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VOL. 124 | NO. 112 | Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Johnson Ascends to Director's Job At Literacy Council

By Tom Wilemon

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Sallie Johnson, a retired librarian, signed on as interim executive director of the Memphis Literacy Council a year ago with no intention of seeking the post beyond the transition term.

She changed her mind, and now she can drop the adjective in her job title. The Memphis Literacy Council’s board of directors this month chose Johnson to lead the agency.

“The closer I got to the deadline, I began to think I’ve gotten some things started here,” Johnson said. “I don’t want someone else either not doing them or finishing them. I decided I wanted to do that myself, so I applied.”

Money and connections

The Memphis Literacy Council has focused on community outreach efforts and partnership building while Johnson has served as interim director. However, she said fundraising will have to be a bigger priority.

Sallie Johnson

“As a result of the economy and how that has affected nonprofits, the biggest challenge is the whole idea of getting financial support,” she said. “The board and I will be working on a number of ways to look at that.”

Collaborative efforts with other organizations committed to improving literacy skills will continue, she said. Two neighborhood-based family literacy programs have been set up in the Hollywood and Bent Tree Apartments communities, and more are in the works.

“We met last week with the Autumn Ridge apartment community off of Hickory Hill,” she said. “We will start in August with the Renaissance Head Start center over by Lemoyne-Owen College.”

Volunteer tutors are needed for these efforts.

“We try to get tutors from the neighborhoods,” she said. “We, of course, have students from these neighborhoods.”

The Memphis Literacy Council is headquartered at 902 S. Cooper St., where it trains volunteer tutors on a monthly basis. The next training sessions are set for the weekend of July 24-25. The council provides most of its tutoring services from its headquarters in Cooper-Young.

In Shelby County, about 28 percent of all adults are low literate. In the 9th Congressional District, the figure is even higher at 35 percent. Johnson said a coordinated effort is vital to increasing literacy skills.

Partners include Mid South Reads, Hope Works and others.

“By collaborating with these other organizations, we can provide seamless educational services,” she said.

New beginning

Johnson worked for the Memphis Public Library system for 40 years and was deputy director when she retired. She has a master’s degree in library science.

Johnson retired from the library system at the same time as Judith Drescher, library director, and Val Crook, the library’s human resources director.

Their sudden depatures, followed by Mayor Willie Herenton’s replacement choices, sparked complaints of cronyism. Herenton’s choice for director, Keenon McCloy, did not have a degree in library science. Herenton named Michael Gray, a former bodyguard and former city division deputy director, as deputy director of libraries.

Meanwhile, Johnson continues on her life’s newest chapter.

“This has given me another way to look at literacy and illiteracy,” she said. “When the council asked me to be the interim director, it was kind of a perfect fit. I’ve had a grand time learning. This whole year has been a continual learning process.”

The council is making plans for its annual fundraisers, the “Taste of Cooper Young” set for August, and its book sale set for September.

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