Getting out the word on grassroots literacy

🕔Sep 22, 2008

On his way to work one day my husband casually remarked, “Try out the new brushsaw—the lawn could use a trim.” Once the baby was asleep, I took out the manual and got down to business. But after countless attempts and re-readings I was close to admitting defeat: there had been many sputterings, but no start. I was ready to explode.
Literacy’s impact on our day-to-day lives is enormous. From searching for a recipe to use up extra kale to figuring out how to operate a new piece of machinery, literacy skills provide a foundation for a variety of other types of learning.
Many in the north face challenges regarding education, job training, and shifting economies—challenges that could be addressed by improving literacy to increase the economic and social health of individuals and communities. Being literate empowers people and paves the way for more opportunities, allowing people to develop to their full potential.
Literacy itself is often misunderstood. More than just reading and writing, it involves a broad set of skills and abilities. Certain factors have to be in place in order for higher brain functions to work: food, shelter, and a safe place to focus are as important as words on a page. Self-esteem, motivation, patience and perseverance also play a role.
Levels of literacy
After twenty minutes I contemplated smashing the saw to bits, or at least giving up, but reluctantly chose a more mature (if less satisfying) course of action.
Many people can now read, and few are truly illiterate. So where’s the problem?
Well, one small step above true illiteracy is low literacy, where a person can only read and write at a minimal level. (Low literacy is formally defined as functioning below the level needed to cope in modern society.) Data shows that low literacy is prevalent across Canada, BC, and our region: the International Literacy and Life Skills Survey (2003) identified one million British Columbians as having low literacy, with forty percent of that number at the lowest possible level.
Although unemployment is certainly found among those with low literacy, many more are employed, although usually in minimum-wage jobs and/or menial labour. It is no surprise that low literacy and poverty are connected (people from poor families, people with disabilities, and racial and cultural minorities share lower rates of literacy and higher rates of poverty). So improving literacy skills means more opportunities for individuals, as well as healthier communities. As literacy rates increase, so does community participation.
It makes sense to make literacy a priority. Yet if the ability to read and write well is more than just word and book sense—if it includes a blend of skills that are hard to teach and harder to put a finger on—what needs to happen to come up with real solutions?
From the ground up
Two organizations in the north are approaching the literacy challenge in their communities in an organic way. Storytellers Foundation in Hazelton (and its storefront, The Learning Shop) and Houston Link to Learning (HLL) are making real change happen by evaluating their communities’ needs, and then filling those needs in a way that engages people at the local level. Both organizations aim to strengthen their communities so they can become more literate over the long-term.
Fuel for learning
Light-headed and grumpy, my first step to regroup is to head inside for a snack—I can’t do anything on an empty stomach, especially not master a power tool.
Recognizing the links between impoverishment, poor nutrition and low literacy (healthy, affordable food is as vital as are books), The Learning Shop and HLL address literacy at its root through food security and provision initiatives. The Learning Shop has three programs focusing on local food in the Upper Skeena. HLL makes healthy food accessible through a community garden and a community kitchen.
A place to ask questions
I head outside and try for another few minutes, but still no success. Swallowing my pride, and ignoring my ego, I march into the house to ask hubby yet another “stupid” question.
When starting to learn a new task themselves, most people are okay asking for a bit of help: how many times do I press it to prime? Does it have enough gas? With struggling learners, the first question has high stakes because it’s usually a one-shot deal. Belinda Lacombe, a literacy practitioner at HLL, stated that creating a culture “where learning is primary, where it’s okay to ask questions and not know the answer” is a key part of success. Lacombe explained that after years of operation, HLL now boasts a core group of learners who are role models in the community and who encourage others to buy in. Similarly, Anne Docherty at Storytellers emphasizes the importance of building relationships among community members to create a safe space.
Trust, reciprocity and collaboration
I head out one more time to try the latest series of tips (“Make sure you pull the cord all the way out… When you hear it catch keep the throttle depressed and let it rev up really high”), but am back inside ten minutes later, on the verge of tears and with a cramping pectoral muscle. Hubby listens to my tirade as he works, then questioningly holds up his first (botched) attempt at ironing a dress shirt. Relieved, I raise an eyebrow and say, “Quid pro quo?” (“One thing in return for another?)
When people assist each other, the inevitable blow to the ego that results from admitting one needs help is softened. Rather than one person having the knowledge and the other lacking it, in a reciprocal arrangement both can bring something to the table. Philosophically, The Learning Shop and HLL are aligned: they believe that reciprocity and collaboration build stronger networks where everyone is a participant: (i.e. everyone learns and everyone teaches). All are thus empowered during the learning process.
Houston’s community garden evolved by a process that used people’s strengths and abilities: learners worked together to divvy up tasks and learned what they had to do to complete their part. Lacombe pointed out that “People need to admit this is what they know, and this is what they don’t. Everyone contributes something.” These informal exchanges help grow a community of learners that are all moving in the same direction at the same time (albeit at different speeds).
The Learning Shop’s “citizenship education” treads on similar ground. “Reciprocity paves the way for an open exchange of ideas and information, which animates a sense of communion and encourages people to develop their capacity to contribute, says Docherty. “Trust and reciprocity are the pillars of any sound partnership and the keystone of our desire to facilitate learning that leads to collective action for social change.” In this way, everyone has something to offer, everyone plays a role, and communities are strengthened person-by-person in a meaningful way.
Experiential learning and imbedded literacy
We head out together and, as luck would have it, the saw is off and running on the first pull, taking me with it. I stare back at my husband, and shrug my shoulders. I find weeds to trim every day that week.
Experiential learning is hands-on: you learn as you do, by trying and reflecting. Likewise, imbedded literacy is literacy-related learning that is built in to the task. The literacy skills that funders like to see are developed experientially in the community projects that take place in Houston and Hazelton: “From reading a recipe in the community kitchen to understanding how to build a shed at the garden, our learners take charge and figure out what they need to know to get the job done,” says Lacombe. The experience of learning is determined by the participants, who work with and for each other.
Docherty is likewise passionate about the experiential approach: “Conversations drive the activities, which lead to a sharing and understanding of ideas. This process results in empowerment and actions that are transformative. Using experience rather than curriculum for learning creates an equal playing field, and opportunities for people to learn what they need, when they need it, in a way that serves their level of understanding.”
No two situations are alike; each person has unique needs. Where literacy is concerned, there is no quick fix—all the more reason to hop in and help out literacy in your community.

What You Can Do To Help
As an Individual
• Be a lifelong learner.
• Encourage others to be lifelong learners.
• Read with your child.
• Volunteer your time in a literacy program in your community.
• Donate money.
• Speak out for literacy.
In Your Community
• Think about the difficulties faced by people with lower literacy skills.
• Make help available without singling people out.
• Do a “literacy audit”. For a sample audit checklist, go to
• Build links with literacy partners in your community.
• Meet with literacy groups to discuss ways that your organization might work together or even develop partnerships.

To find out more about literacy, please consult the following resources:
• Houston Link to Learning 250 845 2727
• Storytellers–The Learning Shop 250 842 6500
• Literacy BC:
• Canadian Council on Learning:
• BC statistics:
For a complete listing of community literacy organizations click on this story on our website at and scroll to the bottom.

Northwest Community College-funded organizations that do literacy work across the north:
Literacy Haida Gwaii
Box 235, Queen Charlotte City, V0T 1S0
250 559 8398
Program Coordinator: Linda Grant –South
Program Coordinator: Beng Faverau – North

Kitimat Community Services Society
562 Mountain View Square
Kitimat BC V8C 2N2
250 632 6581
Adult Literacy Program Coordinator: Brandi Thornton

Terrace Volunteer Bureau
3235 Emerson Street
Terrace, BC V8G 5L2
250 638 1330
Community Readers and Writers Program
Program Coordinator: Murray George

Learners Opportunity Group Society
Box 359
Hazelton BC V0J 1Y0
Upper Skeena Literacy on Wheels
Program Coordinator: Ruth Cooper

Houston Link to Learning
Box 1294
Houston BC V0J 1Z0
250 845 5629
Houston Link to Learning Community & Aboriginal Literacy Programs
Program Coordinator: Belinda Lacombe-Adult & Aboriginal
Program Coordinator: Marian Ells – Family

Smithers Community Services Assoc
Box 3759, Smithers, BC V0J 2N0
250 845 9515
Smithers Community Learning Services
Program Coordinator: Diana Jex –- Adult
Program Coordinator: Joanne – Family
Program Coordinator: Miriam Colvin – ESL

Storytellers’ Foundation
1600 Omenica Street, Box 37, Hazelton B.C. V0J 1Y0
250 842 6500
K’yuuksxw – Waking up to Change (The Learning Shop)
250 842 6500

Kermode Friendship Society
3313 Kalum Street, Terrace, BC. V8G 2N7
250 635 4906
Aboriginal Literacy Terrace
Program Coordinator: Marianne Weston

Kyah Wiget Education Society
205 Beaver Rd, Moricetown BC V0J 2N1
Getting on Board
Program Coordinator: Diane Mattson

Prince Rupert Community Enrichment Society
710 Fraser Street, Prince Rupert, V8J 1P9
250 627 7166
Fraser Street Tutoring Project – Prince Rupert
Program Coordinator: Jo Scott

Literacy Haida Gwaii
Box 235, Queen Charlotte City, V0T 1S0
250 559 8398
Literacy Haida Gwaii
Program Coordinator: Linda Grant – South
Program Coordinator: Beng Faverau – North

If there is no phone number given it is because none was provided nor found in the Telus directory.