Community Literacy Work

"Storytents are voluntary social gatherings. No one comes, or sends their children, unless they want. Storytents provide books for, and reading to, children and families, two activities cited as important factors in supporting children's literacy development (Allington, 1997; Kropp, 1993; Trelease, 1989; Doake, 1988; Taylor& Strickland, 1986). No one is pressured to get a job, excel in school or even read more regularly as some kind of social payment for accessing this service. All that is asked of participants is that they not unreasonably inconvenience other participants. Beyond that, they are trusted to make of the program and of themselves whatever they think best."

This philosophy applies to the Bookwagon as well. And to the adult learning group I host at the public library. In fact, it applies to almost all of our community literacy work. People are trusted to direct their own education. We're just resource people: we bring ideas, information, strategies, support, encouragement, access. Mostly access and information. Because, besides respect and compassion, access and information are about all you can give people when you're a community literacy worker. We can't certify people. We don't pass or fail them; approve or disapprove their choices. We haven't got the financial resources to bribe them or the police resources to compel them. All we can do is offer information, access and trust.

I wrote a letter to a government minister responsible for literacy once. Because I was writing as a private citizen and not the employee or representative of some agency, I signed it as a Community Literacy Worker. "What's a community literacy worker?" he asked his senior staff. Of course, they didn't know. How could they? Its not a government category. Our local universities don't license people to do "community literacy" work. It's scarcely a real thing at all when measured the way the powerful folk measure reality.

But its real in the community, on the street.

In 1990, the good folks at Frontier College published An Inside Approach: Organizing integrated learning opportunies. It's a guide for bringing literacy supports to a community through the community's own networks and structures. In a section on "community-based literacy programs" they define "community" as "a geographic location," "a set of common values," and "a shared involvement."

I would only add that a community is something you belong to only when you can enter and leave freely.

You can't compel community. Nor can you compel literacy. These things need to be freely chosen, or they won't exist at all.

Note: this was originally posted over at c u r b s i d e

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