To Read or Not to Read:

The Importance of Literature in Advocating for Social Justice

08 September 2023

Laetitia Pancrazi is the Executive Vice President of The Athena Advisors. Here, in honour of International Literacy Day 2023, she considers the power of written words, including examples of how literature contributes to social justice, and what we are doing at The Athena Advisors, through our Literary and PR division, Athena Advance.

Laetitia Pancrazi is the Executive Vice President of The Athena Advisors. Here, in honour of International Literacy Day 2023, she considers the power of written words, including examples of how literature contributes to social justice, and what we are doing at The Athena Advisors, through our Literary and PR division, Athena Advance.

The Power of Written Words

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…

These are the first words written in the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a United Nations document penned in 1948 setting for the first time fundamental human rights to be universally protected. This document has since been translated into over 500 languages and is read, quoted, and used by billions every year to drive positive societal change.

What if we could not read? Would this milestone, historical document have had the same impact? What if we could not write? Would we have an orally transmitted declaration, relying on our ancient story-telling traditions? Would it have had the same atemporal power?

My opinion is… probably not…

It would not have been unmoving or ineffective (let us not forget Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech). But the power of written words and their ability to now be easily shared and read by billions is unique.

Literature, from fiction to non-fiction works, from newspaper articles to theatre plays, have after all shaped our history, informed our societal norms and values, provided descriptive context to subjective concepts like beauty, explored the meaning of life and death, cleverly critiqued those in power, advocated for those who are abused, and fuelled revolutions.

Writing and Reading for Social Justice

Literature advances social justice in numerous ways, whether it is through the act of writing in support of social justice, or by reading about social justice.

Let’s look at some examples of how literature contributes to social justice:

  • It raises awareness of a specific social justice issue, helping build movements and consensus. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, is sometimes credited as the book that sparked the American Civil War. Whilst this may be an overstatement, the book did bring awareness of slave life to the public and the conditions slaves faced daily. It reignited calls for freedom and equality.
  • It helps to change individual and societal perspectives on an issue or a group of individuals and to rectify biased thinking and prejudiced opinions. For example, in Rice & Peas and Fish & Chips, Pauline Campbell reflects on her own story as a child of Windrush parents and a black lawyer in the London courts of justice to help her readers shatter pre-conceived narratives and biases towards people of colour.
  • It challenges the status quo and traditional thinking. A great example is The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. Darwin never anticipated the impact his book would have. It changed societal, political, cultural, and religious views of the world, challenging traditional and religious views with his theory of evolution. The book contains numerous other theories, some of which have not been proven, some of which have been proven as false. But it did not matter. What this book did was challenge traditional thoughts and teach others to do the same.
  • They give a voice to the voiceless, the forgotten and the under-represented. Highway of Tears by Jessica McDiarmid, a Canadian journalist, explores the true story of the forgotten indigenous women who disappeared on the deadly Highway 16.
  • They educate and inform, providing the evidence base and arguments for societal change. Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Umoja Noble reveals how search engines reinforce negative biases against women of colour. It is a thoroughly researched book that educates its readers on data discrimination and the lack of an equal playing field, with search engines like Google holding a virtual monopoly.
  • They help us build rapport and empathy, a cornerstone of enacting change. Ink Knows no Borders is a collection of poems addressing the many challenges and issues that immigrants and refugees face. These authentic poems written by immigrants and refugees show not only the daily pain, adversity, and trauma these individuals face, but also the hope, resilience, and strength they display.

Using our Literacy

We, at The Athena Advisors, strongly believe in the power of written words, including their role in advocating for social justice (hopefully by now I have also convinced you, but if not, do check out our Food for Thought on Writing for a Better World, you’ll find the recording here on our YouTube channel).

It is why we founded Athena Advance, a division of The Athena Advisors that provides non-traditional public relations services to aspiring and established authors writing on social justice issues.

And beyond Athena Advance, we also support UNESCO’s global literacy agenda. Literacy (our ability to read and write) is a human right. And whereas our human brains are naturally wired to speak, our brains are not naturally wired to read and write. It is a skill we must learn and one we must continuously practice. With one in seven adults still illiterate, it is a human right we must all continue to value and fight for.

So, today on the 8th of September 2023, International Literacy Day, we encourage you dear readers, you who already have the chance to read and write, to exercise your precious human rights and to support social justice by reading a book!

More Tips:

  • Find a social justice topic you want to learn more about. Make sure that you are open to sometimes feeling uncomfortable and to be challenged. This is when true change happens.
  • Browse the internet for social justice books on the topic of your choice. We highly encourage you to support independent bookshops and to buy second-hand books if possible.
  • There are great fiction books that cover social justice issues so there is something for everyone! More of a newspaper person? There are numerous not-for-profit journalistic organisations that report impartially on social justice issues. We are fortunate to call several of them past clients of The Athena Advisors.
  • Are you a teacher? Or are you looking for books for children and young adults? Check out Social Justice Books.
  • Know a social justice author who wants to increase awareness on a specific social justice issue, and disseminate key learnings to the public? Get in touch with our Executive Vice President, Laetitia Pancrazi, at: