Missing the "Community" in Community Lit.

Something we used to do around here to celebrate International Literacy Day was run the Read Across New Brunswick Challenge.

I don't know who was really responsible for the idea. But the Read Across New Brunswick Challenge was started in 1997, by New Brunswick's Ministry of State for Literacy, with Sobeys (grocery) stores and NBTel (provincial telephone company) as corporate sponsors. It was characterized as "a friendly community competition to motivate citizens into reading on a regular basis" *

By 2002, the sixth annual Read Across New Brunswick Challenge was officially deemed "a tremendous success," with 60,665 New Brunswickers from 135 communities registering their 20 minutes of reading. New Brunswick's Education Minister, Dennis Furlong, said "It is wonderful to see the people of our province rise to the challenge and show their dedication to literacy... The Read Across New Brunswick Challenge is a great awareness activity. A 25% increase in the participation numbers this year tells us New Brunswickers value literacy now more than ever." *

Of the 7th annual Read Across New Brunswick Challenge, set for International Literacy Day, Sept. 8, 2003, Education Minister Madeleine Dubé said "Literacy is everyone's responsibility and literacy promotions like the Read Across New Brunswick Challenge provide an incentive for all New Brunswickers to make reading part of what they do each day throughout the year."

She added "This week is dedicated to the promotion and celebration of learning throughout life.... It is the perfect opportunity to celebrate the joy of learning and to embark on a new journey of learning as we commence the Decade for Literacy (2003-2012) being launched by the United Nations." *

And then, between 2003 and 2004, the Challenge vanished from view.

What happened?

Certainly, the literacy climate in New Brunswick changed in 2004. The provincial Department of Education ceased to be the primary provincial department for community literacy services. Instead, community literacy - they sometimes call it "community learning" - became a mandate of the Department of Training and Employment Development. But under this new structure, regional committees were set up to replace local (community) committees as overseers of NB's government sponsored adult literacy program, and fixed curriculum objectives descended from on high. "Get a job" became everyone's goal - all learners were supposed to go meet with employment counselors - and "community literacy" became "adult literacy" and/or "workplace literacy".

At the same time, early childhood and school-aged literacy was folded into the mumbo-jumbo of Quality Schools, High Results, part of the Quality Learning Agenda.

Family literacy, such as it was, disappeared almost entirely.

And with this fracturing of literacy responsibilities - and funding streams, and promotional responsibilities - came the fracturing of what had been a growing community of literacy learners and workers and supporters.

Small wonder, then, that we stopped celebrating the reading-est community in the province each year. Indeed, we hardly celebrate reading at all around here anymore. We celebrate test results and benchmarks and outcomes and processes to move us forward.

But we don't do that wonderful, family-friendly, community-friendly "feel good about yourself and your province" thing called Read Across New Brunswick.

We're losing "community literacy". I wrote an earlier post about this, and I want to repeat part of what I said, if only to myself:

I wrote a letter to a government minister responsible for literacy once [after the 2004 reorganization]. 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 opportunities. 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."

The Challenge was a "perfect opportunity to celebrate the joy of learning" and New Brunswickers did indeed "rise to the challenge and show their dedication to literacy." Too bad it's gone.

No comments: