Reading Works: A Unique Alliance Forms for a Win-Win Cause

By Paul Anger
Detroit Free Press Editor and Publisher
Reading Works Community Chair

Over lunch, about a year ago, I told Judge Damon Keith about Reading Works.

About how there had never been a comprehensive strategy to boost adult literacy in metro Detroit. About how funding is meager and unpredictable for literacy agencies and the tutors who pour their souls into teaching adults to read well enough to land good jobs, support their families and create a learning culture for their children.

About how Reading Works aims to help transform metro Detroit.

Judge Keith, never one to hesitate when he sees something needed in our community, immediately promised to help. He joined the Reading Works Alliance as an honorary chair.

“What we’re doing can unite a city, a state, and maybe the country,” he said. “I have a theory that I tell my law clerks when we’re faced with a difficult problem — the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.”

Judge Keith’s commitment helped accelerate development of Reading Works. We’re still growing, with diverse community leaders on our board of directors, dedicated consultants, a terrific executive director. We’re grateful that so many community leaders have stepped forward.

President Allan Gilmour of Wayne State University and Carolyn Shields, new dean of the college of education, committed to establishing an Office of Adult Literacy on campus — and hosting a national conference on adult literacy in 2013.

Betty Brooks, chair of the Wright Museum of African American History, jumped aboard and said she hopes that adults who read better will pass those skills to their children: “Reading starts at home. I get goose bumps thinking about what we can do.”

WXYZ-TV (Channel 7) General Manager and Vice President Ed Fernandez and Editorial/Public Affairs Director Chuck Stokes, plus Michigan Chronicle Publisher Sam Logan, joined the diverse lineup of media partners committed to ongoing coverage of Reading Works.

And A. Alfred Taubman, whose acumen, entrepreneurship and philanthropy have enriched our community for decades, is supporting Reading Works because it has the potential to boost education levels and the work force: “It’s one of the best ideas I’ve heard. It’s a win-win.”

Reading Works has come a long way since a few of us, led by Jerry Herron, dean of the Wayne State honors college, started discussions. We came together after Robert Cohen, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, noted the outpouring of volunteers to help children as part of the Detroit Public Schools Reading Corps and suggested more could be done for adults.

That was more than 18 months ago. Since then, we’ve researched the depth of low literacy rates. Scoured the country for models — and found nothing on the scale of Reading Works. Solicited advice from nonprofit leaders. Talked with educators and work force developers. Did an inventory of three dozen agencies that tutor adults, made site visits of more than a dozen and selected nine that we’re proud to partner with.

As far as Reading Works has come, we have a lot of hard work ahead.

We intend to connect with the business community and other partners who can encourage adult learners — because they are likely to stick with literacy programs if they are mentored, land apprenticeships and internships, enter work force training, gain access to health care and child care and transportation. We need partners across the community.

And we do intend to raise money, lots of it. Retrofitting reading skills for adults does not come cheap, even with volunteer tutors. We envision Reading Works as a resource as long as the community needs it.

We’ve taken inspiration from agencies and tutors, and the stories of adult learners themselves. Many of them appear in this special section.

And we’ve taken a cue from Free Press Columnist Rochelle Riley, a longtime advocate for adult literacy and an honorary chair of Reading Works.

She has alternately warmed hearts with stories of people pulling themselves up, toasted those who work on behalf of adult literacy, and roasted those who ignore the issue.

“There are battles — joblessness, poor education, homelessness — and there is war,” she said. “Improving literacy means winning the war. Everything else is possible after that. And this is a war we can win.”

Reading Works agrees.