How Latoya West-Blackwood Is Advocating For Children’s Literacy
Since 1989, the Book Industry Association of Jamaica (BIAJ) has been scripting a path that promotes literacy and reading as tools for national development, economic growth, and educational excellence. In 2020, BIAJ was the first book industry organization in the English-speaking Caribbean region to become a full member of the International Publishers Association, which presents a stage for Jamaica’s voice to be heard internationally on industry affairs matters such as access to diverse literature, copyright and supporting the freedom to publish movement globally. As the immediate past chairperson of the BIAJ, Latoya West-Blackwood continues her campaign to demonstrate that reading for pleasure can be the great equaliser in education and that access to books along with building a national culture of reading is a social justice issue.
The association has found creative ways to engage local communities and encourage more reading. One such initiative is their flagship event: Kingston Book Festival (KBF) which is held biannually. The festival, which engages schools, communities, parents, teachers and other stakeholders, showcases diverse career paths, connects authors and publishers to audiences, builds capacity through training, and highlights the power of storytelling. Latoya estimates that over 20,000 children and their communities have been directly engaged and positively impacted by the festival since its first staging in 2011 under the leadership of then BIAJ Publishing Director and Jamaican children’s book author, Kellie Magnus.
A more recent initiative of the association is the National Education Week Book Bag Outreach Project in partnership with the New Jersey-based GrassRoots Community Foundation led by Dr Janice Johnson-Dias. This project idea sparked when the pandemic hit in 2020, and the book festival had to be cancelled. With more than 120,000 children not being reached by remote learning, the BIAJ under Latoya’s leadership, partnered with GCF to deliver literacy care packages to 500 students across 12 schools. In 2022, the initiative reached 40 schools, gifted over 3,500 students with culturally diverse books, and touched all 14 parishes! The next plan is to launch Vision for Literacy, a special initiative to onboard corporate partners to build and sustain a culture of reading and literacy for all starting in their organizations and connecting with the communities they serve.
The sequel for the BIAJ’s story sees them providing greater support for local libraries, positioning them as a safe and accessible space. Latoya shared that many of the libraries are underfunded and need greater levels of innovation. Libraries are an oasis for many communities, and the association plans to help to mobilize support to revitalise them and provide more diverse books, especially in rural communities.