Behind the Headlines — October 30, 2015

Behind the Headlines — October 30, 2015


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Production funding for
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A2H: Engineers, architects
and planners creating an enhanced quality of life for
their clients and our community. More about A2H’s services
and markets is at A2H.com – The efforts to improve
literacy in Memphis and the Mid-South
tonight on Behind the Headlines. [theme music] I’m Eric Barnes, publisher of
the Memphis Daily News. Thanks for joining us. I’m joined tonight by Jamila
Wicks from Books from Birth. Thank you for being here. Nat Akin, who’s director of
Story Booth at Crosstown Arts. And Kevin Dean, executive
director of Literacy Mid-South. And so, I wanted
to do a show on literacy for a variety of reasons. You had just done the
Mid-South Book Festival, which we’ll get to
kind of towards the end. Because we’ll
talk about literacy, illiteracy, all it’s kind of
forms and the various programs. But quantify.. I guess maybe you’re
the person to start with. Quantify the problem maybe not
in the hard numbers but the kind of scope of the problem
in Memphis, nationally. And we’ll get in to more and
more of the various programs that you all do directly
and that you support in the Mid-South to help
people with this problem. – Sure. So, nationally about 1 in 14
people reads below a third grade level, which is pretty shocking. Because we pride ourselves
as being this nation of, you know, readers. And that’s not necessarily true. In Memphis alone,
one in — I’m sorry. Fourteen percent of
Shelby County adults read below a third grade level. Pretty shocking. That’s about 120,000 people. So, you have several generations
of people who can’t read or struggle with reading. And then on top
of that, you know, their kids are going to
have a harder time in school. They’re going to come home
and have to do homework. They won’t have parents
that will probably be able to help them. And so, it’s a cyclical problem
that’s just going to keep getting worse if
we don’t intervene. So, it’s why all of these
organizations are really important to be in
the Memphis community. – And obviously we’re
in a political season. And so, you know,
we did a debate recently and all the
other forums. People talk about poverty. They talk about
economic development. They talk about crime. They’re in a direct
relationship between literacy and those issues. – Absolutely. And what’s been frustrating for
me is a lot of the candidates in this political season aren’t
talking about adult literacy. They’re not talking about this
huge problem that if we start conquering
illiteracy in Memphis, you’ll see all these other
things start to be reduced. And that’s really important. I know that Books
from Birth, for example, you know, they
work with hospitals. Starting out right
when that kid is born, they’re signed up
with Books from Birth. They get that until age five. Then we have these other
programs that starting at five and up are going
into the schools. They’re tutoring. They’re providing services. That continuum has to
continue but it needs to grow. And it needs to be very, very
coordinated for us to really make an impact. – And something like.. I think at least nationally,
is it 45% of inmates are essentially
functionally illiterate? – Sixty to seventy percent. It’s huge. So, that’s another
issue nationally that we’re dealing with. We have prison systems
that get a lot of funding for GED programming. But then if you have most of
your potential GED recipients are reading below
a sixth grade level, they can’t even get
to that GED place. And there’s not national or
federal funding for adult basic education programs
in those prisons. So, that’s a huge problem. So, they’re not going to be able
to get their GED if they’re on a second grade level. And that’s not necessarily
being addressed nationally. It’s not being addressed.. It’s starting to be
addressed locally. But it’s something that we
definitely have to talk about. – Let’s come back to that. Jamila, talk about
Books from Birth for people who aren’t familiar. It seems like most people are
now because there’s just been such a wave of
support and attention. But assume for a second that
people don’t know what Books from Birth are. – So, we are a local effort,
the local affiliate of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library to
make sure that we aren’t waiting until that child is in high
school or elementary school. We are setting that home
learning environment starting at birth. And we’re doing that by
providing families with resources by mailing books to
children once a month starting as they sign up at the hospital. And from then until
they’re five years old, mailing them a book each month. So, by the time they are
five and they’re ready to start kindergarten, they have
a home library of 60 books in their home. And they enter kindergarten
ready to learn because they’ve had that environment where
the parents have read to them. They’ve taught them the early
learning skills that they need so that, you know, when they
get to Shelby County Schools, they’re ready to succeed. – And there’s a study. It’s on your website. The Urban Child
Institute locally did. Kids who are in
Books from Birth, when they get to the
second grade level, the results really.. – So, we’ve done two studies. We’ve done a partnership with
the Urban Child Institute and Shelby County Schools. And they took the kids that
participated in our program beginning at birth. And as long as they’re in
our program for two years, they’ve received 24 books. We know that they’re going to
enter kindergarten points ahead those kids who did not
participate in the program. And then we came back a couple
of years later to look at those same kids who are in the program
and they were still ahead in second grade. And so, now we’re at a point to
look at those kids who are now in third grade and
see where they are. But we know that this program
really gets kids ready and starts them ahead. Because if you’re not
ahead in kindergarten, chances are you’re
going to still be behind going through school. – Right. And I have a bunch
of questions for you. But we’ll kind of
get Nat involved. And so, Nat, I wanted you
here for you have a slightly different take on this. Tell people what you do,
what Story Booth does. – Well, I work for Crosstown
Arts as the director of Story Booth. But since Crosstown Arts, which
is behind — involved in the redevelopment of the big Sears
building down in Crosstown. We are a multi-disciplinary
arts organization. And so, the idea is
connecting all artists of different disciplines. So, basically Story Booth is
this space and program that does that with youth, trying to
connect them to professional artists and giving them a chance
to work on projects and see a finished product,
see their own stories. In my case, being
a fiction writer, doing a book project where they
get to write their own stories, see those stories published and
then see it realized before an audience just as any
professional writer would do. We’re trying to give them the
experience of what it is like to have your own work
professionally published. We do that with film. We do that with
screen printing, murals, music production. But at the core of all of it,
they still have to be able to tell their own story. But it’s just for the
sake of being fun to do, being able to tell their own
stories in their own voice. So, literacy is
at the core of it. But you might call it
a little bit behind. – You work with what grades? – Middle and high
school students. – And so, part of the
reason I was thinking about it.. And Nat presented it at the
Mid-South Book Festival that you all put on. You were nice
enough to have me there. And I should do my big
disclosure here so that.. The Daily News has been a big
supporter of Literacy Mid-South. I used to be on the board. We’ve supported Story Booth. Our owner is, I think, current
chair of the board of directors. All this came together not
because of those things. I don’t mean to.. I just want to
make sure I say that. But I was at the book festival. I’ve seen presentations of
people who’ve gone through your adult literacy program. And it’s really powerful. I mean, the life changing to a
man in his fifties who could suddenly read to
his grandchildren. I think there was a lunch. I mean, it’s just
heartbreaking and powerful. And we’ll talk about that. But also part of what Nat said,
and I was thinking about it at the book festival. There’s this whole.. There’s the lack of being able
to fill out a job application. And there’s the lack of being
able to navigate signs and all these really tragic things that
go in with adult illiteracy. But there’s also you don’t get
to experience the kind of magic and the fun and the pleasure
that Nat brings to kids through Story Booth. And the book festival in some
ways was celebrating the other side of literacy which is this
— what a great community we can be and the love of reading. So, talk about
that as your mission. You’ve got the
adult literacy thing, which is clearly the
most important thing, I suppose. But it’s beyond just an economic
development literacy thing. It’s a celebration of
literacy and reading and so on. – Absolutely. You know, we’re a music town. And so, we always think of.. When we think of
arts, we think of music. We think of, you
know, literary arts. That’s its own
genre of the arts. And we need to
celebrate that more. And, you know,
we always lead off.. Every time I’m on a show, we
lead off with these sad adult literacy statistics or the
sad statistics about kids. But in order to
really move that needle, it’s not just about
focusing on the problem. It’s about
focusing on the people, making sure that we’re creating
lifelong learners in this town. And the only way to have that
is to have a community of people that are celebrating the
literary arts at all times. And so, that’s what I love about
Story Booth is that they have this generation of kids
that might not ever have that opportunity. Opportunity and access
I think are the two words we need to discuss. We need access for kids
and adults to pleasure read, to be involved in read alouds,
to have their parents involved. Our mission at Literacy
Mid-South is to create a community actively
engaged in continuous learning. And so, celebrating that is.. We can’t just
focus on the problem. We have to focus on
some of the solutions. And that’s getting
people involved, making literacy sexy, which
is really hard sometimes. It’s really hard, you know. So, yeah. We like talking
about the fun stuff, too. Because there’s so
much that can be done. Creative writing is such a
great tool to use with kids and adults, getting them, you know,
understanding what they can do as creative people, empowering
them to not only read but to be able to share their
experiences on the page. It’s amazing to watch both
our kids and adults do that. – Jamila, I don’t know
if I’m going to ask this question right. But there’s a.. We talked through,
as Kevin said, we talk about the terrible
stuff because we have to. You know, but also, there’s.. Your Books from Birth is
not in any way economically.. There’s no economic
qualification, right? I mean, anyone and everyone can
sign up for Books from Birth. – So, we go to every child in
Shelby County has access to the program. We are about
providing access to families. There is no cost. We don’t go through a screening
process of if you have the income to be in our program. Always explain it
that, you know, there are people
that walk around. You may see them. And they say, you know, help
needed or we need funds or they’re homeless. But kids don’t walk around
and say we don’t have books in our home. And so, we make sure that not to
discriminate a family because we don’t know what
that family knows, that they should have
books in their home. They should have books starting
at zero that we make sure we go to every kid. And I was going to say
by putting that economic limitation, we would become a
social service organization. And it’d be a lot of red
tape and it would just.. We wouldn’t be as successful
as getting to 40,000 kids each month. – And in my own experience of
having kids who are little and then older, it is sometimes
surprising who doesn’t read to their kids. And my wife’s a teacher. I’ve mentioned
before on the show. You used to teach with her. And it’s kind of striking the
kids who just don’t read and who are in, you know, economically
advantage situations. And they just have not. They just don’t
connect with that, you know. How does.. You send physical books. Does the digital world
of books come in to play? Or it’s just easier and better
to get the physical books out there? – You know, at our age,
which means around five, you’re not necessarily
learning how to read. You’re more learning
book handling skills. You’re learning to feel and
touch a book and to know that it has pages and this
is the front cover. And those tangible things are
very important when it comes to when it’s time to
really start reading. So, that’s why we do
the physical book. And, you know, this
is the, you know, a child’s first piece of
mail that they get every month. It comes with their name on it
and it gets them excited and excited about reading. We are, you know, creating that
lifelong reader and get that excitement so that when they get
to your program or when they get to Story Booth, if they want to
continue that journey and really be excited about reading. So yes, that’s why
we’re with the paper books. – Just some quick numbers. If you did them
already, I apologize. About how many
books do you send out? – We send out
40,000 books a month. So, we go to 40,000 kids,
which is 60% of the kids in Shelby County. We have gone to 100 — served
100,000 kids since we started in ’05. We’ll have 60,000
kids graduating. And we are now going to be
sending out our four millionth book towards the end of June. – That’s amazing. And you’re connected how? Some people associate
it with Dolly Parton. She’s been a big
advocate for it. But talk a little bit about
the origination of the program. And now as we were
talking before the show, it’s a global program. So, Dolly, you know, when she
got really famous and came back, she grew up with a
father who wasn’t.. He was an intelligent man
but didn’t know how to read. And so, when she came
back and got really famous, she made sure that every child
in Sevier County had access to books and started the program
in that county by mailing books to every child. And then Governor Bredesen
thought it was a great idea and extended it to all 95
counties in Tennessee. Tennessee is the
only state in the U.S. where every county
has this program. And then there are other
programs within different states but they’re not all
across the board. So, yes. In Dolly’s portion now, she is
still sending books to the folks in her county. But she also has signed or
worked with Penguin Publishing to make sure that
you’re getting a low deal. It’s a dollar a book. I mean, this is a really
smart investment for each child. And then she also has a
board that chooses the books. So, they’re not just any books. They’re high quality. They’re chosen by a select board
made up of teachers and other folks to make sure that we are
sending a book for — an age appropriate book for a
three-year-old or an age appropriate book
for a four-year-old. – So, back to Nat for a second. On the arts part of it,
do you ever get people or maybe the expectation.. I may have even had this
expectation when you first started talking about going over
to Story Booth that you would be doing more
literacy and not arts. Do you ever get push back? Push back isn’t the right word. I mean, this isn’t crossfire. But pushback of
people saying, you know, well, it’s so great to teach
them creative writing but what they really need is how to
fill out a job application. I mean, the really
narrow fundamental, like economic sort of
reading as how to get a job. That this arts
stuff is not worth it. It’s not worth
the time and money. – Well, the space in the
program is only three years old. So, so far, the response.. There hasn’t been much. I expected that. There has not been much
of that response at all. It’s: This is so
great that this is here, that it’s free, that you
pair them up with professional artists and that they get to
experience what that’s like. So, they’re just really excited
to have that opportunity. But I would also say that
it’s a left brain- right brain sort of thing. If you teach how to
tell your own story, those other things.. I would call it a soft skill
that then does those things. And that’s not to say
in the future if kids.. We’re putting together our
own youth advisory board. If they say, hey,
it would be great to have an ACT
prep class here. It would be great to do
these kinds of things. This is what we really need. We want to be as responsive as
possible to the community that we’re in, which I call it the
greater Crosstown neighborhood. So, I think of it as both and. But just like Books from Birth,
it’s reminding in essence, like, the brilliance
of a great story. So, the name of the
space is intentional. Telling your own story. But then the thing that what
turned me in to a writer and a reader was that first story you
remember reading that you forget that you’re reading, you
forget that you’re literate, you forget all of that stuff. And it just takes you away
and puts you somewhere else. And that, I would say, is the
biggest thing that we’re trying to do is just gets kids
confident in their own creative voices, give them agency to tell
their own story and us value their story for the sake
that it is just theirs. And like you say, Memphis
is known as a music town. But, you know, Memphis shows
up in the lyrics of hundreds of songs. It’s a fascinating
place as an artist. And so, these
kids who live here, their lives, I tell them, are
just as fascinating as anyone else’s regardless of whether
they can read or not yet. So, I know that doesn’t
really direct the answer. – It gives people a
sense of the program. It also kind of gets in
to the Crosstown thing. The Crosstown thing
has always been.. And we’ve had, you know, Todd. We’ve had a bunch of the guys
and folks from Crosstown on. There was originally this was
going to be some sort of artists commune or something. And so, it helps give definition
to people what is going in, what are they spending $220
million on and how does the arts and culture kind of fit
with the business side of what Crosstown does. At Book Festival, and I
know you’ve done this before, you do this book reveal
where you’ve taken everybody’s stories, your poems. It’s published and professional. A beautiful publication. And you have them read on stage,
which you’ve done as a writer. I mean, it’s not.. I mean, all of us I’m sure
have done some amount of public speaking. It’s not easy. That’s really interesting
when they get up there. Not just from a script, they’re
reading something creative and something that’s
very personal in a way. – They’re doing.. I used to work in independent
book stores and they’re doing the same thing that a
professional writer gets to do. They’re doing a public
reading of their work. Some of the kids are reluctant
at first to get up there and do that. But overwhelmingly after it,
they’re glad that they did it. They have a pride
that it’s their story. They get to sign the books. I ask them to sign because
we sell it in our storefront. We’re in the Cleveland Street
Flea Market right across from the building. And it is a booth built out in
the flea market where we sell their work. Now we also do book signings
with Laurelwood Booksellers and Burkes Bookstore where we
bring writers in to the space. Because as much as anything, I
also don’t want the kids just to feel like, oh, this is
just the kids space. It’s the literary
hub of Crosstown Arts. So, I want them to see their
work published professionally sitting alongside
a quote-unquote professional writer. It’s the whole experience from
reading their work to seeing it printed and published
professionally with professional artwork and then seeing it
alongside a visiting writer that might come to town. Same thing going back to
what Kevin was talking about of making a literary
culture in town. Because on my side, I
think the writers and readers, it’s such a solitary experience. You’ve got to give them reasons
to come out of their holes and be together and go:
No, I’m in to that, too. Because there’s music shows. There are art gallery openings. Those are by nature
public experiences. Again, I’m answering it in route
but it’s connecting those kids as much as possible. At Crosstown, we want to have
a vertically integrated system from professional artists down
to the youth of this town and doing it in an authentic content
driven way where something real is happening with them. – Early on you said frustrations
with adult literacy. I mean, you could
wave a magic wand, you would do what in
Memphis for adult literacy? – There would be.. There would be a lot of funding. Not that GED is not important. I don’t want to take
funding from that. But if there was funding
for adult basic education, that’s up to about sixth to
eighth grade reading level. That could change Memphis. It could really change Memphis. We work with a whole bunch of
different organizations who are setting up their own adult
programs just like ours only in their organizations. For example, Friends for
Life took their positive living center and they made
it into an education.. They added an
education component. So, the guys that were kind of
just hanging out there now are learning to read so
that they can get jobs and things like that. Memphis Teen Challenge,
right next door to them, started their own adult
basic education program. They have men who
are in recovery. They’re there for two years. A lot of them couldn’t read. So, and they couldn’t
get to our program. So, we set up a
program with them. There are organizations all over
Memphis who could embed literacy into their
programming fairly easily. It’s not easy to teach
but it’s easy to embed. – Because you guys
will train the trainers. Is that right? You have a
program so they don’t.. Back when I was on the board
of the precursor organization, it was more about bringing
people to the location on Cooper. You guys aren’t there anymore. But getting them in. And there were real
limitations on that. It’s not a great transportation
network in Memphis. It’s costly. The time. You got people
working late shifts. So, the shift to.. I mean, you partner with
a million organizations around here. – We do. Yeah. So, what we
realized was, you know, our folks couldn’t get there. One guy.. This is what sold me on
that we’ve got to get out of this building. He was riding five hours on
the bus and doing like three bus changes just to get to
his two hour training or two hour session. And, you know, that could be a
total of ten hours he spent just to get to his.. Which shows a lot of commitment. But obviously we weren’t
serving them like we should. And there are so many places
that people don’t have the transportation, that they
could just do it where they are. And if they’re already getting
social services or already going through a program,
why not just add that. And there are organizations
who have wanted to do that. They just didn’t have the means. So, we actually grant now up
to $15,000 per organization to set them up. And we buy them everything and
get them started and let them. – How many people do you
serve in a given year? – Do we serve total in all? – I don’t know how you
want to answer that. Whatever makes you look best. How many adults maybe through
partner organizations and so on? – So right now, it’s about 500
people that we serve through our own adult program. And then we’re up to about
1,000 other programs that we’re working with that they’re
doing their own programs and we’re supporting. – A thousand people
in other programs? – Right, right. So, about 1,500 total. It used to be just 500. So, the more we can get
out in the community, the more numbers
we’ll see with that. And then with kids, we’re this
year I think we served a total of about 650,000 people over the
past three years just by giving out books and people
getting some sort of service. We give away 500,000 books
for I think it was K through 12 in March. So, that was we gave books
to pretty much anybody who wanted them. We gave them to all these
different non-profits and churches and everything. – If you wave a magic wand,
what would you do more of? What would you do differently
with Books from Birth? – We would make sure
we had every child. – How do you get them now? I mean, just through
getting the word out? Being in the hospitals? I mean, how do you reach? – We get most of our children
through the hospital when they’re born. But, you know, Memphis is
a highly mobile society. So, sometimes we lose them
if there are unplanned moves. So, we go to pediatricians. We’re in WIC clinics. We are, you know,
partnerships with Porter-Leath, Shelby County Schools. Making sure that when those kids
are enrolling for Early Head Start and Head Start that those
teachers are also enrolling them in the program. So, we have a lot of community
partners to help us make sure we’re capturing the kids that
are falling between the cracks. – And all of you would
love to have more volunteers. You get volunteers to do what? – We have volunteers that
actually teach people how to read in the libraries. We’re in 31 different
libraries across the Mid-South. And so, we train them. You go through
a one day training. And then you go and meet
once a week for two hours. – Your volunteers do what? – They are enrolling children
and they are also getting our books that are returned from us
and working to find the kids to make sure that we can get
them re-enrolled in the program. – And your volunteers are
a little bit different maybe? – Volunteers are a
little bit different. Usually it’s the
teaching artists, depending on the
discipline, who’s teaching a particular workshop. And it might be one or two
other people helping out. So, I can use volunteers
to help with the workshops. But then also, the space itself
is pretty important to the program of getting
the kids over there, having a third space
that’s not school, that feels funky and vibey. And we’ve got flea market items
and we’ve got a built in wall of lending libraries. So, I can use a librarian to
help organize those books. Because I can’t devote
my time to doing that. – And you won’t take all the
books I keep trying to give you. – We’ve got a
great lending library. And so, just to
help manage the space, do administrative things. But as much as possible, I like
to have the volunteers directly interact with kids. – Alright. Thank you all for being here. I really appreciate it. Thank you all. Thank you for joining us. Join us again next week. [theme music] (male narrator)
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