Sergeant Kim Watkins, one of the domiciliary participants, shares how Books@Work sparked new reading ambitions and encouraged her to embrace and learn from new perspectives. More comments from Sergeant Watkins may be found here.
Books@Work partners with companies and community organizations to offer adults a chance to read and discuss literature, using narrative texts to break down barriers and develop enduring social connections. In regular seminars facilitated by professors, participants share their stories, challenge assumptions and engage in respectful, critical dialogue.
Although they tailor programs to meet the needs of participants, a typical program includes up to 20 participants who read multiple books or short stories and meet for regular one-hour discussions, facilitated by local college professors.
As of today, Books@Work has reached approximately 5,000 participants in 51 organizations across 20 states and seven foreign countries.
A robust learning environment requires exposure to different ways of thinking, as well as the social exchange of ideas and stories with people of varied backgrounds. “Life experience is a powerful form of wisdom that we rarely have the safe space to explore or share,” says Books@Work Executive Director Ann Kowal Smith. “By inviting participants to examine the human condition and compare perspectives, Books@Work creates that space." A meaningful discussion around a piece of literature kindles a universal form of expertise: we all have valuable feelings, memories, experiences, opinions and ideas to share and explore.
In all settings, Books@Work invests in the broader ecosystem of learning, empowering individuals across diverse perspectives, cultures, and educational levels to step into each other’s shoes and contribute productively at work, at home and in the community.
Books@Work with Veterans
In 2015, Books@Work launched a program at the Veterans Domiciliary of the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio. A residential treatment facility jointly run by the Veterans’ Administration and the Volunteers of America, the Domiciliary serves veterans facing challenges including homelessness, PTSD and addiction.
Books@Work programs at the Domiciliary are supplemented by bi-monthly “Big Read” events to attract new participants and give every resident a chance to get involved. “We read the first story, and it captivated me,” said one participant. “I've been hooked ever since.” These Big Reads are embedded into the residents’ mandatory weekly community meeting. A resident volunteer reads a short story aloud; over 60 residents and staff read along with their own printed copies. Residents then break into small groups of 8-10 people, each facilitated by a Books@Work staff member or a professor. Together, residents explore essential questions spurred by the text. Big Read events have featured stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Langston Hughes, Chinua Achebe, and O. Henry.
In addition to the Big Reads, resident veterans sign up to participate in weekly one- hour sessions, facilitated by professors from local colleges including Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland State University, Kent State University, Oberlin College and the University of Akron. Professors represent a range of disciplines from literature and sociology to religious studies and history. Professors normally facilitate for four weeks, at which point another professor begins; thus, residents are exposed to multiple professors from different disciplines.
Residents have read and discussed stories by John Steinbeck, Ursula K. LeGuin, Jorge Luis Borges, Isaac Asimov, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Edgar Allan Poe, E.B. White, Katherine Anne Porter, Guy de Maupassant, James Joyce, Tobias Wolff, Bernard Malamud, Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolf, and more.
Books@Work participants provide feedback in comprehensive exit interviews when their programs end. This research informs future programming and contributes to a deeper understanding of how adults learn, connect and grow. One Domiciliary resident shared that her Books@Work experience has enhanced her therapy:
Delving into and analyzing the perspective of the author, the characters, and our perspectives. . . is the most surprising thing to me. I really enjoy that. . . Because of the reasons why I'm here at the Dom as well, this is a much healthier way for me to [have a way to escape] and vacate the premises, but at the same time, being able to practice all of my mindful tools. I can be healthy and vacate the premises and still help myself. . . I really, really needed this.
Another participant found that Books@Work was a vehicle to contribute productively to life at the Domiciliary:
It’s been a very healthy experience. . . [When one professor commented in a session] that I can add value to other people, [something] went click during the course of the Books@Work experience. I found myself actively looking for ways I could really make a difference.
The social interaction within his Books@Work group also opened his eyes to the contributions of others and his own quickness to judge:
There were a number of people who attended Books@Work from inside the Dom who I was surprised at how astute they were. . . It was like, wow, this person is really on the ball! You know something’s in that for me – I’ve been too quick to judge people because it helps me feel better about myself.
One participant who frequently volunteers to read the short stories aloud to the room of veterans during the Big Read reflected on the opportunity and how it affected her self-esteem:
I'm very honored, because I just like to read. I find it fascinating to read the stories aloud and to affect people. . . [and] you know something? I have PTSD, and when I have to discuss my emotions, my stuttering comes out. So, to be able to read and not stutter, too, that feels good.
Of the professors, the same participant remarked that they “are very thoughtful people, very kind people. Very understanding...They all avidly listen to what we have to say and also interjected things they thought, as well, about the stories. Really, I enjoyed every one.”
“I was often moved by how much the participants identified with the stories, how much the stories touched them,” one Case Western Reserve University professor noted. “I appreciate the power of short stories now in a way I never have before. I see things I never would have seen.”
As of April 2018, sessions are in full swing at the Veterans’ Domiciliary in partnership with the Teagle Foundation, Ohio Humanities and individual donors.