Dot-to-Dot: Connecting Female Empowerment with Children’s Books

Posted on September 21, 2012, by Allen Ross, Half the Sky Movement

As a business consultant with an interest in nonprofits, Kevin McCaffrey was familiar with the tools that NGOs use to counteract the subjugation of women. But when he visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo to witness the charitable work there firsthand, he realized that something was missing from the dizzying array of microfinance, education, and entrepreneurship programs: women's creativity. To make sure this vast, untapped resource could be put to use affecting positive change, Kevin recruited some friends to found Dot-to-Dot, an organization that tackles female oppression through the medium of children's books.

Kevin recounts how impressed he was after watching a group of courageous Congolese women, all of whom had suffered serious trauma in their lives, perform a series of short plays that they had written themselves. He had been told that these women lacked any meaningful skills like writing or basic math and needed to be taught soap-making or another basic trade. Yet these women clearly possessed a fantastic skill: storytelling. It felt like a waste of genuine talent. "I was trying to find a vehicle that would allow women like those that I met in Congo to translate their creativity into something that helps their communities," Kevin said.

 


A girl in Bolivia participates in a Dot-to-Dot creative writing workshop. 

 

 

With two complementary aims in mind, both to promote awareness of the struggles of women worldwide and to contribute to the education of girls, Kevin's model for Dot-to-Dot began to take shape. Kevin personally traveled around the world to conduct a series of creative writing workshops for children in communities where young women might face serious repercussions just for being girls. The material gathered from each community — all the plots, settings, and characters his students' imaginations could offer — was sent to an award-winning writing team he assembled back in the United States. The writers wove together and polished the most promising narrative threads of the bunch, interfering as little as possible with the authors' original visions. The end result is a collection of children’s books based on the collective creativity of more than 225 young women and children and dozens of volunteers from countries around the world.

That would likely be enough to create an incredible collection of children's books, but Kevin had other ideas in mind. Aiming to adapt the message of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide for a younger audience, each book also contains a short, region-specific biography of an inspiring female role model, a profile of an NGO doing important work in the area, and ways for kids to get involved in global activism. At the end of the process, Dot-to-Dot would be left with a truly unique children's book — one made more powerful and more meaningful by the chorus of voices that helped create it.

Kevin poured all the resources he could spare into Dot-to-Dot. "I was going to go to business school or go into private equity," he said. "I chose to focus on launching this."

Dot-to-Dot’s inaugural book series, the Endangered Species, Empowered Communities Project, launched in late 2011. The focus on an endangered species — all of the main characters of the set of books are endangered animals — turned out to be an enormous boon. "In a classroom setting, kids are used to regurgitating facts because that's what they're taught in school. If you ask them to write a story with people as the main characters, kids often try to guess what they are supposed to write," Kevin said. "If you ask them to write about animals — giving them names and emotions and thoughts — it pushes their creativity, leading to better stories." 

 


Two girls in Cambodia proudly showcase their illustration of a tiger. 

 

 


A host of organizations partnered with Dot-to-Dot to help bring Kevin’s vision for the Endangered Species, Empowered Communities Project to life, including AfricAid, BRAC, Heal Africa and Women for Women International.


Kevin's workshops have made an impact on hundreds of lives. He has a litany of stories — some funny, some poignant, some a mix of both — about his students and him. One of his fondest memories comes from his experience in Congo, at the Heal Africa school. "We initially had trouble getting creative stories, so we told the kids, 'Imagine that these teenage gorillas got out, escaped. Imagine if these gorillas walked into the classroom right now. What would happen next?' One kid stands up, casts on both legs, and starts getting really animated. He does voices and gestures, impersonating the teacher and the students, and then all of a sudden the gorillas are on a fantastic adventure, traveling all over the city." Kevin said that watching students get involved in their stories is the most rewarding part of Dot-to-Dot. "It's amazing to see that kind of change."

 

 


Students in the Democratic Republic of Congo learn about gorillas from an actor in a costume.

 

As Dot-to-Dot increases in popularity, Kevin has big plans for expanding the organization. They plan to release a set of books targeting each grade level and introduce children to a variety of cultures, countries, and global issues as each child grows older. "We love the idea of parents going through this process with their kids and working with them to inspire activism at an early age," Kevin said. Once interest builds, Dot-to-Dot will begin engaging any student who wants to participate in the collective writing process to contribute their ideas. "As we go through this creative writing process, children can start sending in their own stories. We'll have kids send in character descriptions, then put them all up for a vote. Kids can encourage their friends and family to read their submissions and vote for them. We think that will be helpful for spreading the message while making the process more fun and educational for students."

To learn more about Dot-to-Dot Children’s Books or the Endangered Species, Empowered Communities Project, visit www.dot-to-dot-books.org or follow the “The Endangered Species, Empowered Communities Project” on Facebook. 

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