In academic libraries, there is almost constant talk about information literacy. But it’s not as often that I get to talk about plain ol’ literacy, which is a topic near and dear to my heart. My father used to say that if you can read, you can learn to do anything, because everything else is built on a foundation of reading.
There’s a Twitter conversation going on right now via #GenerationReader which explores the idea of inter-generational trauma and the connection between privilege and literacy. One of my research interests focuses on the connection between poverty and literacy rates, with an emphasis on urban communities and people of color.
My family is southern by heritage, as are many black families in America. My grandparents moved from Georgia, Alabama, and Virginia, respectively, to the Washington, DC region during the second wave of the Great Migration. There, they met each other and presumably fell in love. My paternal grandparents married in 1949, my maternal grandparents in 1955. All four of them had grandparents who were born into slavery. It wasn’t until I started researching my family history in 2006 that I realized just how close all of this history was to me. To where we are today. My friend and I were having a conversation a few days ago and I mentioned that the reason all of this “race stuff” is important is because it gives context to the world we live in today. And it gives me a greater appreciation for the sacrifices that my grands and great-grands made so that I could access the things I take for granted, like education, jobs, and the ability to live almost anywhere I want.
Though I talk a lot about the black experience, I think it’s important to note that poverty doesn’t know skin color. I lived for four years in Tennessee, during which time I student taught in three different school systems. Through that experience, I learned that while African Americans are typically the default reference for impoverished communities, white people can be poor too. And they can be illiterate. And they can experience challenges with the health care system. For a city girl from DC, this was eye-opening. (I know, I know. Which is why it’s important for people to leave their comfort zones sometimes and step into other people’s worlds.)
Literacy impacts quality of life. It affects individuals’ abilities to succeed academically. It impacts employment opportunities. Low literacy rates affect individuals’ ability to seek quality healthcare and the ability to make informed decisions about health and nutrition. It even affects parenting and child-rearing. I don’t think it’s possible to talk about community reform without talking about community literacy, both that of children and that of adults, the parents and caregivers. Reading matters.
Though high school graduation rates are at an all time high, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, DC is actually one of the lowest producers of high school graduates in the nation. The racial disparity is stark, with only 59.7% of black teens completing high school compared with 85% of their white peers. Students from impoverished communities account for only 60.1%.
Today is Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday, a time where we generally reflect on civil rights, social justice, and race relations. I would say, it’s not enough that children can sit in classrooms and learn. It’s crucial that we (community leaders, educators, parents, caring citizens) also give thought and attention to the intersecting factors that affect learning: race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc. Success happens through progress. Let’s not let the progress that our forebears started die.