After multiple rounds of interviews and competing against thousands — Bronx organizer Rina Madhani, the co-founder of Start Lighthouse, a literacy nonprofit, will join this year’s L’Oréal Paris’ Women of Worth honoree class.
L’Oréal Paris embarked on its 17th year recognizing the charitable achievements of 10 nonprofit leaders. In addition to joining a diverse alumnae network of 160 individuals, Madhani will receive $20,000 in funding, mentorship from the L’Oréal Paris community and the brand’s national platform to share her story.
“I was just so overwhelmed with gratitude,” Madhani said. “I just couldn’t believe that I was being selected. Being able to be part of this sisterhood of women that are just changing the lives of those within their communities — it’s just been such an inspirational journey for myself.”
Before the creation of Start Lighthouse, the former 10th grade English teacher in the Bronx noticed some of her students reading at a fifth grade reading level. Following a switch to elementary education, she continued to witness literacy gaps. Eventually, she concluded that the biggest barrier to literacy in the community was access to literature.
This experience would serve as the catalyst for the creation of Start Lighthouse.
Start Lighthouse was established in March 2020 to narrow the nation’s literacy gap by building equitable and inclusive literacy experiences in the Bronx.
“I knew just early on we were going to witness such intense level of academic loss during the pandemic, and so I immediately assembled a woman led team, and together we distributed over 7,000 brand new multicultural books to the homes of families throughout the height of the Covid 19 pandemic,” Madhani said.
As executive director of Start Lighthouse, Madhani said the funding from L’Oréal Paris will help deliver more hours of literacy programming and increase the number of interactive workshops with authors and artists from all different backgrounds. The funds will also help add multicultural books to their literacy hub, which provides books for children’s home libraries.
A South Asian whose parents emigrated from India in the ’80s, Madhani said as a child she struggled with seeing herself reflected in books and media.
“I really strive to be just the person that I needed when I was younger,” Madhani said. “If I can be that type of role model for them and just remind them that they have the capacity to achieve and to bring any idea that they have into fruition — I think I successfully did my job.”
Manhani said the nonprofit is formally contracted with the New York City Department of Education as a vendor which allows the organization to administer their programming. And this past September, the team created its first literacy hub at P.S. 5 Port Morris. The hub transforms defunct school library facilities in the Bronx into functioning spaces, allowing children to self-select new books and create their home library.
“They’re able to explore the books that peak their interests,” Madhani said. “It’s really meant to be able to ignite that spark and joy for reading by allowing them to have that sense of choosing.”
She said they service over more than 600 students every day at the literacy hub, opening up shop for children to choose books — free of charge. Madhani said a second literacy hub is shortlisted for federal funding by U.S.Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“Anytime they set foot into the hub, it’s meant for taking, and it’s meant for keeping and allowing them to have that sense of ownership and to build out a robust home library,” Madhani said.
The nonprofit reimagines literacy by incorporating books that address social issues and reflect diversity of today’s society, which has been a contentious issue across the nation. In Oklahoma, educators and social activists sued the state in 2021 over a law that restricts teaching about racism and gender in public schools and public colleges and universities. And just this month in Westchester County, controversy arose after an unapproved book that addressed racism was used in Somers High School’s curriculum by a teacher.
As these discussions grow on a national and local level, Madhani said it has led the organization to be intentional with which schools they collaborate with in the Bronx.
“We’ve been so fortunate that all the schools that we’ve had the pleasure working with are so receptive to the work that we’re doing,” she said. “They actually realize that there is an underlying need to have multicultural literature in place for students to be able to see themselves in what they’re reading and that we can’t shy away from their lived experiences.”
She said it is special to spread her work and share her story on L’Oréal Paris’ platform. Joining a group of 10 diverse women from all over the country, she said it is a remarkable experience.
“Finally, I feel like I’m at a table where I’m being seen, heard and represented,” Madhani said. “Being part of this collective of strong, passionate, diverse women, and we’re eager to just learn and grow from one another, and I think that’s one of the best feelings in the world.”
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