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Strength Stories: Building Literacy, Resilience and Community Trust

LitWorld aims to engage communities in building girls’ voices/agency through strength-based writing & visual-storytelling experiences.

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What problem does your innovation solve?

OPPORTUNITY: HUMANITY, EVEN IN CRISIS Whether in an emergency or not, amazing, strong people are in every doorway, in every patch of shade. In crises, people have been pushed to extremes, bringing out inner reserves of endurance, creativity and resilience-they have stories of strength in them to find, shape and use. Why not build highly-needed literacy skills and resilience by first putting energy and resources toward uncovering, strengthening this inner power in each community, in each girl?

Explain your innovation.

LitWorld’s innovation is Strength Stories-both the process of writing them with the girls and local facilitators, and the products of that work together: the renewed resilience, the literacy skills, the stories themselves in a community library and the networks of girls formed around the work and stories. LitWorld and local partners collaborate on 7 Strength Stories lessons-literacy and visual storytelling work. Using the girls’ work as examples, we offer on-site & virtual training (including trauma-sensitive teaching) to community leaders who then reach more girls. It builds the library of Strength Stories and the girls’ visual storytelling, strengthening their voices, resilience & community trust. Strength-Stories offers a social-emotional, literacy focus that serves as a bridge to formal schooling. Meta-analysis of 270,000 K-12 students shows “when we help our students develop their social emotional skills, we are simultaneously improving their chances for academic achievement and lifelong success” (Durlak, et al. 2011). Literacy is a foundational skill required to acquire advanced skills.(Morrell, Allyn, 2014). Strength Stories is an invitation into self-development and the process of creation, so it doesn’t end. The girls in the community in turn teach other girls to write the stories, adding to the Strength Story collection, fostering literacy & creating a cascade of strong girls' voices.

Who benefits?

Strength Stories would reach 1,500 girls ages 9-13 in the first year by launching in the Philippines, Colombia and Nigeria. The girls (and leaders) benefit by strengthening their literacy skills and deepening their social-emotional health. Their communities benefit by the girls’ collaboration and growth, and they benefit from the new libraries of strength stories. We will use before/after assessments, surveys, interviews and data collection to assess leaders’ and girls’ growth (and thereby our success) in the following areas: - Literacy skills - Social-emotional skills, 7 strengths (Belonging, Friendship, Kindness, Curiosity, Confidence, Courage, and Hope) - School and community engagement

How is your innovation unique?

-Ties with local partners -We’re educators coming into development--not vice versa -We teach a simple, innately-rewarding learning process that is infinite ALSO Focus on meaning/power from one’s own story. Many of us need to make sense/order to be okay--this work is often transformative Short cycle effort-to-result. Girls get energy from quick growth Lots of practice in strength-based literacy work: problem-solving, critical thinking Inherently adaptable. Girls create the work, so it’s at each level Easy to spread. It’s the creative process: ideas, iterate/revise, publish for all Lesson language is concise, clear to understand/translate Others work in literacy, few in writing. Also, we do NOT -import/imitate school-as-factory model, undifferentiated -exempt crisis settings from research-based education practices -assume teachers need long scripts, silent pupils -believe trauma-sensitive=empathy+low standards -think access to content=education

What are some of your unanswered questions about the idea?

To design the Strength Stories program, we’ve pinpointed the parts of our work that have been the most successful in the most disrupted zones where we work, paring away all the rest. Are we and our partners right about what is essential for impact--and what is inessential? We’ve iterated our design based on field research, but until we pilot, we’ll not know for sure. We still wonder: what can we do to make the environment safest for the girls? Will the library of Strength Stories be used by others? Will the combination of e-training and a shorter timeline make it harder to build the close relationships the work depends on? What role will boys and men take, and how can we include them meaningfully?

Tell us more about you.

LitWorld: 501(c)3, turning ten years old, high in collaboration with partners at the grassroots, low in overhead; a young dedicated team, led by, advised by, accomplished literacy leaders. Creating and publishing ideas. Strengthening kids and communities through the power of their own stories. Together, authoring a bold new world of equity and opportunity. Founder: Pam Allyn, leader in the field of international literacy education and development, author of 28 books, activist, storyteller.

What is the primary type of emergency setting where your innovation would operate?

  • Armed conflict
  • Prolonged displacement

Emergency Setting - Elaborate

In the Philippines, Nigeria and Colombia, girls face profound life and literacy loss as a result of armed conflict and displacement. Each country’s young women--while separated by miles, cultures and languages--face similar instability in their lives, and similarly can heal and grow strong through our approach to literacy, closing their education gaps. This innovation is for all emergency areas where it’s safe for groups of girls to gather for 7 short sessions to build and share stories.

Where will your innovation be implemented?

Since the Zamboangan Siege of 2013, violent crises impact young Filipino women, interrupting schooling and access to basic resources. The consequences of the Colombian Conflict affect young women in Roldanillo. Violence and threat from Boko Haram keep girls from continuing or engaging with their education in Nigeria. LitWorld has led successful programs in these areas, and we believe Strength Stories will allow us to impact more girls, more powerfully there--and in other emergency zones.

Experience in Implementation Country(ies)

  • Yes, for more than one year.

In-country Networks

LitWorld collaborates with locally-based organizations across the world to establish literacy as a pillar, including Project PEARLS in the Philippines, Museo Rayo in Colombia and Nigeria Reads to provide girls with libraries and Strength Stories leaders throughout Abuja, Nigeria including in IDP camps. Our in-country networks include university students in each location, local mayoral offices and government officials who support our advocacy, as well as the global publisher Scholastic.

Sector Expertise

  • I've worked in a sector related to my innovation for more than a year.

Sector Expertise - Elaborate

LitWorld is dedicated to supporting literacy and social-emotional growth in under-resourced areas around the world. Our team of 20 (with many more volunteers) has worked for nearly a decade building partnerships with strong, local organizations in 28 countries. We are proud to have impacted the literacy and personal growth of more than 10,000 youth, 2/3 of whom are women and girls. We’ve created breakthrough literacy education methods, now in books, articles and international conferences.

Innovation Maturity

  • Existing Prototype or Pilot: I have tested a part of my solution with users and am iterating.

Organization Status

  • We are a registered non-profit, charity, NGO, or community-based organization.

Organization Location

New York, NY, USA

Website Proposed Partners for Strength Stories: 1. Project PEARLS, once a food program, now much more: empowering displaced communities to reclaim dignity through work and learning 2. Nigeria Reads, working to fight the darkness of terrorism and conflict through the joy of reading 3. Museo Rayo, a museum that serves as an oasis of arts and inspiration in a place marked by years of conflict, where the amphitheater brims with youth on evenings of spoken word performances

How has your Idea changed based on feedback?

Drawing on feedback from our partners and the IDEO process, we learned how important visual storytelling is in our process. We’ll build a certification model for Strength Stories leaders that includes social emotional training. We’ll give support for building ties with government and other NGOs to build sustainability. The powerful feedback from our partners has recommitted us to the essential work of educating the whole child. One partner says: “We’re educating for life, the heart, the mind.”

Who will implement this Idea?

Key staff at our three locally-based organizations work for us part time while continuing their own organizations’ work, each with 15 Strength Stories Leaders: -Philippines: Peachy Abellon -Nigeria: Joyce Garba Colombia: Johanna Gòmez These partners lead our work by selecting participants, facilitating community relations, teaching, and providing continuous feedback. They’ll have daily support from 4 full-time NYC-based staff. We’ll also work with experts on: education in emergencies, business strategy, trauma-sensitive teaching, program measurement and evaluation, and visual storytelling

What challenges do your end-users face? (1) What is the biggest challenge that your end-users face on a day-to-day, individual level? (2) What is the biggest systems-level challenge that affects your end-users?

The urgent challenges are in the areas of security for the girls’ physical and emotional wellbeing and the lack of opportunity and right to participate in civil society as learners and thinkers. Miriam 12 in Nigeria, faces the threats of the Boko Haram; she is anxious and socially withdrawn. House work and earning pennies have depleted Dania 10 in the Philippines. Her hands are blackened from grueling work. Amilia 11 in Colombia suffers from the lack of protection against armed conflict and has not experienced the power of playful exploration. One partner reports that the great tragedy in schooling at our sites is there is a sense that everyone learns the same and especially girls must be silent; this perspective prevents self expression, creating a sense of hopelessness and despair.

How is your organization considering sustainable growth in order to continue making an impact over time?

Funds for our work come in part from publishing our working models; Strength Stories would add to that revenue stream. We’ll also engage our dedicated donor relationships. Strength Stories is an invitation into self-development and creation: once they’ve learned, girls continue and teach others. Newly trained leaders would join them, creating a cascade of girls’ voices. Literacy amplifies untold perspectives, solidifies inner selves, grows empathy for others. Introducing this model into the fabric of community is a lasting way to healthier, more interesting, more beautiful, powerful living.

Tell us about your vision for this project: (1) share one sentence about the impact that you would like to see from this project in five years and (2) what is the biggest question/hurdle you need to address to get there?

By 2023, we aim to teach literacy and bring more hope, laughter and community trust to 1.5 million girls and women in crisis situations. We’ll do this through teaching literacy-based art and activism processes and skills via our Strength Story leaders, training local cohorts to work with small clubs of girls through our model. QUESTION: How can we keep the process clear enough so that Strength Story leaders can use our high impact practices effectively, even in situational challenges?

How do you currently measure (or plan to measure) outcomes for this project?

Attendance and engagement in educational programs 7 Strengths social-emotional skills development, matched to literacy skills: rubric Reading and writing development: progressions of stages Surveys and feedback: participants, partners, parents, community Growth, job satisfaction of local partners Use and community profile of girls’ books, art, activism projects Number and depth of follow-up projects & turnkey teaching Observations & discussions: presence of hope, laughter, community trust

What is the timeline for your project Idea? What are the key steps for implementation in the next 1-3 years?

Year 1: Support current and new leaders to run Strength Stories workshops. Certify leaders via on-site and virtual workshops in best literacy practices, trauma-sensitive teaching, visual storytelling. Year 2: Feedback from participants to gain knowledge. Refine current model to strengthen & expand. Year 3: Our partners support wider circles of girls. Share projects & results with schools & government agencies towards permanently embedding Strength Stories learning in schools and NGOs.

My organization's operational budget for 2016 was:

  • Above $1,000,000 USD

How many of your team’s paid, full-time staff are currently based in the location where the beneficiaries of your proposed Idea live?

  • No paid, full-time staff

Is your organization registered in the country that you intend to implement your Idea in?

  • We are a registered entity, but not in the country in which we plan to implement our Idea.

How long have you and your colleagues been working on this Idea together?

  • More than 2 years

What do you need the most support with for your innovation?

  • Business Development / Partnerships Support
  • Organizational Design


Join the conversation:

Photo of Ashley Tillman

Hi LitWorld team! Thanks for sharing the work you are doing! Would love to better understand some of your thoughts around what some of the core elements for building a sustainable program in your three proposed countries might look like? Would also love to understand a little more on how you track and measure impact?

Looking forward to learning more!

Photo of LitWorld

Thank you for the questions, Ashley! They are crucial, so thanks for giving us the chance to say more about the core elements/sustainability of the work we propose and how we’ll check impact. Sustainability: LitWorld’s impact is not in danger of evaporating when we staff are no longer present. The people with whom we have worked have grown in nearly irreversible ways--they’ve stepped into leadership roles, become more brave and articulate and now continuously look to widen and build more networks of support and learning.

Our partner organizations thrive on the newfound energy and lean on the new ways of working in communities--these are not skills easily unlearned. Core elements of our work do not involve complex learning or technologies. Instead, they involve transferrable, replicable actions that hold true across all three proposed locations:
*We teach people a simple, universal adaptable process of creation, sometimes called a creative process, a writing process or a design process. The steps are roughly ideation, community-based learning and feedback, piloting or drafting, revision, and some form of going public.
*We focus on developing 7 Strengths: Belonging, Curiosity, Friendship, Kindness, Confidence, Courage, and Hope. Our goal is to tap and strengthen people’s internal capacities. The result is not easy to measure, but often changes the trajectory of their lives. We see, feel, and hear the participants claim their educations and decide what roles they will have in their communities and in the world.
*We help the girls tap into a goal that is bigger than themselves--helping their community be strong, telling THEIR OWN stories--and that is why they’re able to draw on even more strength and concentration in times of crisis than one might expect.
*We work closely with local partners, listening intently to understand their strengths and the profoundly challenging circumstances influencing their perspectives. And then we go from there. We teach ourselves out of a job-by fostering their leadership skills, we teach them to train others not only by teaching as they’ve been taught, but by continuous example in their projects, works and behaviors.

Although it still needs more prototyping in situations of heightened need, we believe these are core elements that have enabled LitWorld to impact the lives of thousands of young people, and they are the ones we’d bring to our Strength Stories innovation. Strengths Curriculum and social emotional literacy framework introduced to local partners for feedback. Together, plan teaching. Local partners gather teens in small groups for 7 sessions when they’ll write and eventually share with the community a book or zine of “strength stories”--creative emblems of their inner power. With the support of local partners, youths who have published their stories will continue to share them. They will also teach the same 7 lessons to others in their community, growing the learning, growing the library of stories. LitWorld amplifies the work online, broadcasting it to the world, posting words, stories, and experiences along with other advocacy.
Here’s an example of how a Strength Story lesson can lead to personal transformation: In teaching writing revision, we ask the writer to find/circle the heart of her story and then, to put that bit on the top of a clean page and write more about it. The work is transformational because the youths explore as they read and write; they unpack the most important aspects of their lives. In the case of the first lesson on “Belonging,” they name what gives them strength through a sense of belonging--a mother relationship or their religion or the land they come from. They also explore in writing--and sometimes question--their sense of non-belonging: gender isolation, disruption from grandparents’ customs or language. People change as they write, as they share. The stories provoke the change and the transaction of stories makes the change profound. For sustainability, we are in the process of building and recording our exchanges with our local leaders so that they become resources open to all and so that each cycle can build on the one before-eventually putting ourselves “out of a job” in that region.

To track and measure impact, we’ll use before/after assessments, surveys and data collection to assess leaders’ and girls’ growth in literacy, social-emotional skills, and school/community engagement with the foundation of literacy. We created and developed an assessment rubric that links social emotional development to literacy skills and we’ll train our local leaders to implement the features of success. In the case of Paola, featured in our user experience map, we are tracking progress, e.g., in her growing voice in class, increased leadership in extracurricular activities, standing among peers, regular school attendance school and reporting from teacher and family on increasing engagement academically, socially and emotionally.