As the world started to shrink for many in March 2020, Michael Norris’ world has opened up in new ways. After completing his final semester in the Executive MBA program at San Francisco State University that spring, he embarked on a new career that provided a lifeline in the form of books to teens in all kinds of crises – from forest fires and disease to refugee asylum seekers.
Charitable book donations are only part of the mission of the Teen Readers Society (TRS), the Santa Monica-based nonprofit that Norris helped found during the pandemic with another Gator. The organization’s goal is to reverse the decline in teen reading rates, make books accessible to all communities and spread the pleasure of reading for the sake of reading.
Children line up outside a classroom at Fort Bliss Army Base, New Mexico.
The association is less than two years old and has already launched several ambitious projects. When wildfires raged through Oregon and Santa Cruz County in the fall of 2020, Norris and the organization’s other co-founder and executive director, Judit Langh (MBA, ’05), saw a opportunity to offer evacuated adolescents a welcome diversion: books.
âThere were all these teenage students who lost their homes and their home libraries,â he said. âWe wanted to help them rebuild their personal libraries. “
To do this, Norris and Langh approached the Penguin Random House publishing house and received 5,000 young adult books intended for wildfire evacuees. TRS has also partnered with UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco and Oakland to launch a Book Program for Adolescents in Pediatrics.
But the effort that Norris is currently buzzing about is a new book donation program for Afghan refugees residing in Fort Bliss, New Mexico. The program aims to increase English literacy among young Afghans who fled the Taliban. So far, TRS has provided more than 500 educational materials and books for young learners of English. They have partnered up with other agencies that will provide instructors and other services.
âEnglish is extremely important. People who have no understanding of English [in the United States] have poor health outcomes, âNorris said. âThey can’t access basic services, and that can have really negative consequences. “
Before TRS was an organization, it was just an idea of ââLangh, a marketing and communications consultant, who noticed a decline in teen reading. She even saw a drop in the reading habits of her own teenage daughters. As a longtime reader herself, she found this disturbing. Former Langh, San Francisco State Marketing Professor Subodh Bhat approached her about developing real projects for her MBA students. So, in 2019, she approached the Lam Family College of Business with a project proposal – to develop a communication plan aimed at getting adolescents to read.
Norris and a handful of his classmates set to work to create a focused strategy. They looked at the reading rates and communication habits of Generation Z. They looked at national studies, like the one from San Diego State University which found that between 1976 and 2016, the number of Grade 12 students who read for fun was down 30%. The group also interviewed 30 adolescents about reading to understand their attitudes towards it and their habits. Teens gave a variety of reasons for not reading more: dissatisfaction with reading assignments at school, more interest in physical activity, and distraction from social media.
âDigital platforms are replacing reading, and we were concerned about that,â Norris said. “[Due to the pandemic], a lot of kids are going to stay at home in front of computers all day, and we wanted to see what we could do about it.
With these Gen Z habits in mind, the group’s communications plan focused on social media. Norris, who is now the head of marketing for TRS, helped implement the plan developed at SF State. With the help of a team of strategists and social media creators, they developed smart and engaging posts. An article asks the obligatory Harry Potter-themed question: “Which Hogwarts house is yours?” There are also short author profiles, Instagram lives with âbookstagramâ and âbooktokâ influencers and much more.
The goal of their social strategy? Meet teens online hoping to shift their offline attention to a good book. In a way, social media and natural disasters are the same – they’re both barriers to reading, Norris says. “Our mission is to bridge access to books and reading,” he added.
TRS accepts donations for its Afghan Refugee Book Program.