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VOL. 130 | NO. 214 | Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Memphis Literacy Leaders Tout Efforts

By Bill Dries

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The leaders of three Memphis literacy efforts are working to encourage those with newfound reading skills to write their own stories and build a local literary culture.

Kevin Dean, executive director of Literacy Mid-South, says the literary arts should have a place with music, dance and the visual arts.

“That is its own genre of the arts, and we need to celebrate that more,” he said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.” “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 are creating life-long learners in this town.

“The only way to have that is to have a community of people who are celebrating literary arts at all times.”

Behind The Headlines, hosted by The Daily News publisher Eric Barnes, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

Nat Akin, director of the Story Booth at Crosstown Arts, works with middle- and high-school students in the organization’s creative writing program.

“We get 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,” Akin said. “Memphis is known as a music town, but Memphis shows up in the lyrics of hundreds of songs. It’s a fascinating place as an artist.”

The Story Booth compiles the stories and publishes them as anthologies for sale at Cleveland Street Flea Market, which is home to the Story Booth; Booksellers of Laurelwood and Burke’s Book Store.

“They are doing the same thing that a professional writer gets to do,” Akin said. “They are 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 are glad they did it. They have a pride that it’s their story.”

Taking the experience outside the flea market is a deliberate decision.

“I don’t want the kids to feel like it’s the kids space. It’s the literary hub of Crosstown Arts,” Akin added. “So I want them to see their work published professionally sitting alongside a professional writer. It’s the whole experience.”

Crosstown Arts is a founding partner, future tenant and co-developer of the mixed-use Crosstown Concourse.

Books From Birth is the local chapter of the national Imagination Library effort founded by entertainer Dolly Parton. From birth to age 5, children who are enrolled in the program get a book mailed to them monthly. The books are age appropriate and selected by a committee of educators and parents.

The nonprofit’s community development manager Jamila Wicks said it’s essential to start with a printed and bound book, not a screen.

“They are not necessarily learning how to read,” she said. “You are more learning book-handling skills. You are learning how to feel and touch a book and to know that it has pages and this is the front cover. Those tangible things are very important when it’s time to really start reading. That’s why we do the physical book.”

The free program is open to all children and their families regardless of income.

“By putting that economic limitation, we would become a social service organization and it would be a lot of red tape and it wouldn’t be as successful at getting to 40,000 kids each month,” Wicks said.

There is plenty of room for growth in literacy efforts. Dean points to an estimate that 14 percent of adults in Shelby County read below a third-grade level, or about 120,000 people.

An estimated 60 percent to 70 percent of incarcerated individuals are functionally illiterate, he added. Prison rehabilitation programs include funding for GED tests, but those who function below a sixth-grade literacy level aren’t able to even take the GED.

Literacy Mid-South’s role is to train and help establish numerous organizations that are mounting literacy programs. It provides grants of up to $15,000 to establish programs

“There are organizations all over Memphis who could embed literacy into their programs fairly easily,” he said.

Literacy Mid-South and Crosstown Arts will join forces for a Nov. 12 fundraiser at the Crosstown Arts Gallery. Writers will create works of poetry or prose and will then be paired with artists from other disciplines to create works embodying the stories and poems.

The Daily News Publishing Co. has been a supporter of all three organizations featured on the Behind The Headlines. Peter Schutt, president and CEO of The Daily News, is a member of Books from Birth’s board of directors.

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