The Power of One
Megan Holt is the 2023 Light Up for Literacy awardee
“I was told that you could help with this,” the email read.
Who told you? Holt wondered. OBONO is, at its heart, an adult literacy nonprofit that annually seeks to unite residents of New Orleans around one book, with an emphasis on the inclusion of people who are historically excluded from literary groups, such as incarcerated people, people who struggle to read and write, and people who love books but lack access due to financial or transportation constraints. In 2022 OBONO distributed 934 copies of the year’s selected book, I Feel to Believe by Jarvis DeBerry, to adult education programs in Greater New Orleans, prisons across the Southeast, and juvenile justice facilities. The New Orleans Public Library stocks extra copies of the selected book each year for those who can’t afford to buy their own, and WRBH 88.3 FM, Reading Radio For the Blind & Print Impaired, offers a reading of the book on the air. Community discussions of the book are carefully sited to enable residents to catch at least one in-person event within walking or biking distance, no matter where in the city they live.
“What I saw there left me awestruck,” said Liz Granite of an OBONO event she volunteered at in 2019. “Celebrated writers, scholars, and nonprofit leaders participated alongside street performers, Uber drivers, and stay-at-home moms. Folks of all ages and backgrounds broke bread—or rather biscuits and fried chicken—while sharing meaningful conversation in a welcoming and inclusive setting.”
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, OBONO expanded its mission to increase local accessibility to books—any and all books. Holt asked local bookstores for paperbacks they could donate to the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center, where young people in lockdown were reading at breakneck speeds. (She had five hundred books to distribute within a week.) She then gathered books for DePaul Community Health Centers, to offer to patients who could no longer visit libraries or schools closed by the pandemic. (OBONO has since distributed over six thousand books to DePaul.) Even as the world opened back up, the work never slowed down. In 2022 OBONO distributed an additional 4,540 books on top of the 934 copies of the year’s selected book.
Which brings us back to the high school without a library. Stocking shelves isn’t OBONO’s core mission. But funneling books to people who understand the impact of stocked shelves is a capacity the organization has grown over time, in response to critical community needs. So, three hours after receiving that email, Holt was asking a Mardi Gras krewe to host a book drive. Within a month, the high school had a five-hundred-book library.
Whoever told the school that Holt could help, they were right.