By Carol Goar, Editorial Board, Toronto Star, October 25, 2010
Conference of Literacy Advocates meets in Toronto
They asked a lot questions. How could small, local organizations like theirs take on this role? What barriers would they face? Why was it so hard to get media coverage? What could they do about it?
They weighed the risks of change. They might lose their government funding for being too critical. They might lose their charitable status for being too outspoken. They might lose some of the donors and volunteers for being too assertive.
They got some unsettling advice. One speaker suggested they’d have to change if they wanted to be agents of change. They were predominantly white, she pointed out, and most Canadians facing literacy challenges are not. Another said they’d have to shed many of the habits and procedures that give them stability in uncertain times. A third told them there would be periods when their efforts appeared futile and progress seemed negligible.
Before Peter Gzowski became the spokesperson for Frontier College and their literacy program, I had the opportunity to interview Frontier's then president and its most promising graduate, Tracy Lecuyere, whose mentor, the college president's wife, had provided the literacy skills for him and others, using such significant teaching tools as downtown Toronto street signs, shop signs, bus and subway and streetcar advertising signs.
I was then (in the mid-eighties) host of a local public affairs radio program, sponsored in part by a local community college. This was then one of many attempts to bridge the gap between potential community college students and those who felt excluded from a college curriculum by their inability to read and write.
In the middle of the radio program with both the president and Mr. Lecuyere, I gave the college's mailing address, only to be brought up short by an on-air phone-in caller, "Please," she asked, "would you give us the phone number of the college."
And I had one of those "wake-up" moments that, for hard-headed and supposedly successful, white, male 'educators,' have to come with a substantial public audience. I had been so caught up in my own ways of doing things, that I had missed the most obvious of realities: those to whom this show was directed were not able to use the simple device of the post to meet their literacy needs.
I recognized my blindspot, and my "out-of-touchness" with the very audience for whom I was hosting the program and began to do the leg work for a national public affairs radio program, syndicated in private (as opposed to public, CBC) radio stations. It was my belief then, and continues nearly three decades later, that private radio does little, if anything, to address the most basic of human skill gaps: the skill of being able to read and write, on which, one would have to assume, their continuing audience needs depend.
Shortly after my mini-aha moment, I was granted an interview with the then Secretary of State in the conservative government of Brian Mulroney, the former "tiny perfect mayor of Toronto," David Crombie, whose brother at the time served as president of Cambrian College in Sudbury. I made my pitch for his support and advocacy for the national radio program concept, to which he readily and whole-heartedly agreed, but then added, "John, I have no money for this."
Now we are learning of other 'literacy advocates' hosting a conference, addressed by the Human Resources Minister, Diane Finley, without the promise of a single dollar of government money, to support the national disgrace, that nearly 20% of our population do not have the basic skills of reading and writing.
She (Finley) did not offer anything concrete. She did not promise to fight for them at the cabinet table as Prime Minister Stephen Harper embarks on his deficit-cutting drive. She certainly did not mention the $17.7 million her ministry chopped from literacy programs in 2006. (from the Goar story in The Star).
In terms of government priorities, Literacy ranks right up there with the political clout of dog barking in terms of the attention it is paid. It has the sex appeal of those same street signs to which literacy adovcates must point in their attempt to integrate illiterate people into the basic geography of their community. Illiteracy is a national blindspot, just as is homelessness, and hunger and poverty, about which we speak volumes and do so little as to virtually commit the national crime of 'negligence' in our haughty, white superior comfort and complacency.
Whatever it is that change agents seek to change, they first must become acquainted with their own impotency. They must become, in this case, just as incompetent and lost as their potential clients; they must also come from the same groups as their potential clients; they must see the world from the perspective of those clients. And they must shed all of the protective colouration that they have acquired in their own personal/professional proficiency. They must, in short, lead from their own vulnerability and not from their strength.
It is a lesson long in the learning. Recall, it was the 'christian missionaries' who came to the new world to tell the native population just how sinful and reprehensible was their lifestyle, compared with the correct puritan and christian lifestyle of the european culture in which they were reared. And look at the damage resulting from that form of imperial pedagogy.
Students know implicitly and intimately when teachers are phoney. And they also know that they will refuse to learn from those teachers. They may go through the 'motions' of making nice, without actually acting out their refusal, but they will not fully engage in their own learning from those teachers.
And the same principle holds for literacy advocates.
Your personal/collective 'enlightenment' is needed to begin to wear down the national embarrassment of our failure to share our skills with our neighbours seeking to learn to read and to write.
How can any society seeking to earn the imprimature of egalitarian, and enlightened and healthy continue this national state of unconsciousness and even carelessness and arrogance on this issue?