completing an act of community service for individuals who are homeless at the program’s end.
Santiago said she is thrilled with how the Woke Activists program has improved her students’ interests in reading. She said that she had never seen children so happy to get books as when her class received their literacy kits and were eagerly discussing and comparing the stories with each other. The writing activities associated with the books have also helped build literacy skills, she added.
“It’s been a really good experience and some of the stuff that they’re walking away with is amazing. Very high-level thinking when it comes to how to help our community and be active in our community,” Santiago said.
Madhani credits GSE professors Amanda Antico and Michael Golden as being highly influential to her work with Start Lighthouse. She specifically highlighted Antico’s “Education Entrepreneurship” and Golden’s “How Innovations Flourish” courses. Both recall her as a highly curious, hard-working, and motivated student.
“Year after year, I see many students come by with an idea that is not really solving a problem. I think what she’s doing is solving a problem,” Antico said.
As for what's next, Start Lighthouse recently announced a partnership with Homework Helpers, a program established by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to aid New York City students and families amid school closures.
Madhani is also a recent recipient of the 2021 Penn GSE Recent Alumni/Early Career Award of Merit. The honor is given to a graduate who has shown "outstanding service" to Penn or GSE prior to their 10th reunion year.
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