Megan Holt doubts many people are surprised to learn that New Orleans’ adult literacy rate is lower than the national average—the New Orleans Community Data Center estimates the city has a 26 percent low-literacy rate among 18- to 64-year olds, compared to 23 percent nationally. Stereotypical perceptions of the city are informed by a legacy of corrupt politicians, broken education and justice systems, low income rates, and high crime (the latter two happen to be directly linked to literacy rates).
But what Holt, a project leader of the One Book One New Orleans initiative, said people might not expect is the tremendous eagerness New Orleans adults with low literacy have to improve their skills, and how greatly in demand literacy programs are in the city.
“I think that when we look at it regionally, people aren’t that surprised at New Orleans’ low literacy rates,” Holt said. “However, I don’t think they realize how badly people want to overcome that. Every single adult literacy program in New Orleans has a wait list. If someone calls and they don’t know how to read at all, they are actually told that they have to wait a year and a half to join a program. People want to learn, but there’s no funding to teach them.”
Adult literacy has been a primary focus of the Young Leadership Council, and for ten years the YLC has organized One Book One New Orleans to raise awareness of the issue and to directly confront it.
Each year, the YLC structures weeks of free community events and programs around a single book, encouraging the community at large to read it and engage with its themes. This year’s selection is Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, edited by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker.
Created in the same style as Solnit’s 2010 Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, the book takes a novel approach to a traditional atlas and examines New Orleans through 22 full-color maps and accompanying essays by scholars, musicians, geographers, and other local experts. The subjects of the map-essay pairs run the gamut from second-line culture to the history of the sugar trade to voices within Native American and Arab communities (Room 220 hosted a launch for the book in 2013; read a review of it here).
The YLC is in currently the process of hosting a month’s worth of One Book One New Orleans events and, with support from Shell, was able to donate more than 400 copies of Unfathomable City to local literacy programs.
“These books have had a significant impact on our programs and adult learners,” said Petrice Sams-Abiodun, Ph.D, Executive Director of the Lindy Boggs National Center for Community Literacy, which oversees the Literacy Alliance of Greater New Orleans. “This may be the first time that many of our adult learners have participated in a reading group, or have owned a book or novel. Many value that they are reading a book with other adults throughout the city that are not just those who are low-literate.”
The YLC partners with several community organizations to make the event series possible, including the Literacy Alliance of Greater New Orleans—a coalition that focuses on improving adult literacy in the New Orleans area—as well as the New Orleans Public Library and Radio for the Blind.
Part of One Book One New Orleans’ outreach is the generation of activities inspired by the selected book. This year, Literacy Alliance teachers have been working with their students on a new mapping project, for which adult learners chose a feature of New Orleans that is important to them and mapped it. The maps that the students create will be on display as the centerpieces of a One Book One New Orleans event, “Mapping Adult Literacy: An Art Exhibit,” from 6 – 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 23, at the Pearl Wine Co. (3700 Orleans Ave.). All One Book One New Orleans events are free and open to the public. See a full schedule of events here.
“The mapping activity has reinforced many of the skills that adult learners need, such as understanding geography and reading maps, especially in the age of technology where many of us use navigator systems,” said Sams-Abiodun. “It has also increased their reading, spelling, and research skills and provided opportunities for them to work as a team.”
Participation in One Book New Orleans is not just for those who struggle with literacy—the YLC invites everyone to join in and read and discuss this book with one another, something they say encourages renewed engagement and awareness with the city.
Kaylee Smith, another of One Book One New Orleans’ project leaders, said, “We’ve been trying to expand throughout the city, reach a lot of audiences and get people excited about the program. I think the book choice this year really helped us do that, because it’s got a bit of everything in it. It’s something you can pick up and just read what interests you. You kind of get sucked in.”
Holt agreed: “The Literacy Alliance has been really excited about [the book selection] because it’s accessible—there’s not a lot of jargon or specialized language. So for adult learners, it’s actually a fantastic teaching tool.”
Maurice Carlos Ruffin, who wrote an essay in Unfathomable City on the growth and change of the St. Claude Avenue corridor, saw firsthand how One Book One New Orleans translated a written text into public discourse when he presented during an event on Oct. 2 at Dillard University.
“The event was great,” Ruffin said. “I read my essay to professors and students and others who were there. Afterwards, we had a Q&A session and a fantastic discussion. There were at least five or six women over the age of 70 who lived in the St. Claude area and came out specifically to talk about their experiences. It was such a positive discussion.”
The final event of this year’s campaign—the One Book One New Orleans Wrap Party—will be from 6 – 9 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 30, at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum (514 Chartres St.).