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Connecting social justice and literacy

A corp member with a young student who is typing on a computer

Literacy, social justice and education equity

City Year’s 10 core values represent the deepest beliefs and highest aspirations of our organization. We strive to ensure that these values express our culture of idealism, inspire our actions, and inform our decisions on a daily basis. They serve as our north star, empowering us to stay true to ourselves through changing times as we strive to achieve our mission

In our Organizational Values Series, we ask City Year staff what our organizational values mean to them and their work at City Year. Regional Impact Coach, Lynette Herring-Harris, who works with our sites in the Central Region (Baton Rouge, Dallas, Denver, New Orleans, San Antonio, and Tulsa) speaks on what Social Justice for All means to her personally and professionally.

As with many of our organizational values, social justice for all has many layers of meaning and interpretations. As we launch into a new school year and deploy this year’s AmeriCorps members into inner-city schools across the nation for a year of service, it is more important than ever to engage in conversation around this important value.

Last year, in response to events like those in Ferguson, Baltimore and Charleston, City Year San Antonio staff and corps engaged in conversations about large social justice issues like institutional racism, blatant misuse of authority, and societal structures that promote inequality. An interesting thing happened as they  grappled with these large issues. We began discussing and exploring how tutoring for literacy connected to our core value of social justice.

Literacy as a foundation for social justice

As a former teacher, and now as a City Year instructional coach, I am most interested in how our society talks about literacy. Many argue that literacy is the foundation for educational, social, and economic success. Still, others argue that literacy, or the lack of it, is the foundation for educational, social, and economic failure. This idea that literacy is both the root of the problem and simultaneously the key to addressing  social justice issues actually led to the coining of a new word: literacisation.

Between now and the November 2016 election, examples of literacisation will pepper newscasts and presidential candidates will link literacy to economic, social, and equity agendas. Listening to some of these agendas that focus on the one unchanging, capital letter “LITERACY,” we’ll likely hear that if only educators and volunteers in schools do our jobs right – “LITERACY,” poverty, classism, and unemployment will be solved.

But I wonder if defining literacy in this bold-faced way is misguided? What if, instead, literacy is plural, dynamic, changing, and socially situated? (Lave & Wegner, 1991) What if literacy is not just reading, but also includes numeracy, digital, writing, visual and social elements? What if literacy is considered an individual’s right rather than something that differs depending on where an individual lives or a tool for improving the nation’s economics?

Moffett, Freire, Dewey and other literacy experts suggest that literacy is best defined in the context of social justice. Literacy for social justice means that all students have the skills (math, ELA, and socio-emotional) they need to analyze, communicate, design, solve problems, argue, create new meaning out of information, negotiate, plan, and so on.

Literacy and social justice at City Year schools

Literacy for social justice means that all students have equal access to these life-changing skills, to new learning possibilities and to contribute to new learning. Literacy for social justice means that all students receive opportunities to contribute to new learning. Literacy for social justice means that all students learn skills that will help them to engage with and adapt to changing medias, contexts, and even social justice problems that do not yet exist. If we accept this definition of literacy as the standard for our service at City Year, then we will be making critical social justice decisions each time we tutor our students.

As our ACMs continue their service year, I hope we continue to engage in conversations around social justice as it relates to literacy and encourage all who are working with young people on literacy to consider these questions:

  • What changes would I need to make in my tutoring if I embrace a definition of literacy that uses a social justice lens?

  • How can I engage students in critical thinking, speaking and/or writing about the content of a tutoring session or behavior intervention?

  • How am I modeling the analysis of problems, passages, or situations for my students on a daily basis?

  • Will how I track my students’ progress show evidence that I am providing fair and equitable opportunity for all my students?

  • How might what I am learning from – and alongside – my students better position me to be a voice for social justice in small as well as large ways?

***Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991) Situated Learning. Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press

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