I love the hashtag-for-a-cause trend as much as the next person, but I have to admit that sometimes it takes a little more than 140 characters to spark a passion for activism and social justice. Sometimes we really want to know the deeper story behind all the headlines we're hashtagging.
Many of the causes I’m most most moved by have been inspired by the books I've read. If that often-quoted adage of everyone’s first beloved storyteller, Mister Rogers, is true: “there isn't anyone you couldn't love once you've heard their story,” then I have fallen in love with a motley crew of characters throughout my years as a reader. They're journalists, prison inmates, teachers, and activists. They're immigrants who cross borders on foot, and refugees who cross oceans; soldiers who have broken ranks, and peacemakers who have broken all the rules. They are people whose stories make me want to donate, volunteer, raise awareness, and march in the streets.
I bet you're wondering what these books I'm talking about, right? Well, here they are. These are the books that will inspire you to abandon the safety of your overstuffed reading chair, and go outside and make some noise. Here are nine nonfiction titles that'll make you want to change the world:
Inside This Place, Not Of It with Robin Levi & Ayelet Waldman
This collection of 13 narratives from current and former prison inmates reveals the darker side of Orange is the New Black. Detailing the horrors that exist beyond the walls of a women's prison, as well as the surprising compassion and dignity that rise up in the hearts of America’s incarcerated, Inside This Place, Not of It sheds light on what daily life looks like for the approximately 112,000 women behind bars in the U.S. today. Compiled by the nonprofit publisher Voice of Witness, these stories ask readers to consider the possibility that a person, even an incarcerated one, is more than the sum of her worst mistakes.
The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea
In the spring of 2001, 26 men attempted to walk across the U.S./Mexico border, through an unforgiving, waterless desert corridor known as the Devil’s Highway. They were fathers, sons, brothers, and friends, and they all had unique dreams for their lives. This book takes readers through their journey — which ultimately goes horribly wrong. The Devil's Highway describes what it is really like to travel from Mexico to the United States on foot, and explores what it means to risk your whole life in pursuit of a better future.
War is Not Over When it’s Over by Ann Jones
From 2007 to 2009, journalist Ann Jones traveled through Africa, East Asia, and the Middle East, giving the women who live there digital cameras to document how war has changed their lives. This book is the inevitable expansion of that photographic project: an intimate account of the long-term physical and emotional wounds of warfare, cultural destruction, and the geographic displacement of women who have survived, and rebuilt their lives from the rubble of our world’s war zones.
The Freedom Writers Diary with Erin Gruwell
If you loved the 2007 film adaptation starring Hilary Swank, you’ll love the book — written, in part, by the Freedom Writers themselves — even more. When faced with a classroom full of at-risk teens, English teacher Erin Gruwell used literature and creative writing to teach her seemingly unreachable students that not only do they have the power to transcend their own struggles, they have the strength of heart and determination to change the world around them, as well.
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
Memoirist Jesmyn Ward experienced the early, and unnecessary, deaths of five young men in her life in the same number of years. She responded by writing Men We Reaped , weaving her account of these short lives, and young deaths, into personal explorations of systemic racism, poverty, and the geography of violence. Her story is a poignant testament to a community — like so many communities in the United States — whose fierce and violent love for their young people is all too frequently not enough to save them.
I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali
For readers who have already fallen in love with the tour-de-force that is I Am Malala , this similarly titled memoir about Nujood, a young girl from Yemen, is another book to add to your shelves. 10-year-old Nujood was married to a man in his 30s, and quickly sought escape from her life as a child bride by petitioning the Yemeni court system to grant her a divorce. Nujood then worked to change the legal marrying age in Yemen to 17. This is a powerful story about bravery, defiance, and the power of one small voice to change the lives of many.
Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle
Gregory Boyle began his journey for justice in one of the poorest, and largest, housing projects in Los Angeles; projects that were home to the highest concentration of gangs in the United States. His solution was to start Homeboy Industries, a rehabilitative nonprofit that offers sustainable employment to gang members, motivating them to stay off the streets, and out of prison. As the title suggests, this book will leave an everlasting imprint on your heart.
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Credited as one of the earliest inspirations for the environmental movement, this book exposed the devastating effects of synthetic chemical pesticides on the environment — particularly on birds, hence the title Silent Spring . As a result, the aerial spraying of DDT was banned throughout the United States and other parts of the world, and radical legislative changes were made regarding the pollution of land, water, and air. The environmental movement still has a long way to go, and if you’re seeking inspiration to join the cause, this book is a great place to start.
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
In this investigative memoir Jonathan Safran Foer explores the myths of Western food culture, detailing the indigestible journey many animals take from factory farm to dinner plate. Examining issues of commercial agriculture, the spreading of disease, animal rights, and humane farming methods, this book wonders why we eat animals in the first place, and questions the sustainability of our current methods of consumption.