Alaa Murabit Opens SLJ Summit with Challenge for Attendees

Medical doctor and international policymaker Alaa Murabit kicked off the SLJ  Leadership Summit on Saturday with a challenge: find a way to translate their work in a way that compels the public and people in power to support libraries.

School librarians, publishers, authors, and edtech companies descended on Baltimore Saturday to consider solutions toward the theme of the 2019 SLJ Leadership Summit—"Equity and Access for All: Igniting Stakeholders for Success."

“Equity and access for all is not just a catchy theme for an event, the principle is ingrained in your roles.” SLJ executive editor Kathy Ishizuka told the ballroom of nearly 300 attendees before introducing the event’s opening keynote speaker, Alaa Murabit.

Murabit sits on the board of many educational foundations, including the Malala Fund, and has worked at the intersection of public policy, healthcare, and human rights. Among 17 Global Sustainable Development Goal Advocates selected by the UN Secretary General, Murabit is a medical doctor, who has also launched a global mentorship program for emerging leaders and co-founded the Omnis Institute, an independent nonprofit with a mission to challenge critical global issues through empowering local leaders. Murabit came to the Marriott ballroom with stories of her youth, her family, and children and families who have been positively impacted by libraries.

She spoke about going to a library with her sister, who has three children under age six, and hearing another mother talk about how long it took to get her kids ready and out of the house for the library program. Murabit told her she would have given up and gone online to find somebody reading a book on YouTube.

“’It’s not the same,’” the mother told Murabit. “ ‘My kid comes here and a whole world opens up for them that I cannot provide at home.’ “

Murabit knows the power and influence of libraries, but she also knows the problems of putting that into words, into the kind of charts and graphs that convince people something is vital, worthy of monetary, political, and social support.

“Usually when you want somebody to put money into something you have to convince them, and the best way is really big numbers,” Murabit said. “It’s worked in many aspects of education.”

She talked about the empirical evidence of the benefits of educating girls and how someone can judge the quality of a curriculum based on test scores or student improvement. As a policymaker, she knows data is the best way to influence decision makers, so she brought a challenge to Baltimore, expressed in questions throughout her keynote address.

“How do you prove, how do you illustrate, how do you translate, how do you communicate the value of something when you don’t have those data points?” she asked. “My challenge to you today and over the course of your conversations—and over the course of your deliberations and, I’m sure, incredible solutions—how do we translate the impact and value and importance of what you do? “

Libraries, she said, teach the skills that kids will need when they grow up, no matter their profession, part of a holistic education system she seeks that will teach compassion, respect, understanding, and communication along with math and reading.

How to best teach those “irreplaceable skills” has been one of the most difficult questions, she said, “because for a lot of people, it’s so elusive.”

Libraries are a place where kids learn such skills, as her young nephew, who learned to share there. They provide safe places and centers of community, particularly in areas where people are “focusing on survival above all else.”

“I’m not just talking about around the world,” she said. “I’m talking about here in Baltimore, where there are entire families where that library, that safe space, is genuinely the difference between life and death for that child. Oftentimes, and I know I’m preaching to the choir here, those are the last people policymakers are thinking about when they go into a room.”

She finished with the story of a young boy from her research. He had survived a shooting and when asked where he went, he told them he went to the library, because it is safe. Two years later, following up with that same boy, he said he was now going to his school library. Once again, it was the place where he felt safe.

“I just thought how incredible is it to feel safe where you are inherently unsafe,” she said. “I think that says something incredible about the space that’s been created and about the work that you all do.”

Murabit sent the assembled educators into the weekend of speakers, panels, and workshops with a call to action: “My biggest challenge to you is how do we maintain and sustain those places of community, and how can I and any policymakers help you do that?”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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