Some great stories have unlikely beginnings. Take, for instance, Kelsey Timmerman’s boxer shorts: When the journalist and world-traveler started musing where they were made, and who might have made them, it began a quest that took him from Honduras to Bangladesh to Cambodia to China and back again. The resulting book of Timmerman’s travels, Where am I Wearing: A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes, revealed the tangible connection between third-world garment workers and the American consumers who benefit from their labors. “Where am I Wearing isn’t so much a question about geography and clothes, but about the people who make our clothes; a picture of their lives,” says Timmerman. “It’s about how we live and about how they live.” That kind of reveal into the lives of global producers – often working in impoverished conditions – and their link to our consumerist lifestyle isn’t widely understood, but it is exactly the lesson one university is teaching in an effort to bring awareness to a global community a lot closer.
Since 2000, Northern Kentucky University (NKU) has established a book program based on the simple premise that reading is a fundamental key to academic success. The Book Connection program seeks to provide a unifying, academic experience for more than 1,500 first-year students, while also engaging the community at large. One book is featured every academic year, and this year, the title is Timmerman’s Where am I Wearing. “What’s really impressive is that all of the professors base their lesson plan around the book,” explains Jessica Bothman, Assistant Manager and General Merchandise Manager at the NKU Bookstore. “It creates one learning community, and a shared, common experience that links the whole campus,” she adds.
Bothman, herself a graduate of NKU, has first-hand experience of the opportunities the books create in connecting students to a wider learning experience and the university’s own core values. “As students, the Book Connection program gave us access to different speakers and optional events. It really creates a more well-rounded education to help you better appreciate other cultures and other experiences,” she recalls.
The annual book selections are chosen for their ability to help sustain a ‘culture of openness,’ and public engagement, and previous year’s choices have included The Other Wes Moore, Kabuki: The Alchemy and This I Believe. “They’re all selections designed to expand learning horizons beyond the classroom,” Bothman says. The individual Book Connection titles are chosen through a Selection Committee, where any member is invited to provide their input on any book they believe can expand the learning mission at the university.
The global awareness connection comes full circle at Northern Kentucky University, not just through what the students are reading, but also through what they’re wearing. A popular selling line at the university bookstore is Alta Gracia, the only clothing factory in the developing world that pays its employees a ‘living wage’ – more than three times the minimum wage – and demonstrates full respect for workers’ rights. “The university is about being aware and being sustainable, so a clothing line like Alta Gracia ties-in perfectly with the campus culture here,” Bothman says.
Although often a more cost-effective alternative to other popular clothing lines, she points out that it’s not just the price tag that’s important to students, it’s the cause. “More importantly, our students want to know who made their clothes, and that they come from a place where people are not being harmed,” she says. For Bothman and the staff of the campus bookstore, the NKU Book Connection represents another important opportunity to engage with students and the university community they serve.
In addition to donating half of the books to the program, the bookstore also promotes book-signings and events such as the occasion when author Timmerman addressed the entire campus at the Student Union last fall. “I think it means a lot to our customers that we care not only about our products, but also about the people and communities who make them,” Bothman points out. “And getting the whole campus focused on an important issue through engagement with just one book is a great way to help illustrate that committment.”