The Reader's Shared Reading model brings people together to hear and read classic literature aloud, building resilience and reducing social alienation in communities across the UK and beyond. The Reader works in prisons, schools, hospitals, and workplaces, to put Wordsworth and Shakepeare in the hands of those who might not otherwise come across them.
Ogunte: What do you wish the world would understand about literature?
Jane: I wish we could all remember that literature is a practical tool to help people live. Long, long ago, humans told stories and poems around cave fires to help us understand the dangerous and complex world in which we lived - this was an evolutionary breakthrough! Much later, when writing was invented, it was originally an accounting tool, but was quickly adapted to preserve wisdom about the inner life of humans (see The Epic of Gilgamesh, circa 2000 BC).
Sharing stories has always been about sharing wisdom and knowledge, but sadly these days, while reading is still entertainment for some people, ‘literature’ seems mainly connected with a kind of lifeless ‘study’. It’s not that – it’s an amazingly live technology for transferring thoughts directly from one human brain to another, across space, time and even death. What else can do that? When we read together in Shared Reading groups it is entertainment but it is also vital – we learn about life from authors and poets, but also from each other. We all have our own stories to tell.
Ogunte: How would you characterise your way of leading?
Jane: For many years I hated the word leader and did not like to apply it to myself, but in the last five years I’ve accepted it, and now I actively embrace it. I hope that I lead from the front by modeling a powerful work ethic. I set quite high standards but I'm also willing to do whatever I ask of others.
I think I am also relatively egalitarian... I do my share of brushing up, washing the dishes and the tea rounds, but I’m not afraid to set the agenda or fight for what I believe in. My role often takes me out and about, away from my colleagues, so I make a regular pilgrimage around the offices with the fruit bowl to touch base with everyone and encourage some healthy eating! At The Reader we work by a set of values and my leadership style is perhaps best summed up by one of those: ‘We are kind but bold’.
Ogunte: How do you measure your impact? Could you share a favourite success story?
Jane: We've been building a picture of the impact of Shared Reading for many years through qualitative and quantitative data, working closely with commissioners and partner organisations. Our Reader Leaders collect impact information from group members on a regular basis and our evaluation manager examines the bigger picture to identify trends, but also to highlight those individual stories which best reflect the powerful impact of our work. Our wider work is also researched by colleagues at The University of Liverpool, Centre for Research into Reading Literature and Society (CRILS) who have studied the impact of Shared Reading on people living with chronic pain and dementia.
I have hundreds of reader stories that I love, a few that come to mind are: after weeks of dissing the very idea of reading, the poem Bluebird by Charles Bukowski so touched a woman in HMP Send that she cried out “That’s me, that is! That’s got me in the gut!”; the elderly woman living in a care home who said to the Reader Leader “When you come, it’s like getting a present every week”; and the man in addiction rehab who said, “More, please! For two hours a week, I have meaning in my life.”
Ogunte: What are the biggest challenges facing The Reader right now?
Jane: The organisation faces two key challenges at the minute:
1) We've recently launched a new community-led model, so finding the right partners to help us develop our work across the UK is a new challenge for us. We want hundreds of thousands of people to be trained to deliver Shared Reading in all kinds of locations. We want to work with individuals, charities, businesses and organisations within the NHS and public sector to bring the health and social benefits of reading to those who need it most. This is part of our huge ambition to make Shared Reading available in every community across the UK - each new partnership brings us one step closer.
2) Living through the £5m refurbishment of our HQ, Calderstones Mansion House. This is an ambitious, exciting development, but at the moment I’m spending time each week in meetings about cabling trenches and stair tread regulations. These are, of course, important elements of the build, but it's difficult to get enthused about them in the same way you get excited about the bigger picture. We're based in a park so the building work is bound to cause some frustration for the local community, too. It's important to focus on what we're going to achieve in the long-term. All the mud and dust will be worth it when we can open the doors of The International Centre for Shared Reading to the community here at Calderstones and to visitors from across the world.
Ogunte: What would be your top tip to a social business looking to maximise their visibility?
Jane: Do good work and tell people about it. Great stories help – make sure people hear about the stuff that brings you into work each day. Get your people - staff and volunteers, client groups - to spread the word for you. Word of mouth is the best marketing.
Ogunte: What are the key new challenges you foresee coming up in the next decade and how will you prepare yourself now to tackle them?
Jane: I think the future financing of the NHS will remain a difficult problem, and I fear that waiting lists are only going to get longer, especially for mental health care. More preventative health-care will be needed desperately, and organisations like The Reader will have a major role to play in providing that.
We already know that Shared Reading can improve general well-being and mood, we know that it has a huge impact on those living with dementia and chronic pain. Funding that work will be a key challenge.
I believe that business can and should generate profit for social good and I look forward to developing more social enterprises at our national headquarters at Calderstones.
Ogunte: Finally, who are three women in social enterprise who inspire you?
Jane: I was massively inspired by Clare Dove OBE even before I knew who she was or what social enterprise was. She led the growth and development of Blackburne House in Liverpool before she became a figure on the national social enterprise stage.
Cath Powell MBE developed an old recreation ground in Lytham St Anne’s into the most amazing community park (Park View for You). I visited her to see her work as we were moving into Calderstones – it was a total inspiration. I loved it, and loved the passion and energy Cath had displayed (over more than a decade) to make it happen.
Dr Jane Davis was a Finalist of the Ogunte Women's Social Leadership Awards | Category Social Business Leader 2013
"Once a vulnerable child and school truant, dealing with family problems including alcoholism, literature offered clear spaces, escape routes, truth. I left school with 2 GCSEs but returned to education as a young single mother, working in cafes while completing A Levels before taking up a place to study English Literature at University, gaining a first class degree. Following a PhD I taught for fifteen years in the Department of Continuing Education, and from a small outreach project in Birkenhead, I have led what is now called the ‘Reading Revolution.’"