Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature promotes sustainable development goals through books

The Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature has started a project to share books and its corresponding Sustainable Development Goals on social media in an effort called “17 Books for 17 SDGs.”


Ryan Adams

An installed art piece displays a poem by artist Marvin Bell on December 8, 2019 in the Iowa City Pedestrian Mall. Iowa City was the first in the United States to be recognized as a “City of Literature” by UNESCO.

Jacob Shafer, News Reporter

Iowa City, the UNESCO City of Literature, aims to raise awareness of its sustainability goals and spur conversation about sustainability by highlighting a new book every day.

The Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature will post about a book on social media every day through Dec. 18, after starting Dec. 2. The project, hashtagged “17 Books for 17 Sustainable Development Goals,” pairs each post with a development goal.

John Kenyon, executive director of the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature, said the project’s origins were relatively organic. The Sustainable Development Goals are a major focus for UNESCO but might not seem directly related to literature, he said.

“Typically, Cities of [Literature] do something around this time every year to show people books that came out in the year,” Kenyon said. “This year, we decided to focus on the [Sustainable Development Goals].”

The primary goal is to make people more aware of the organization’s sustainability aspirations. There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals globally, Kenyon said, and Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature is trying to raise awareness by doing the same locally. While the project seems large as a whole, it’s less daunting broken up day by day, he said.

“Literature can play an important role in relating the SDGs to yourself and help you understand and figure out ways you can help,” Kenyon said. “The project is really trying to raise awareness about the goals and think more about how they can be implemented in their lives. And finally, we are a City of Literature. We are trying to get good books in people’s hands.”

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Brooke Sarrazin, marketing assistant for the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature, said she came up with the idea of the “17 Books for 17 Sustainable Development Goals” when she saw there was a book club for the goals in childrens’ books, but nothing similar for adults.

“Since the UNESCO Creative Cities Network was in part originally created to promote sustainable development, I thought it made sense for the Cities of Literature to initiate a reading list for [Sustainable Development Goals],” Sarrazin said.

Originally, Sarrizin said, she thought about initiating a broad list of books, but eventually decided it made more sense for each city to compile a list tailored to its region.

“I wanted each of our books to have an Iowa City tie and be somewhat recent. I wanted a range of genres, so everyone could find something they’d be interested in reading,” Sarrizin said. “There are a few memoirs, novels, and even a couple poetry books that tied in nicely to a goal.”

Elsworth Carman, director of the Iowa City Public Library, said that projects like these produce a spirit of collaboration. Although the library didn’t have a role in making the list, it certainly supports the project.

“I think shared reading like this is an extremely powerful experience. So when we collectively take a book, whether it’s an award winner, something of interest, or by a local author, and we say as a community we are going to make a commitment and experience this together, that’s such a unifier,” Carman said. “And not in the way it makes us all think the same but in the way it gives us something to talk about.”

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