By Ei Pwint Rhi Zan, director of Third Story Project

The Third Story Project, a collaborative effort between the Myanmar Storytellers and the Benevolent Youth Association, is creating and producing a series of children’s books in Burmese and other ethnic languages to distribute to children around Myanmar. The stories are written and illustrated by Myanmar artists for a Myanmar audience and address issues of peace, tolerance and diversity.

As the famous saying goes: “every conflict has two sides”. As a social entrepreneur and changemaker from Myanmar, I always believe that a “third” vision to resolve conflict and create peace is highly essential.

In 2012, Myanmar saw an increase in conflicts throughout the country. Thantzin Soe from Myanmar Storytellers, others from different volunteer groups and I visited Kachin State in Myanmar to bring donations to people escaping civil war. We raised money in the street and at a local mall. But right after that, we realized that we needed to do something more than donations for people in the IDP camps, because not all the problems can be solved by donations.

Source: Third Story Projec

In 2014, in Teacher Mindy’s English class, we had a discussion about the lack of Burmese children’s books. Inspired by our friend Swe Zin who was from Phaung Daw Oo Monastic School and wanted to have books in her village library, we discussed the importance of having stories in our own languages that reflected our own culture. Since the place where we had English class was called Third Story Monastic School and we also wanted to create a “third” vision apart from the two sides of conflicts, we called our new initiative “the Third Story Project”. Because of the conflicts that were happening in Myanmar, we wanted to focus on producing peace education stories initially.

What we do

We create storybooks addressing peace, diversity, tolerance, gender equality, women empowerment, different abilities, environment, and child rights. We currently have 22 books originally written by Myanmar authors and illustrated by Myanmar artists. The books are originally written in Burmese and translated into 11 different Myanmar languages. Our books are colorful, and they reflect our culture as well as teach important lessons through entertaining stories.

Source: Third Story Project

Our target audience is kids under 10 so we use very simple words. The messages are subtle and in this way we really get kids thinking critically about these issues. If we believe something, we change, we do, and we act.

So how do we teach kids to change, move and act? How do we share with them? We use art. When we do art, our heart is working and accepting the knowledge and it becomes belief. Belief can be action and movement and change. If we believe, we can’t hesitate, we don’t need others to ask what to do and we don’t forget. It works.

Stories can give this. Besides, in our stories, we have questions at the end of each book. This encourages critical thinking and discussion. That is why we need a lot of volunteers to distribute our storybooks to reach children’s hands.

We encourage the volunteers to read our storybooks when they are sending them to kids, and we ask them to engage the children by discussing the questions at the end of the book. Some get along well with children immediately but the others are not very comfortable working with children, so we provide storytelling trainings for them. This has now evolved into storytelling and performance training for teachers and community workers involved in working for peace across ethnic and religious groups.

Source: Third Story Project

In 2016, we had a chance to invite Sam Reiff-Passarew from the Story Pirates in New York, to conduct a story writing training for our team and volunteers. We have since used their methods to teach children and youth how to creatively develop their own stories. When we teach teens about child rights, we work with them to write their own stories. From the over 200 stories the teens wrote, we selected four of them as our new books to be created and published next month.

By April 2017, we will have 26 storybooks and we are planning to create even more by the end of the year. We put the storybooks together in what we call “Library in a Box”, along with activity sheets and a teacher’s guide book so that schools and community centers can have an instant library for children to enjoy.

Source: Third Story Project

How to reach our goals

Our main purpose is to give a book to each child because most children in Myanmar have never had a colorful book of their own. We would like to give a chance to kids to own a storybook that they love and feel connected to.

While we can always apply for grants to distribute free books all over Myanmar, it is still difficult to live from grant to grant. The way that we are able to be more sustainable is to have profits from our books so we decided to register as a company and publisher in early 2016. Now we are able to be self-sufficient and we do not entirely reliant on grants to pay salaries and office expenses.

Source: Third Story Project

We sell a lot of books to people who want to buy for their kids, organizations which want to distribute our books in their target areas and companies who want to do corporate social responsibility. It is a non-profit business so all the profits are reinvested into the business and used to create more books and donate more throughout the country. It is exciting to be able to create our own books without having to apply for grants.

Another vision of ours is to foster a new generation of Myanmar authors and illustrators, so we are working with a lot of new Myanmar authors and illustrators, many of whom are under 35 years old.

We have donated over 160,000 storybooks to children from all over Myanmar and conducted 42 trainings in nearly three years. It helped us to fulfill another mission to share cultures across religious and ethnic divides, thus creating better understanding among different parts of Myanmar.

We are constantly innovating and working in collaboration with other organizations, volunteer groups and corporates. We hope to grow the business to hire more staff and provide a suitable career for those interested in storytelling.

One new innovative project is called “Pass it on,” in partnership with Hla Day, a social enterprise craft store that encourages responsible tourism. When tourists visit the shop, they can purchase the Library in a Box so that their tourism dollars will go directly into providing books for kids. We then work with volunteer groups and teachers to deliver the libraries to their communities. The donors write a postcard to the kids who receive them and the kids will then send a postcard back to the donors. It’s a beautiful way to connect the world through story.

Because of our hard work, we won the Young Social Entrepreneur Award in 2016 from the Myanmar Young Entrepreneur Association. In just a short time, we have accomplished a lot and reached thousands and thousands of children. We could not have come this far without help from hundreds of dedicated volunteers working to make this country better.

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