LITERACY INC

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When a child reads, a community succeeds.

Based in New York City, Literacy INC calls illiteracy the 'invisible crisis'.  LINC connects resources that already exist in the community, leveraging them to surround families with literacy-rich environments. Aiming to nurture a culture of literacy at the neighborhood level, LINC uses family programs, early childhood parent workshops, and reading buddies programs to generate lasting change. 

LINC harnesses the power that exists in every community to make literacy a right of all children. LINC engages parents and community organizations behind the common goal of supporting children in learning how to read. LINC creates a culture where reading is highly visible and valued. LINC believes that our children’s educational success is their path out of poverty, and the key to achievement.

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness

I'm thrilled today to be joined by some fellow New Yorkers. I'm speaking with Shari Levine and Rosalind Diaz who are the executive director and associate director of Literacy INC. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Shari Levine
Thank you for having us. 

 

Rosalind Diaz

Good morning.

Molly Ness

And I should let our podcast listeners know that there may be some background noise. We are filming from New York City, so if you hear the occasional siren and such, that is just the sounds of urban life. Um, so forgive us for that, but that won't distract from our great conversation where we talk about your work. So, talk to us about what Literacy INC does. Who are you serving and what is the mission of your organization?

Shari Levine 
Um, we are, we are looking to solve the literacy crisis right now, uh, in New York City and across the country. The vast majority of children living in poverty don't have foundational reading skills. Um, they enter school, uh, without knowing the alphabet. Uh, they're already behind. And then by the time most kids have formal testing about their reading skills in third grade, uh, the vast majority in New York City, um, in, uh, in, in, in, in high poverty neighborhoods, um, more than two-thirds of the kids don't read on grade level. Um, and that statistic is actually, um, similar across the country. And so, we're looking, uh, to, uh, solve this crisis. Um, they obviously need access to books, but they also need so much more. And um, and we're right now in all five boroughs of New York, but we're looking to really define, um, and perfect our model and then, you know, potentially be able to, uh, demonstrate to other, um, cities how this model works.

Molly Ness

So, talk to us a little bit in more depth about what your model is. You're right in that when we talk about ending book deserts, it's more than just providing books. You say that kids need so much more. What is that? So much more that you're providing and what is your model?

Shari Levine
Yeah, so our model is if we want kids to read more practice- practice, right? How do you become a confident reader? How do you have the skills to be able to do well in school, graduate, go to college, get a good job? Um, you need to read a lot. Uh, and you also need to enjoy reading, which will help you, um, read more. And so, uh, we know that and, and I'm going to be talking that I did listen to all of your podcasts. And so, Dr. Susan Neuman and others talked about some of these, um, um, that the, the kids are part of the, their environment. And so, we want reading to become part of who they are every day. Um, that reading is something that's visible in the community and that's respected in the community. And so, if we want kids to read, especially very young children, we need their families to understand how important reading is and how to incorporate reading into their daily routine. Even if, um, you know, it's not something that they experienced as a child, even if they don't speak English, even if their, uh, literacy skills are not, um, very high. Uh, every parent wants their child to succeed and we give them the tools to do it, but we also know that families are part of the community and environment that they live in. And so, it's not just about, uh, helping the child's parents understand what to do, but helping those families become part of a community where reading is a value on a right of all children. And then if we want that community to have that support, we need to look at the institutional infrastructure. And so, you know, what are the, um, policies, um, around reading in the community. So, we work very closely with elected officials, with the department of education, um, so that we're all working as one in order to provide the best opportunities for every child.

Molly Ness
Well, I love that. Uh, your work, so, um, involves parents and caregivers because you're right, that's an absolutely important, um, protocol. Um, and part of the recipe for literacy success. How are you working with families and caregivers? Are you, um, providing books? Are you providing services? What would you offer to them, to a family who's saying, I want to be more involved with you.

Shari Levine
Right? And it's not just to the families who say they want to be more involved, but really to get more parents to say, I want to be more involved right? So, um, so what we do is, uh, first of all, our program focuses on families with children, birth to eight years old. Those are the, um, years when kids learn to read. Um, and so we have programs for families with babies, toddlers, preschoolers and early elementary. And we give families simple tools about how to incorporate reading into their daily routine. But on top of those tools, we provide lots and lots and lots of opportunities for families to participate in programs so that our messaging is reinforced, and they become part of a network that supports early literacy in their community. And so, what we do is we, um, and right now we're working in 10 of the highest poverty communities, uh, in all five boroughs of New York is we hire a team in each of those 10 communities. We have a team of LINC employees who are from that community and that's what Rosalind is here. Uh, to bring that community perspective. Rosalind is working um, on Northern Staten Island. She has a team of four and they live in Staten Island. Rosalind raised her family on Staten Island. Some of our team grew up on Staten Island and they're there day in and day out, week in and week out, providing fun, joyous literacy programs with read alouds and messaging for families so that they incorporate reading into their daily routine and when possible in most cases those read alouds and literacy activities um, at the end of the program, families are provided with a book to bring home to build their own home library. 

 

Molly Ness

So, Rosalind, can you explain to us why it's so important to have this work come from community members and from the people who are living in that area themselves?

Rosalind Diaz
Yes. I think the keyword we need to focus on is trust. When the community has trust in the people who are coming in to bring these resources, that's, that's a big plus because a lot of the community members, the families have been dealing with the system in their, in their opinion. And for them their perception is their reality. Um, so they've been dealing with the system that they feel has failed them or that the children are failing. So, they feel that the system is, is not for them. Um, so we, we become sort of like a bridge and being from the community, they see that we are a neighbor, we're a parent also in the community and we have a vested interest. So they start to build that trust with Literacy INC. and that opens up so many other doors for other situations that make a situation for a child that's not succeeding or does not excelling in their, in, in reading. Um, it opens up the doors to talk about other situations that are hindering this child in this family from succeeding. And so, there's a lot of resources with partners that literacy in towns in these neighborhoods, um, that allow the families to one, start trusting and two, start doing things with the resources because the resources are available. But if the parent or the family is not engaged or doesn't feel safe, it doesn't feel, um, trusted, trusted in that resource, they're not going to really take it in. We really get a lot of that trust being invisible in the community. As Shari was mentioning earlier, we are in the community, but really targeting and being very intentional with being not just in the schools, but we're in the daycare, we're in the library, we're in the park that's affiliated with the same neighborhood so that they're seeing us in many different places. So that trust starts to really build there. When we start to have the workshops in the, in the schools that we're in with the parents, they start to develop trust in those areas and they start to feel like I am, we've mentioned this at every workshop. You are the first and forever teacher of your child. And so, they start to, they start to feel empowered. They start to feel like they can be an advocate for their child. They start, I feel valued. And so that all of these ingredients is what LINC, um, provide for the community to enable them, right? Because we want to enable them. We don't want to do it for them. We want to give them the tools that they need to really be successful and to continue to be successful um, when their child grows into the, uh, the age range that we're not involved in anymore. But we do realize that from zero to eight is the most crucial time. And I'm so glad to be part of this because I grew up in an area in Brownsville, Brooklyn where we didn't have these resources. We didn't have good libraries and we didn't have, um, the resources that we provide. And I really believe as a child of an immigrant family that if my family had been privy to those resources, who knows the sky would've been the limit. Right? Um, so we want to provide that for these families. Now I'm being from the community is very important because I have kids that are neighbors of mine and they see me and they go, mommy look the reading lady. And so, they feel like, wow, she's my reading lady and she can do what she's doing. I can do it too. So, there's a lot of different ones in different perks of being in the communities and being from the community. You have that understanding and when the, the family realizes that you're not just some talking bobblehead, right- that learned all this from a book that you're someone who's invested in the community, you're from the community you really care about and you're not leaving the community, you're not leaving us. That means a lot. And it's a, it's a really big stake and I'm proud to be part of that. Um, our motto is when a child reads a community succeeds and we try to live that every day.

Molly Ness
Well, with so many different programs and activities and um, neighborhoods and communities you're serving, how does LINC measure its impact? How are you starting to know that the work that you are doing is impacting children's literacy development ages zero through eight?

Shari Levine
So we look at, um, uh, various measures, um, and as I said, you know, our goal is to get children to read more. Um, and so we do measure certain outputs about, uh, how many books are we distributing? And then the last year we distributed over 18,000 books. Uh, we look at how many programs we've had? How many parents come? But one of the parts that's more complex about our program is that we want parents to come multiple times. And if they come to the program, um, you know, at the community center every week, but we tell them we also have a program in the park, in the library. Um, we're, we're, we're, we're tracking how often we see families and then what difference that makes. And so, we've householded- we have a very sophisticated Salesforce database. Uh, we're, we're not only tracking families week to week over a year, but we actually are tracking, are tracking families over time. So, we develop this database in 2014 and we're able to see what we provided to the family in 2014, 2015, 2016 2017, 2018, and now in 2019 we're like, well what does that mean? And we go back, and we look at the literacy skills of the children. Uh, we look at overall measurement in the community, our reading levels going up and we can look at each individual child in our database and see that their reading skills have improved. 

 

Rosalind Diaz

May I add something?

 

Shari Levine

Yes. Roslyn, you may add.

Rosalind Diaz
I just want to add that also seeing parents, I've been with LINC now six years and I've seen parents that had newborns that are now still coming to our programs and parents that are feeling empowered, that have now registered their children for 3-K for all, which would've never done that prior if they didn't feel confident to do that. And we also provided out on Staten Island, um, workshops where we mimicked with early childhood organizations, what classrooms would be like if you register your child for 3-K to get the jitters and the nervousness out of the parents who doesn't, you know, doesn't feel comfortable releasing that child so early. So, these are things that LINC is involved in an all of the boroughs in different capacities but is involved in how to engage more parent leadership. Um, so I'm gauging, we, we do have the hard data, right- that shows numbers and things like that. But for me, the, the visual weekly, monthly, yearly that I see from my parents that come to all the things that LINC is having, like Shari said, not coming to just the one that having the, the or the parents and the families that are coming to multiple, um, uh, things and Staten Island is, they call it the forgotten borough, right? Because they feel like, but, but I'm there all the time and I see the parents engage. I see them coming to, they'll walk to the events because transportation is an issue in Staten Island. But they'll walk to these events and to these fairs and to these read alouds and to these workshops just so they can be part of something that has helped them. And for me, the visual, and gauging it that way and watching the children actually be successful in going to school and being ready for school. For me, it's one of the biggest indicators that I love to see, um, happening with the families out on Staten Island.

Molly Ness
You're absolutely right in that the numbers and the quantitative data matter, but those stories and the personal relationships in the qualitative data in the feedback is also something we can't overlook. So, what is down the road for LINC in the future? 

 

Shari Levine

So, as I said, you know, we were developing systems. We know now the trainings that are needed to both recruit and train, um, uh, community members to become literacy advocates. We have VIP trainings where, um, in every community we have at least 10 parents who are literacy advocates and they do readings in their own building lobbies in the, uh, playgrounds of their child's school. Um, we have this Salesforce database where we're tracking families over time. And so, what we're looking to do is grow more communities here in New York City and then to take our model and- and look to replication outside of New York because this is a huge issue as I said. Um, you know, we're failing, um, most the majority of children living in poverty and it's not a problem that's just unique to New York City. It's a problem that's happening across the country. And we're looking to see how we can scale.

 

Molly Ness

And certainly, um, listeners and other likeminded community literacy advocates, um, will want to be in touch with you through my website endbookdeserts.com to find out, um, how to take the wisdom that you guys have gathered over the years and apply it to your neighbor, to their neighborhoods in their communities. So, as we wrap up, let me ask the question that I ask of every guest on our podcast, knowing that, um, Literacy INC wants kids to read more and wants communities to read more. I'm hoping I can encourage you to think about your own reading identity and yourself as a reader and tell me a book from your past or present that has really influenced you or shaped you as a person. I know it's impossible to narrow it down to one. Um, so forgive me for giving you such a daunting task, but what's a book that sticks with you? Let's start with you, Shari. 

 

Shari Levine

Um, so this is a book that I hadn't thought about for a very long time, but when I became aware of Literacy INC and I actually joined literacy as a board member in 2005 and in 2012, uh, I transitioned from board member to executive director. But one of the things that really resonated with me, uh, when I learned about Literacy INC, um, was that I was raising my kids in a literacy-rich home in a literacy-rich community. And I learned that right here in New York City um, and in cities across the country, there were children who didn't have what my children have. And, and I started to visit LINC programs where I saw a read aloud, uh, by folks like Rosalind who are from the community. But another thing that we do is we bring in guest readers. Uh, so we'll bring in the fireman, uh, police officers, the, um, other prominent people in the community. Elected officials do read aloud so that folks can see people from the community who are valuing reading, who value them and are taking the time to do a read-aloud for them. And um, and somebody, you know, who they can relate to. And so, it, it triggered a memory for me when I was in second grade um, we had, you know, I grew up in a, in a town in New Jersey and there was a new pharmacy in town and the pharmacist's wife wanted to volunteer. And so, she came, uh, to the school library and did a read aloud and she was so energetic and enthusiastic that, um, that read aloud stood out to me and I hadn't thought about it for a very long, but when I was visiting LINC programs and I saw something similar and people would ask me, how do you know- you know, that this read-aloud is impacting folks? I thought back and I remembered that this, um, a person from my community came in and she read Harry the Dirty Dog, um, by Jean Zion and, uh, and it brought such a smile to my face that this was an experience from my childhood that's similar to what Literacy INC is providing that I remembered, you know, many, many, many decades later. Uh, this wonderful book, Harry, The Dirty Dog.

Molly Ness
I know it well, and it is one of those perennial classics. Um, what about you Rosalind? What's that book?

Rosalind Diaz
So growing up I didn't have, like I was mentioning earlier, I had immigrant parents and we didn't have like really good libraries with good books. Um, I grew up on books by Curious George and Amelia Bedelia and, and reading those kinds of books. So, I learned how to, how to love reading early because those were fun books. I know that Of Mice and Men when I got in high school was something that stuck out to me because it talked about, um, migrants and different ways in how they handled life and things like that. And it was, I, you know, I was, we were very poor growing up, you know, so I related and, and it helped me to just be strong. But the one book that I've always read since I was little to my parents and I continued to read to this day is my Bible. So that's a powerful book that I feel, um, gives me the fuel that I need from my faith, um, to continue to do the work that I do. Um, the work that I do as a, as a love, it's work of love, um, because we all know that reading is connected to so many other factors in people's lives. I grew up in the neighborhoods like we serve, and so it's personal for me. And so, knowing these things, it makes me, it's the gas in my car that keeps me going. And knowing that reading is needed, not just- just for just testing, but you need a, for everything, for science, for math, you need to read for everything that will help you to be successful. So, for me it's, it's personal. Um, I love reading. These days. I read a lot more of the children's books cause I love to read to the children. I don't have enough time to read the books that I love, but I love books that have, um, a story that it sounds sad but it's powerful. So, for me that was one of the books, but the other one is the one that still keeps me reading every single day.

Molly Ness
Well thank you. Um, and thank you to both of you for taking time out of your busy schedule, doing the work that you love and obviously the work that is so important for um, the entire New York City area. We'll look forward to hearing more about the future of LINC and seeing how you grow and, um, share the wisdom that you've gathered over the years. Thank you so much to you and, um, we will look forward to following your story.

Shari Levine
Thank you. 

 

Rosalind Diaz

Thank you. 

 

Shari Levine

And thank you for spreading the word.