Friday, February 13, 2009

B.C.'s ultimate success depends on literacy

A community-based approach to learning is reaping rewards across the province

Vancouver Sun: 2009 February 13
Cynthia Whitaker

We probably have all experienced hearing someone use a word we don't understand or give directions we can't follow. We've felt the vulnerability and isolation of wondering if we are alone in "not getting it." We've had that momentary panic and anticipated the embarrassment of asking a "dumb question" that would let everyone know we aren't following the conversation. For most of us, this feeling usually doesn't last long. We recover our composure and carry on. That is, most of us with strong literacy skills recover quickly and carry on.

It is a different matter for people who struggle with reading, doing simple arithmetic, or communicating their ideas clearly. For them, momentary panic can become lifelong anxiety as they try to navigate a world that confounds and intimidates them.

It's a funny thing about literacy. It seems that the more you have, the easier it is to get more. This is because literacy increases our confidence to take learning "to the next level." It gives us the tools to participate. Indeed, the benchmark used in studies to compare literacy rates across countries is the level of literacy required to fully participate and succeed in the modern, knowledge-based society. Literacy enables participation; low literacy limits it. By the way, in 2003 that international study found that more than 35 per cent of working-age adults in B.C. fall below the benchmark and lack the literacy skills for full participation.

The box-office hit The Reader provides insight into the stigma felt by many people who have low literacy. In the film, we meet a former SS guard who falsely claims to have written a report on horrific actions she took part in rather than admit that she can neither read nor write. Protecting her secret earns her a life sentence in prison. In raising this issue, the film causes us to think about the metaphorical prisons that people with low literacy all too often find themselves in. For example, the job that doesn't fully use their abilities, the social relationships they avoid, the meetings with the kids' teachers they don't attend, the dreams they think are beyond their reach and, of course, sadly, the real prisons they are overrepresented in.

Low literacy can narrow the world a person lives in and limit his or her full participation as an engaged citizen. It's that simple, and that important. Increasing literacy is one of the best insurance policies a community can take out on its future. Literacy brings employable skills; it produces stronger economies, stronger families, and stronger communities.

The town of Hazelton in northwest B.C. is demonstrating how literacy strengthens the resilience not just of individuals but of whole communities. Through the Learning Shop community learning centre, participants learn literacy skills from involvement in community development projects.

At one project, the Senden Farm, literacy learning occurs in the applied setting of growing, harvesting, and preparing locally grown and wild food. After just two years, coordinator Melanie Sondergaard confirms that the results are rewarding. "Literacy skills are growing; there is more knowledge of and interest in growing sustainable food and harvesting wild food; participants see themselves as more part of the "glue" of society; and there is a growing confidence that the community can still provide its own healthy food." A literacy initiative developed and managed by community members is strengthening community resilience and producing more positive and engaged citizens.

Literacy programs in correctional institutions provide another example of how the process of upgrading literacy skills helps people find a productive place in society. Canadian studies show that these programs reduce recidivism by up to 30 per cent. They are also linked to inmates finding and keeping jobs, maintaining positive family ties, and successfully reintegrating into their communities.

In releasing his new study on the costs and benefits of investing in literacy, co-author Scott Murray says that "upgrading adult literacy could result in the greatest productivity boost to our economy since sewer and water were introduced in our cities over 100 years ago." The study estimates that bringing all Canadians up to the level required to fully participate in the knowledge economy would yield an annual rate of return of 80 per cent to 250 per cent. If physical infrastructure built our competitive advantage in the 20th century, an effective literacy infrastructure will underpin success in the knowledge economy of the 21st century.

For the past three years, communities throughout B.C. have been taking charge of their literacy challenges. Through a Literacy Now initiative (a division of the 2010 Legacies Now Society), with funding from ReadNow BC, more than 400 communities either have or are actively setting up multi-partner literacy tables. Schools and community colleges, neighbourhood houses, the police, first nation governments, libraries, chambers of commerce, unions, churches, elders, and food banks are among the scores of partners coming together to develop community literacy plans. Support, mentoring, and training for front-line champions are provided through an integrated network at the local, regional, and provincial levels. This made-in-B.C. approach rejects one-size-fits-all formulas in favour of bottom-up, community-led action. Grounded in the communities' realities, the plans mobilize local resources and help people develop the literacy skills for life in their community. The result is more than a literacy plan; it is an important part of the economic and social plan for the community's future.

The Canadian Council on Learning has been using its Composite Learning Index (CLI) since 2006 to measure and compare learning indicators in 4,700 communities across Canada. Communities are scored in relation to a number of conditions that support learning. In addition to the predictable things such as school completion rates and training programs, the index also tracks such things as access to libraries and museums, use of recreational facilities, volunteering and membership in organizations. It's both instructive and empowering to use the council's free online simulator to see the impact that smart investments have on the CLI score of communities in B.C. The index makes it clear that communities can take action and achieve results. Kudos to Saanich and Kelowna, which were among the top eight Canadian cities with the most improved CLI scores last year.

A community-led approach to literacy strengthens citizenship not only at the local level, but at the national and international levels as well. This is because literacy skills are fully portable. They travel with the learner wherever he or she may go; they are transferable from one arena to another. They are truly "skills for life." As usual, Dr. Seuss had it right: "The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go."

We should celebrate the communities that are taking leadership on this issue and thank each and every partner for the contribution they are making to B.C.'s resilient future. Urgently, we must encourage others to join the effort.

Cynthia Whitaker is executive director of Literacy BC, the independent, non-profit organization supporting and promoting literacy in British Columbia since 1990.