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Beyond Single Interests: Broad-Based Organizing as a Vehicle for Promoting Adult Literacy

Volume 6: Chapter Eight
Michael A. Cowan

In Chapter Eight, Michael A. Cowan discusses broad-based organizing and the role that it can play in promoting adult literacy. He begins the chapter by defining broad-based organizing as a “deliberate effort to cross lines of race, class, religion, and geography to build organizations with sufficient power to stand for the whole and address common-good issues in local communities.” Rather than focusing on individuals, this type of organizing involves connecting “mediating institutions,” such as congregations, neighborhood associations, and other local voluntary associations. Cowan offers definitions of some key related terms, such as power and interest, and provide examples of the types of activities undertaken by broad-based organizations.

Cowan briefly presents five stages by which a social issue is perceived and addressed as a problem. He notes how the problem of illiteracy has been framed differently at different moments in U.S. history and suggests that “the challenge is to secure the social and financial capital necessary to address adult literacy in a holistic and sustained manner.” The author offers a set of principles drawn from broad-based organizing that can guide the efforts of adult literacy advocates. These principles stress the need to: 1) identify potential partners who have a significant stake in adult literacy (e.g., businesses, schools, churches); 2) work to gain recognition and support; 3) build agendas for action on shared interests; and 4) be willing to compromise, since sometimes the larger collective’s interest must lead. In encouraging adult literacy advocates to organize, Cowan offers some suggestions for coalition building and suggests that advocates consider what they can accomplish as part of a multi-stakeholder organization that they have not been able to achieve by focusing on a single interest.

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Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL