Selene Biffi has always has a passion for reading. As a child, books allowed her to take flight to magical worlds and opened the door to new possibilities. Now Biffi is harnessing her passion to open the door for others through a unique non-profit called Plain Ink, an Italian-based organization dedicated to improving literacy, cultural understanding, and empowerment through comics.
Plain Ink’s mission is to "ignite imaginations to create a new narrative for the world – one in which we have a chance to thrive, wherever we are." The organization seeks to harness the transformative potential of storytelling in books, multimedia and imagery to spark change, help people gain new skills, increase literacy levels, and engage communities to find their own solutions.
Those lofty goals land in a humble package: bilingual, 60-page floppy booklets, fully illustrated in color. Though Plain Ink’s publications would not be mistaken for the latest issue of Spider-Man, the use of the familiar format and idiom of the comic book is yet another indicator that sequential art is becoming a central communications medium in the 21st century, with applications in a variety of social, commercial and educational scenarios.
Plain Ink is the product of three big forces shaping the post-Millennial era: globalization, the blended social and commercial entrepreneurial instincts of the rising young generation worldwide, and the power of storytelling to address longstanding problems. In 2010, Biffi—still in her 20s—had already gained some social entrepreneurial experience with an online education venture called Youth Action for Change. She began looking around at the increasingly-multicultural social environment of her native Italy and saw a new opportunity.
"We identified a gap in the book market," she explains. "There was a lack of illustrated children’s books with multicultural themes." Italy, which welcomes the fourth highest number of immigrants in Europe each year, had few tools available to foster mutual understanding and respect.
She and her team began creating current, relevant stories aimed at kids age 4-8, trying to create a bridge between cultural traditions. Plain Ink sells the books in Italy, then reinvests proceeds from the sales into the immigrants’ countries of origin, building up local capacity and educational resources in impoverished regions.
Plain Ink distributes its comics and spreads its message in Italy through events and public readings for children at schools, libraries and village fairs. So far the results are positive. "Mothers in Italy writing to us because, after their children read or listen to our books, they feel less ‘foreign’ in this country, and feel more welcome among other children," Biffi says.
Plain Ink is aiming higher than simply using comics to connect cultures in Italy. Biffi, a young veteran of international development projects in South Asia, wants to bring the power of visual storytelling and the engaging medium of comics to bear on economic development on the subcontinent.
Book sales in Italy helped financed Plain Ink’s first project on the ground in India, a comic called The Village Changemakers, that teaches children about personal hygiene, food security, clean water access, sanitation and communicable diseases prevention. The comic was created for kids in a slum of 10,000 on the outskirts of Varanasi in India’s impoverished state of Uttar Pradesh. The content was produced by local creative talent and printed locally with support from a grant from the Only the Brave Foundation in Italy.
With the first success under her belt, Biffi reached out to local doctors, teachers, development experts and kids to create more illustrated pamphlets in the standard format that Plain Ink developed. The comics are multilingual, but because of the simplified drawings, they are equally accessible to those who are illiterate. Plain Ink works with clinics and schools in four Indian states and is gearing up to begin work in Kabul, Afghanistan.
"We are really excited to see what will come up from our activities in both Italy and India, and can’t wait to see what the project in Afghanistan will bring about," says Biffi. "We have children in Indian schools that tell us that now they wash their hands before touching food thanks to our comics – a simple act that help prevent 80% of the most common communicable diseases."
In less than 18 months of operation, Plain Ink’s profile continues to grow. Biffi gave a well-received presentation at India’s INK Conference in 2011 and was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. The organization has already won nearly a dozen awards.
Plain Ink has managed to spread its message on two continents, inspiring and training about 3,600 people. Biffi says they are organizing public health-related activities for over 10,000 people in October and November, with more plans and projects in the pipeline.
Plain Ink’s website is soliciting proposals for new stories and projects alongside requests for contributions of cash and expertise. The site’s Project Marketplace includes a forum where members can vote on proposals vetted by the organization’s staff and showcase popular projects for crowdsourced and institutional funding.
"The model we developed has to be tested and tried out every day," says Biffi. "Because we also have an approach to development that many would define as 'bizarre,' it is difficult to make people understand how comics, stories and children’s books can have a positive, long-lasting effect in needy places. Our work so far has shown some results and great possibilities of further development."