Sofia Akel is an education activist who is leading research across the UK in order to tackle institutional racism in Universities. She is currently Race Equity Leader at London Metropolitan University. Alongside her work, she decided to set up Free Books Campaign in 2020 which aims to bring books by authors of colour to people who are unable to access them due to socioeconomic and systemic barriers.
Free Books Campaign have distributed over 1700 books to homes so far. The campaign is built on mutual trust. Those who are unable to purchase a book or have accessibility issues can request a free book from their community reading list found on their website. “The reason I set up Free Books Campaign was to create an opportunity for those who could not afford to buy books and to give people the chance to read texts by people of colour that were not exclusively about race. We sadly see this a lot in the publishing industry, where white authors can write about a whole plethora of subjects however authors of colour are often pigeon-holed and can only sign a book deal if the subject is about race. We have so many other stories to tell, with many cultures, histories, and perspectives. There is also a historical disparity here, where many authors of colour are seen as disposal and not worthy of the same publicity, deals, drive and support that they offer white authors.”
Sofia is aware that there are many people who face financial restrictions and therefore do not have the resources to request a book online, which is why she has been actively working with third-party organisations. “We are building new relationships with community centres, youth clubs and charities across the city. One of the agencies we are working closely with is Newham Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) who redistribute hundreds of our books to people in the community who cannot afford them.”
Free Books Campaign is a non-profit community interest company that is supported from financial donations from the public and from book donations from authors and publishers. She has recently started a new partnership with Vintage Book (Random House). “Vintage are donating over 300 books by authors of colour each year. I am really grateful for their support. It is a collaborative process because we curate a reading list together that ranges from children’s books to cookbooks and non-fiction. We can offer books that speak to all kinds of people.”
According to new government figures over 200,000 pupils will move from primary school to secondary school this autumn without being able to read properly. The pandemic has resulted in a major illiteracy surge in young people and requires a systemic response. Over 7.1 million adults struggle with literacy, which has meant that many parents have not be able to support their children with their reading and writing over the past year. Sofia adds: “There are a lot of parents who sadly don’t read to their children because they simply don’t have the time as they are having to work multiple jobs in order to keep a roof over their heads. Since schools have re-opened , many children have gone back to class and are falling behind significantly. They are struggling to keep up. The cycle of inequality reproduces itself. This is where public bodies need to step in. Community places like schools and libraries can play an active role in helping to alleviate the burden for parents. It is time to help students catch up.”
In 10 years over 800 libraries have closed in the UK due to austerity which has meant access to books is becoming increasingly more difficult. “I grew up in east London on a council estate, back then there weren’t that many places for young people to hang out in. I would try to utilise whatever public resources there were in the local area and libraries gave me the chance to read books which I would never have been able to afford to buy. I could just go there and explore new authors, genres, stories. Libraries were always considered important in my family. I understood the privilege of being able to go to a public library and read any book. These community hubs can affect change and alleviate people from poverty.”
This month the campaign is distributing an eclectic mix of stories from Frantz Fanon’s non- fiction novel ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, to ‘Musical Truth: A Musical History of Modern Black Britain in 28 songs’ by Jeffrey Boakye. Authors Raphael and Opeyemi Sofoluke have recently donated 150 copies of their latest book ‘Twice as Hard’ that speaks about black stereotypes within the professional working world. “It hasn’t been easy running a company alongside my full-time job, but this has been beyond rewarding and the kindness of generosity of you all has kept me going. It is sad that a campaign like this needs to exist in a country like ours, but this is the devastating reality of living under years of austerity and widening social divisions in terms of access to education and capital.”