Common Reading to inspire action

| June 20, 2013

Reading can be a passive and solitary pastime, but not if nearly everyone on campus is captivated by the same book — nor if that book challenges us to see the world from someone else’s perspective. Sweet Briar’s 2013 Common Reading selection, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” is meant to do just that and more: to spark discussion, but also action.

According to the book’s website, reporters Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn Kristof  “help us see that the key to economic progress lies in unleashing women’s potential. They make clear how so many people have helped to do just that, and how we can each do our part.”

During their research, Kristof and WuDunn traveled through Africa and Asia and talked to different women about their economic and domestic struggles. On their journey, the authors discovered that “[t]hroughout much of the world, the greatest unexploited economic resource is the female half of the population,” the description continues. “Countries such as China have prospered precisely because they emancipated women and brought them into the formal economy. Unleashing that process globally is not only the right thing to do; it’s also the best strategy for fighting poverty.”

Each year, the Common Reading Program invites Sweet Briar students, faculty and staff to participate in a shared reading experience that sparks conversation about important contemporary issues, both in and outside the classroom. Special events connected to the Common Reading run throughout the academic year, and several courses across the disciplines touch upon the larger theme behind it. First-year students selected to participate in the College’s y:1 program complete a summer reading-and-response assignment and an orientation program of discussions, collaboration and presentations; enroll in small, coordinated first-year seminars; and participate in yearlong assessment activities — all tied to the Common Reading book.

As in previous years, the 2013 Common Reading was selected by a group of faculty who have taught in the y:1 program before and “understand that a book needs to be of global interest in order to catch the imaginations of so many different people,” said y:1 director and religion professor Cathy Gutierrez.

“ ‘Half the Sky’ speaks to not only women’s situations in the current world, but also how those lives can be improved and how each individual can help to do so.”

As part of the Common Reading Program, Sweet Briar will host one of the women featured in the book. Tererai Trent will give a public lecture on Oct. 8, followed by a reception with y:1 students, the campus and the local community. Trent is from Zimbabwe, where she experienced gender discrimination in education. She earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees after moving to the U.S. in 1998 and has since become a prominent advocate for women’s education.

In 2011, Oprah Winfrey donated $1.5 million to Trent so that she could build a girls’ school in her village in Zimbabwe. Trent was a repeat guest on “Oprah” between 2009 and 2011, and her story was featured in an excerpt in The New York Times Magazine. In July of this year, CNN featured Trent in its African Voices blog.

In addition to Trent’s lecture, y:1 will collaborate with the Honors Program, asking students to choose from various projects that assist with microloans for women in developing nations. Gutierrez believes that adding a hands-on element to the Common Reading will help drive the book’s message home.

“The y:1 students — and hopefully the College as a whole — will better understand the lives of women around the world, the challenges that they face, and how to be a part of changing those lives for the better,” she said.

For a list of Common Reading selections from previous years, click here.

Janika Carey

Category: A Landscape for Learning, Academics, Common Reading Program, Y:1