The Barbara Project

The Barbara Project is a feminist mental health advocacy project that seeks to build connection and equality across physical and other locations through literacy, and in particular, through the act of reading aloud. The project’s aim is to combat isolation, stigma, discrimination, and alienation in and out of the mental health system through the healing and humanizing act of reading together. The simple act of reading together builds connection, fosters a sense of equality, develops fellowship, offers healing, and reminds us that we’re in this thing called life together. The Barbara Project aims to bring the love of reading and the act of reading together into psychiatric hospitals by allowing literacy advocates to read aloud essays, short stories, and chapters of books.

The project was conceived in 2017 by the co-founders and members of the western New York chapter of Madwomen in the Attic but institutional challenges to the project’s goal of bringing the act of reading into inpatient psychiatric hospital settings have delayed the launching of the project, which was originally set to happen in 2018.

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In 2020, we began working with peer and volunteer coordinators at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center in order to find a way to launch the project, at long last. The situation with the Coronavirus outbreak seemed, initially, to put yet another barrier up against the commencement of the project; but, through our community efforts, a silver lining formed. As it turns out, the self-quarantining of thousands of everyday citizens, and the closing of hospital doors to visitors all around the world, created an opportunity for Madwomen in the Attic to think of a new way in– to the launching of the project. Our problem-solving cooperative efforts with coordinators at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center have given us an opportunity to start the project using recording technology. Because visitors are not currently allowed into facilities, psychiatric hospitals are having to re-think and re-consider how to provide connection and outside support to psychiatric patients. As a result of this shift, the Barbara Project has been invited by the Buffalo Psychiatric Center to share recorded videos made by our Barbara Project Readers, from anywhere and everywhere, with patients at the hospital. We believe that these videos can and will be used in other psychiatric hospitals, nationally and globally, during (and in the aftermath of) this time of crisis, and that they will both (1) provide a much-needed avenue for connection during a time of increased fear and isolation and (2) be a wonderful launching-off point from which the Barbara Project can take shape after the crisis.

And so, on April 1st, 2020, we are officially launching The Barbara Project in a cyber form to adjust our project to try to offer some support during the pandemic to those whose isolation may be compounded.

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We hope that you will join us and be part of the project. Reading-lovers from all over, including teachers and students, are encouraged to participate in the project – separately or together, in groups. Book clubs are encouraged to participate in groups, and we will be glad to offer creative suggestions on how this can be done (for instance, each person in a book club could read and record one chapter).

Here’s how you can be a Barbara Project Reader and participate in the project:

  1. Find an essay or a book or selection of poems preferably but not necessarily by a woman– choose a book that you love and that you think will lift up or be of interest to people in psychiatric hospitals. The book can be a favorite book you read as a child or a young adult or a book that you loved reading as an adult. Please make a selection that is not graphically violent.
  2. Make sure that the material you select is within the public domain. For the cyber portion of this project, we can only work with material in the public domain.
  3. Decide if you would like to read aloud on your own, with a friend, or with a group.
  4. Decide where you will read aloud — it is a good idea to choose a location without a lot of background noise so that your fellow readers will be able to hear and understand you. It’s also helpful to choose a well-lit location. Making eye contact and taking pauses for deep breaths and drinks of water are encouraged.
  5. Decide how much you plan to read and when you plan to read it.
  6. Decide how you will record your video. Plan to record single videos that are no longer than 20-minutes in length. This should allow you to get through an essay, a short story, or a chapter. Poetry is also welcome.
  7. Consider that your fellow readers, who will be listening and watching in psychiatric hospitals, may want to read the next chapter, but do not feel you need to sit down and read aloud an entire book in one sitting. Record a chapter here and there, as it works for your schedule, but be sure to label your video in some way with The Barbara Project, the title of your chapter, the title of the book or essay, and the name of the author.
  8. Record your video. Remember that you’re interacting, and not just reading, and that you’re reading as an advocate — you do not have to be a perfect reader. Consider that you are reading to a faraway, but close at heart, friend. When you record your video, Please begin by introducing your first name and telling a little (but not too much) about you. It might be a great time to talk about what book or essay you chose, why you chose it, what you like about it, or what you love about reading. Please also include in the introduction of every video recording you make: your first name, that you are reading for The Barbara Project, the name of the author, the name of the essay or book, and the name of the chapter. Additional pre-reading information may be helpful to acclimate your fellow reader, but please do not get caught up in small talk as the focus should be on the act of reading together.
  9. Videos need to be able to be uploaded to YouTube, to be uploaded to YouTube, or to be transferable to YouTube. Please consult with someone with technical knowledge about this aspect of recording, if you are unfamiliar with YouTube or with handling large files. You can send us your video, at, and we will upload it to YouTube if that is your preference.
  10. Once you record and upload the video, please include the following information in the heading of the video or file: The Barbara Project: Title of Book or Essay, Title of Chapter if It’s a Book. If there is room, include the title of the author. If not, please just be sure to include it when you start each video, even if you are reading the forth chapter of a specific book.

We believe that this project will resonate with a lot of people, especially readers, and we hope that you will join us in this form of literacy outreach. We hope that this will be a mutually beneficial, and communally beneficial, project, and we are excited to begin.

Please join us in being a literacy volunteer and in participating in The Barbara Project.

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Reminder regarding copyrights issues:

Only books that are in the public domain can be used for the CYBER portion of the Barbara Project. Before making a video, please check to see whether or not your book is in the public domain. If the book is not in the public domain and you want to read it for the cyber project, it will need to be posted on/through a secure educational platform.

Ideally, readings for the Barbara Project would take place in-person in a psychiatric facility, and copyright matters would not be an issue. However, the cyber version of the project was created specifically to help people in psychiatric hospitals during the pandemic, and when things are available online, copyrights need to be considered.

During the pandemic, some fair use copyright laws have loosened their strictures to support accessibility for the education of children, but copyright laws still apply. For instance, J.K. Rowling’s work will not be part of the public domain until 70 years after her death; however, Rowling made her work available for educational non-commercial use for a limited period of time during the pandemic. Her work cannot be read on YouTube because of the commercial (i.e., monetary) implications.

Because copyright issues are something with which we must contend and in order to increase the public domain material we can use, we removed the gender-focus of our project — instead of primarily using books written by women, as we intended when the project was conceived originally, we will use any theme-appropriate book written by anyone that is within the public domain. Still, we encourage our reader-volunteers to choose books and essays and poems written by women, whenever possible.

We’re problem solvers – the biggest problem we are trying to solve with the Barbara Project is the difficulty of reaching out to (in to) our friends in psychiatric hospitals. But we’re working on it. Any *new* books, essays, or poems that are introduced to the *CYBER* version of the Barbara Project need to be within the public domain. Thank you to everyone who believes in this project. Our hope and goal is to someday be welcome inside psychiatric hospitals, as visiting volunteers, in order to read aloud to our friends who are there. This, we believe, will help to change the climate of stigmatization, discrimination, and isolation, and help to create a climate of connection, equality, and dignity.

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