Literary Nonprofits Using Books to Make a Difference

If you’re feeling helpless, these organizations are doing good work

It’s hard to feel like there’s any way to make a difference right now. Children have been ripped away from their parents, toddlers of a “tender age” have been put in cages, families seeking asylum have been ripped apart and lost on either side of 1-800 numbers that fail to translate the trauma into anything close to an answer.

It’s important to keep paying attention to the unimaginable horror being played out in real time right in front of us. And it’s also important to make sure we continue to celebrate the organizations that have been plodding through the thick of so many of our problems for so long. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion claimed. And while many of the organizations on this list are keeping our community alive in holistic ways, others are offering specific life services like healthcare, legal services, clothing, shelter. All by way of the book. There are countless organizations advocating for writers specifically (such as Kundiman, Cave Canem, Lambda Literary, and Vida, to name a few), we wanted to focus on those nonprofits using books as a tool, as a defense of sorts against what feels like the End of Days.

“Hope” as Rebecca Solnit wrote, is “an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal.”

Here are nine organizations giving the world a few more axes, and a few more reasons to be hopeful.

The Telling Room, Portland, ME

This one is the nearest to my heart. The Telling Room was established in 2004 by writers Sara Corbett, Mike Paterniti, and Susan Conley, who founded the non-profit writing center on the premise that children are our best storytellers. Not only do we need to listen to them, but we need to celebrate and publish their stories, too. (Anthologies of paraticipants’ stories are for sale on the Telling Room website!) This is particularly crucial in a city like Portland, Maine, where there is a growing community of immigrant and refugee families from all over the world. The Telling Room runs in-school writing workshops, after school and summer programming, publishing workshops, author mentorships, and so much more. Their Young Writers and Leaders program, which is an after-school program for multilingual students, was awarded the Youth Writers a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. I worked with the organization for a year and can honestly say that I have never met a group more committed, more passionate, more engaged than the folks at The Telling Room.

How to get involved: No matter where you live — buy one of their books! There are annual themed anthologies, novels and memoirs and poetry collections written by middle school and high school writers (because I mean didn’t you write a novel before you could drive a car?), and more. You can also donate here. And if you live in the Portland area, give yourself the best gift and volunteer your time.

Barrel of Monkeys, Chicago, IL

Barrel of Monkeys puts kids’ artistic imaginations center stage — literally. Here’s how it works: BOM teaches creative writing workshops to kids ages 7–13 in Chicago Public Schools and in after-school programs during the week. Then, a team of BOM actors and musicians take the students’ work, and adapt it into sketches and songs which they perform for the school, and then the public. How does it get any better than that? And why don’t I live in Chicago?

How to get involved: If you live in the Chicago area, you can volunteer to help out with front-of-house duties during performances. And if you’re an educator, you can even take a class from BOM on how to incorporate its teaching methods into your classroom. Or go to one of their shows! If you don’t live in Chicago, you can always donate to BOM here.

Housing Works Bookstore and Cafe, New York NY

Alongside its many thrift stores, the bookstore and cafe in SoHo is home to thousands of donated books. The bookstore and cafe are run mostly by volunteers, and all the proceeds go directly towards Housing Works’ twin missions: to eradicate AIDS in New York by 2020 and worldwide by 2030 while also working to eradicate homelessness. The organization offers services and support such as healthcare, job training, legal services, and housing opportunities.

How to get involved: Visit and buy a book (or several)! Become a volunteer! Or donate here.

Poster Designed for Books through Bars by Erik Raum

Books Through Bars, Philadelphia PA

Books Through Bars started nearly 30 years ago in 1990 when a bookseller in Philadelphia received a letter from a prisoner, asking for damaged or overstocked copies of books. When the bookseller, Todd Peterson, responded to that letter with a few free books, he received more letters with the same request. Thousands of volunteers are now part of the effort, receiving prisoners’ requests and sending copies of donated books directly to them.

How to get involved: If you live in the Philly area, you can drop off books for donation by following these instructions. You can also volunteer with Books Through Bars here, and make non-book donations here. There are also many other local initiatives in line with Books through Bars throughout the country—look up prisoner book programs in your area.

Books = Superhero Juice

826, Nationwide

826 was founded in 2002 by Dave Eggers and the educator Nínive Calegari. What started as an after-school creative writing program in Valencia, CA is now an eight-city strong collaboration between centers, educators, and the community, to serve under-resourced kids between the ages of 6 and 18 by celebrating creativity and writing stories. And all the centers are super cool — 826 Brooklyn is a legit Superhero Supply Store with a secret entranceway to the writing space and library.

How to get involved: If you live in one of the eight cities blessed by 826, you can find out more about volunteering here. You can also learn about other ways to donate and contribute to the cause here.

Open Books, Chicago, IL

Here’s another bookstore, and another great Chicago non-profit proving that books are to superhero work as spinach is to Popeye. Open Books is a literary non-profit that runs two bookstores. 100% of the proceeds from those bookstores go towards their literary advocacy. They deliver high-quality books to readers of all ages all over Chicago, as well as guided writing workshops and publishing opportunities for students through 12th grade.

How to get involved: If you live in the Chicago area, go donate some books! Volunteer to work in the bookstore or help out with programming. And for the rest of us, we can all donate here.

First Book

Susan Neuman, a professor at NYU, conducted a study in Philadelphia to determine how many books were available in a given low-income neighborhood. She reported to NPR that in one neighborhood, there were a total of 33 books available for 10,000 children—versus the more affluent neighborhoods, where there were 300 books per child. Access to physical books is important for children’s development, bonding with their parents, and vocabulary development. That was nineteen years ago, and change is slow to come. First Book is trying to change that by creating partnerships and marketplaces with publishers to get books and other necessary supplies to children in low-income communities in more than 30 countries.

How to get involved: You can donate in lots of different ways (fundraisers, direct contributions, partnerships, etc.) and find more about that here.

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