Literacy without advocacy

To whom do we owe allegiance?

I mean, it's easy to figure out the terms of our responsibility to our employers. (If you're unsure, just ask - they'll let you know.) And we all have vague notions of our responsibilities as citizens of our respective countries. I'm wondering if there is another sort of responsibility proper to literacy workers or facilitators of basic adult education.

"Allegiance" is the wrong term, probably. Maybe "professional responsibility" - though it's hard to know why "professional" when so many of us volunteer.

There isn't a professional body to guide us - though there's no end of groups and organizations willing to manage and govern us (for a fifteen to thirty percent cut for admin). We don't have an association or guild. Conferences, we have. Conferences up the wazoo. And during conferences we can often get discounts on our hotel rooms and travel or food allowances. But if you're a family literacy worker - paid or otherwise - and your car breaks down the the 964 an hour outside Stony Rapids, Saskatchewan or near Coal Brook on the #1 north out of Port-aux-Basques, Newfoundland, you can't call 1-800-reading to get roadside help. (Actually, I think you can call that number, but you'll only reach a directory of psychic service providers - which is just sad.)

That's a Canadian example - I don't know enough to speak to life as a committed literacy worker in Scotland or Florida or Western Australia - but I worry the pattern holds. We don't have a clear, professional ethic and voice and charter and community.


Community, and our responsibilities. Or, at least, my responsibilities. That's something of what I've spent the last month moping thinking about.

New Brunswick doesn't have a literacy coalition anymore. There's a group with that word in their name - actually, there are a couple since we have two distinct language groups in which to be literate. But the anglophone group that calls itself the Literacy Coalition of New Brunswick is just one more small literacy org among several, and not a particularly active one.

Last September, DC LEARNs' Ben Merrion wrote a post titled Celebrate Adult Education and Family Literacy Week by Finding Out How Adult Learners Successfully Fought a Cut to DC Programs. That's a hell of a title, but it's not undeserved. The post recalls the recent work by adult learners and others who "took part in advocacy efforts to restore funding to critical adult literacy services."
These students, along with advocates from the greater literacy community, fought to restore a $965,000 budget cut that was announced earlier this year. Adult education programs around the city encouraged their students to attend DC City Council’s hearing on the budget in April to implore council members to restore the funding. Diverse students filled six panels, describing their positive and life-changing experiences in adult basic education, GED preparation, and English as a Second Language classes.

Led by Council Chairman Vincent Gray, the DC City Council fully restored the funding after listening to adult student’s testimonies. Throughout this week, we will be posting testimony from these learners as well as profiling some of them on our site.

I think that's amazing and wonderful. I also think that many groups in Canada, were they to try to reproduce this, would quickly find their funding cut further, and their charitable status suspended. That's one consequence of becoming dependent on provincial or federal government funding - there is to be no biting or embarrassing the hand that feeds you.

Even a post as gentle and circumspect as this will cause unease among some of my friends and colleagues.

So I ask: who are we? Who do we work for? To whom do we owe our allegiance? Is it to whoever pays us? What if we are volunteers?

Riddle me this: Is appropriate and accessible adult literacy support a human right? Do our citizens have a right to free, accessible basic adult education? And if it's to be free, how do we facilitators get paid? Or do we?

I'm pretty sure getting paid to do what others volunteer to do isn't any kind of right.

Don't get me wrong. I like getting paid. I like my job. It's decent, honourable work done under the wing of employers who are also decent and honourable.

I just wonder, sometimes, if there's a larger responsibility.

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