Interview – Dream Corps Co Founder Jun Luo

Dream Corps is a social benefit organization dedicated to promoting reading among children in rural China by opening resourceful libraries and developing reading programs. Through close collaboration with local educators and parents, its aim is to inspire enthusiasm for learning in rural children.

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Nee Hao Magazine’s Yinsey Wang talks to co founder Jun Luo. He grew up in Sichuan, studied at Peking University, Indiana University Bloomington, and Duke University, and taught at the University of Toronto. He currently lives in Toronto. 

The vast range of Dream Corps International’s reach is impressive. How did the organisation go about establishing these projects in such a large number of areas? 

It is a matter of community and it took years of work. Back in 2004 when we started, it was simple: we went back to places where our core organizers grew up or had connections with. Once we started, our alumni, the teachers we worked with, our non-profit partners, and many other supporters started recommending new sites to us. To make more informed decisions, we started doing visits and revisits of prospective and existing sites in 2005. Since 2009, we have become much more systematic and rigorous in site selection. Given a recommendation or a lead, we do an initial round of screening. A key factor we consider is strong local leadership, or at least clear willingness, in promoting libraries and reading. We also evaluate other conditions such as communication and transportation, library facilities (at least a dedicated classroom), and availability of library staff (typically a teacher in the school), and so on. Then, our staff will visit the ones that look promising in order to actually see the place and meet with the people. And we compare prospective sites as well as existing sites before making final decisions.

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Once we decide to work with a school, we invite the school’s leadership and teachers to our training workshops in Beijing or another city. This is followed by our Summer Volunteer Program (SVP), which runs for about a month. A team of about 5 volunteers will go to the school to help them get over the initial hump of opening up their library, get the students hooked on reading, and work together with teachers to promote reading and use of the library. During the school year, our staff in China will regularly communicate with the school and visit them at least two times to ensure the continued use of the library, as well as provide necessary support. After this first year where we focus on getting things started, we normally follow up with two more years of operations to ensure actual integration of reading into school life and long-term sustainability of library access and reading activities under the school’s own initiative.

I should note that while we have had operations in a dozen provinces and cities, the scale of our operation is still fairly modest: 32 libraries in 8 years is not really big. We have always chosen sustainability over fanfare. These days, we keep about 12 active sites – sites that are going through the three-year cycle as described above. As you can imagine, regular communication with and visits to these many sites, teacher and librarian training for these sites, and recruitment and training for 12 teams of SVP volunteers is a huge undertaking for a small organization that until recently had no more than 2 full-time staff members. That we have been able to operate across China on this scale is thanks to the efforts of an organically formed community of full-time staff, volunteer organizers, summer and regular volunteers, teachers, school and community leaders, and many other supporters.

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What was the inspiration behind setting up Dream Corps International? 

The group that founded Dream Corps International had strong connections with rural China from their growing up in remote areas or through their field research. While we were studying abroad to become academics and professionals, we felt that the children of rural China should be equally entitled to a fulfilling life. This compassion grounded a sense of responsibility in all of us. Then, the perceived widening of the gap in life opportunities as China’s economy grew gave us a sense of urgency, which prompted us to take action and set up Dream Corps International.

From what we learned in our very first year, we recognized that library and reading programs, especially in collaboration with strong local initiative, provide an effective and non-meddling way for us to participate in improving rural children’s learning environment.

Tell me about yourself and your experiences. Why was it so important to you to give back to these communities? 

I grew up in a small town in southern Sichuan, near Yunnan Province. I used to spend most of my school breaks in this rural community where my father grew up. The most formative summer in my whole life is probably the one I spent over there exactly 30 years ago. I was visiting every relative on this mountain and playing all day with local kids. I spent my days catching fish and birds, frolicking in water and mud, gathering firewood and grass for pigs and water buffalos, mingling in the crowded market, being suspected as a pickpocket, eating pickled turnips as a preventive measure amid rumors of massive deaths from the BCG vaccination, and witnessing the transition away from the commune system. I did not even touch my homework the whole time, but I learned so much about life and nature by living as a rural kid.

There was a huge difference between my summer playmates and me, however. At the end of the summer, I returned to the county town and the best school in the county. From there, I went on to university in Beijing and eventually immigrated to study and work in North America. What stayed with me from that summer and all the others, however, is a deep recognition that at some levels I am no different from my childhood rural playmates. It is mostly circumstances that have privileged me with a much better environment for formal education. This in turn translated into much better opportunities to acquire the necessary perspectives and skills for exercising one’s own agency in life and work in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.

Speaking of “giving back”, I do not think I have much on offer. What I have received over that summer alone is beyond what I could ever repay. Moreover, the reality of Dream Corps’s projects as participatory collaboration with the local communities transcends what we could easily describe in terms of giving and receiving. That being said, I am very glad to be part of an effort towards making learning more enjoyable and more empowering for children of rural China.

Do you find that Dream Corps has changed perceptions towards charity and philanthropy, as well as community development amongst youth? 

Yes, absolutely. From the very beginning, the self-education of volunteers through participation at grassroots level has been an integral part of our goal, second only to making library and reading accessible to rural children. This applies to both our volunteer organizers – myself included – and our SVP volunteers. By and large, we never believed that we have anything like a ready-made “solution” for any “problem” of “rural development” to “deliver”. We have had to constantly learn to become a better part of the changes we would like to see in the communities we work with.

We have worked hard to communicate with our summer volunteers about how the “development” mentality does not really help, how little they could really “give” as short-term visitors in comparison to how much they will learn, how much more it actually takes to really make a difference, and how important it is for us to always remember that we are only a temporary part of the enduring cause of literacy as empowerment in these communities. However, things on the ground are almost always more complex than any volunteer could have anticipated or prepared for. Consequently, our SVP volunteers do become frustrated at times. But it is fair to say that all of our volunteers have become more thoughtful and mature from this experience. Many of them also have become more motivated in the face of challenges tougher than they have expected.

A good example is the story of Dream Corps alumna Laura Bai, who currently runs Teach for China. Laura’s decision to devote her career towards improving education in rural China was deeply informed by her experience as a Dream Corps volunteer.

Why do you think it is so important to have access to education?

Equal access to good-enough education is a most important mechanism in modern society towards redressing the imbalance in the distribution of wealth. As China’s economy advances, however, equality in access to education has gone down in some crucial aspects. Yes, China has passed the era when many rural children could not afford to go to school. We have seen this firsthand at our own sites. While the bottom rung has been significantly lifted, the ladder has actually become much steeper. With the “industrialization” of public school education that is geared towards college entrance exams, which used to be a big equalizer, children from lower income families are less likely to go to a good enough high school and from there enter better colleges or enter colleges at all.

The inequality is dramatically complicated by the unprecedented massive migration within China. There are currently about 60 millions of “left-behind children” whose parents have gone away for migrant work in cities and who are typically cared for by their aging and often illiterate grandparents. There are also at least 20 millions of migrant children living in cities but are barred from attending regular public schools in these cities. These in combination mean 80 million children today in China are not getting normal parenting or normal school education. Abstract as these numbers may be (for comparison: the whole population of Great Britain is about 63 million), they do illustrate the immensity of the challenge of providing equal-enough access to education in China today.

By reaching out through our programs to thousands of children, who are indeed mostly either left-behind or migrant children, Dream Corps International is still serving only a tiny fraction of the many millions. But we are highly motivated by a sense of urgency. Children never wait for the society to figure out how to give them better access to better education. They just keep growing relentlessly. And we are talking about the education of 80 million children.

What do you see for the future? 

In my own opinion, to truly address the gap in access to education would require a genuine shift away from exam-oriented education to quality-oriented education regardless of the socioeconomic status of the children. We did notice that over the past few years, library and reading have slowly but increasingly been given higher priority by educational authorities and school leadership. I am hopeful that such changes will continue at an increasingly rapid pace. In terms of the specific role of Dream Corps, we have been working closely with schools, communities, and teachers to figure out how to effectively run library and reading programs with modest resources. We hope that our in-depth experience and expertise in these areas will benefit many more schools and many more children as more schools and communities start to emphasize active reading in addition to or even above repetitive drilling. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a global village to raise a child who finds their future in the global village. Dream Corps is happy to be part of this effort as part of the global Chinese community.

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What has been the greatest success of the project? 

The greatest success is probably that we have been steadily and continuously improving our programs and increasing our organizational capacity, while retaining our uncompromised integrity and remaining true to our ideals of locally sustained open libraries and active reading programs.

We are currently transitioning into a new stage, with more full-time staff and larger capacity in China to run new teacher training programs and provide better service to the libraries, and with a new version of the SVP being actively designed and implemented.

What are the ways in which overseas Chinese can get involved, particularly from Europe? 

Everybody could show their compassion by spreading the word about Dream Corps International and its mission.

For those who could afford the time, they are most welcome to check out our Summer Volunteer Program and apply to become an SVP volunteer. We welcome both students and professionals. Please do pay attention to the dates. Our recruitment normally starts early in January.

Financial contribution from individuals and organizations is absolutely crucial and is most welcome. We view such contributions as “investment” in underprivileged children, through Dream Corps, for a better society, for a next generation that is happier and more creative rather than lost. I should note that ChinaNext, a UK-based foundation, has recently approached us to provide financial support for our staff so as to relieve them of concerns about livelihood and allow them to focus on their work for the public good. We applaud the farsightedness of ChinaNext and welcome more “investments” from donors who support our cause of letting reading inspire children to achieve their dreams.

What strategies have been most useful in engaging community interest? How have volunteers changed after their experiences on the programme? How has the programme and its success changed you?

It is a process of achieving rapport through committed collaboration in a shared project. The part that involves our SVP volunteers and local children is the natural one. For our volunteers and the local children, the weeks they spend together are more like an extended eye-opening and fun-filled feast. In comparison, achieving rapport with school and community leadership and teachers is much harder and we are still learning. In recent years, our teacher training workshops, which allowed extended direct interaction and conversation between our organizers and local teachers, along with the many site visits by our staff, have done a lot of work. In such interactions, we have been trying to be good catalysts of and good supporters for local initiatives. In general, we strive to find and expand the common ground between our program goals and the school’s priorities and teachers’ life and professional development.

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Personally, I have mostly been doing support and organizational work from North America. Dream Corps has been the community in which I learn to practice committed participation with open-minded compassion. Time and again, I have found that things turned out to be much harder than I had initial expected; but time and again, I have also learned from my colleagues and our local partners that things could be done and could be done with lasting positive effect.

Tells me about some of the work that Dream Corps has been most proud of. What achievements stand out?

Early on, we recognized the limitation of “giving resources” and “bringing solutions”. Consider direct donation of books, for example. It runs the very high but very real risk of the books being simply left unused. In the summer of 2009, I met a volunteer who took part in the relief work after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. He told me sadly how when they went to deliver books, they were unceremoniously directed to unload the books directly into long-term storage. That wasn’t surprising – our volunteers have time and again encountered piles of donated books locked up to gather dust when they helped schools really open up their libraries.

The approach of Dream Corps International has always been a combination of people and resources. We rely on our expertise and channels to select and acquire a modest number of truly excellent books. These books would serve to spark the interest of teachers and students. As these books are sent to a school, we also have a volunteer team at the school to actually open the library and run initial reading activities with local teachers using these books. On top of these, there are repeated rounds of donation of high quality books, teacher training, site visits by our program management team, and SVP at the school, spanning a three-year period. This is how we catalyse and cultivate local interest and commitment in keeping the library open and keeping reading activities going.

A great illustration here is the Lingfang Township School in Chaling County of Hunan Province. This is one of our earliest sites, where we started in 2004. By 2006, the school told us: “Thank you very much. We now know how to do things and we no longer need your volunteer teams.” And we happily ended our SVP operation there, knowing that we did our part as good catalysts and good supporters. To this day, students at the school enjoy a daily open library and regular reading programs integrated with school life, entirely managed by the school itself.

If anything sets Dream Corps’s programs apart from one-off donations or visits which, in spite of all the good intentions, is destined to have only transient, if not negative, effect, it is probably this organic approach of working closely with the local community to help cultivate their own agency and initiative. As our approach of choice, this is probably not something for us to be proud of. But we are glad that we have not wavered on this apparently slow but ultimately more effective approach. We are glad that we have not catered to the drive towards speed, scale, or fame. With a stronger and stronger team based in China, with new teacher training and library service programs, and with an increasingly better SVP, the best is yet to come.

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