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We’re in This Together: How Chapters and Affiliates Can Work With Other Organizations to Promote Literacy Worldwide

By Leandra Elion
 | Jul 13, 2017

MRAJust the very act of reading this article sets us apart from millions of people in the world who do not have the skills to read and write. According to UNESCO, 12% of the world’s population is not functionally literate. Reading this staggering statistic and thinking about the vast numbers of people affected can be overwhelming. But the solution is not for the individual to solve; it is for all of us to solve.

And when we want to be part of this work, it turns out that we are not alone. There are so many people and organizations around the world that are doing the important work of advancing literacy.

The following is just one example. This is how the Massachusetts Reading Association (MRA) has become involved in the work of two important projects to advance literacy in South Africa.

Forming partnerships

Since 2009, MRA has made financial donations to the Family Literacy Project (FLP), a program based in a rural area in the province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Rooted in the knowledge that literacy begins at home before a child even enters formal schooling, the FLP supports parents and caregivers to create everyday opportunities to build early literacy skills. FLP trains home visitors to visit isolated rural families and support their literacy interactions with children. Very often the parents and caregivers want to improve their own literacy skills, and the FLP provides this training as well.

In addition, the organization runs community libraries so adults and children alike can build and strengthen their reading skills. FLP runs four community libraries and other smaller libraries in boxes, much like Little Free Libraries, so that people throughout the 15 villages in the region can have access to reading materials. An outgrowth of these libraries has been reading clubs for children and teenagers.

MRA’s newest international partnership was established last summer when our members attended a session at the ILA conference in Boston. Judith Baker, a consultant for the South African organization African Storybook, presented its creative and pragmatic work. One of the barriers to literacy in Africa is the lack of reading material in a child’s mother tongue. African Storybook has found a way to address this lack of reading material, not only for vernacular languages but also for culturally relevant characters and settings. African Storybook’s goal is to provide open access to picture storybooks in the languages of Africa so that children can develop literacy in their home language and experience the enjoyment and spark of imagination that reading can bring.

On the basis of the difficulty of providing printed books and acknowledging that cell phone use is widespread throughout Africa, African Storybook creates stories in a digital format that can be downloaded and read on smartphones. Because the stories are all created as open source material, people can translate the stories into their language. They can also write their own stories to add to the collection.

What you can do

I traveled to South Africa, the country where I am originally from, last August. The purpose of my trip was not only to visit family but also to explore closer literacy connections between my former home and my new home in Massachusetts. During my visit, I was fortunate enough to make connections with the directors of both of these projects.

In Johannesburg I met with the project leader of African Storybook, Tessa Welch. The remoteness of FLP precluded a visit, but I had many conversations with its director, Pierre Horn. From these discussions, it was obvious that financial support is always welcome. It takes money to buy books for FLP’s community libraries. It takes money to develop the apps and software to make stories accessible through African Storybook. But our support for the crucial literacy work of these organizations will go beyond our continued financial support.

MRA’s International Projects Committee has plans to exchange expertise and strengthen the personal connections between the organizations. FLP is looking for skilled literacy teachers to provide training, especially in the area of struggling readers. This, of course, necessitates face-to-face training, either in Massachusetts or in South Africa. The logistics of raising funds and recruiting volunteers to travel and teach has become our new challenge to embrace.

African Storybook needs people to translate and edit their open source stories into a myriad of African languages. Anyone literate in an African language can help directly in this project. And even if MRA and ILA members may not be fluent themselves, through our associations with universities and others, we can recruit the needed editors and translators.

These are just two examples of what MRA is doing, but they show what any chapter or affiliate can do to get involved and make a global impact. Here are some starting points that can help your organization:

  • Form an International Projects Committee to explore and promote international literacy projects.
  • List the assets (not just financial) of your organization. Do you have members who are teacher educators, are EL teachers fluent in other languages, have experience teaching abroad, have emigrated from or who have connections to other countries?
  • Attend conferences and look for presentations that focus on international literacy initiatives.
  • Connect on social media to learn about new projects and initiatives. Follow @ILAToday on Twitter and also search for ideas with #InternationalLiteracy or #WorldLiteracy.

Possibilities abound to promote literacy worldwide. By connecting with people in your local literacy organization and with people engaged in literacy work around the world, our ability to read, write, and communicate will, as ILA promotes, connect us with people and empower all of us to achieve things we never thought possible.

Leandra ElionLeandra Elion is the chair of the International Projects Committee for the Massachusetts Reading Association, a 2016 ILA Award of Excellence recipient.

This article originally appeared in the January/February issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

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