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Focus On Basics

Volume 6, Issue B ::: February 2003

Race, Class, Gender, and Sexual Orientation in ABE

by Deborah D'Amico
(Excerpted from NCSALL's Annual Review of Adult Learning and Literacy, Volume 4, to be published by Erlbaum Publishers this spring. Click here for more information.)

In an address to members of the national organization of adult learners, Voice for Adult Literacy United for Education (VALUE), Dr. Tom Sticht stated: "The Adult Education and Literacy System serves the powerless." Although estimates of the number of adults with low literacy in the United States vary, no one denies that these adults are primarily the working poor and public assistance recipients, and are disproportionately represented by people of color and immigrants. Moreover, the majority of adults enrolled in literacy programs are women. Thus, adult basic education (ABE) serves primarily those individuals likely to have had restricted access to opportunity and power, not only because of their socioeconomic class, but also because of the dynamics of racism and sexism in our society. No figures are available on the sexual orientation of literacy learners, but Kerka (2001) reports that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students also present issues that should be of concern to adult educators. 

The socially constructed categories of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation not only locate individuals and groups within global, national, and local social structures, but also establish social identities that shape people's experiences and cultures. The prevalence of poor people, people of color, immigrants, and women in ABE programs, along with growing concern about issues of sexual orientation, situate the work of the field within "interlocking systems of power and oppression" (Tisdell, quoted in Imel, 1995). Social inequality described and experienced along lines of race, gender, and class helps to determine who needs literacy instruction, who gets it, how these learners experience it, and what impact it has on their lives. Moreover, both individuals and policymakers in US society expect literacy to remedy the effects of and ultimately reduce social inequality. At the same time, educators may be mandated to teach in ways that reinforce, rather than transform, differences of class, race, gender, and sexual orientation that affect the life chances of learners. This social context of ABE - along with the identities and social locations of its teachers and learners, the political economy of funding for its programs, and the differential rewards its learners reap from educational achievement - raises concerns for adult educators in the areas of pedagogy, curriculum, and policy. 

The Dynamics of Demography in ABE 
The dynamics of racism, class inequality, sexism, and homophobia influence the lives of everyone in the United States. As Fine (1997) points out, educational research and popular discourse on inequality read as if racism affects only those in "minority groups." The racism experienced by people of color in US schools, she suggests, could not exist without the simultaneous privileging and "advantaging" of whites and whiteness by the same educational institutions.

Race, class, and gender affect the power of individuals to successfully negotiate educational institutions and to reap the rewards for having done so. This is reflected in the relative poverty and predominance of people of color among those with low literacy. Gender presents a more complex picture. In k-12 and at the community college and college levels, women appear to do better than men, although sexism is apparent in the predominance of men at graduate levels, not only in such traditionally male fields as engineering, math, and science, but also in traditionally female fields such as adult education. The connections between sexual orientation and literacy, and between sexual orientation and education and employment, are not as well studied. Nor do we have data on the sexual orientation of those participating in literacy programs.

Finally, socioeconomic circumstances remain strong predictors of educational success across race and gender, and educational achievement is a strong predictor of employment success. The latter ensures that individuals with low literacy are more likely to be poor, and, in an economy moving away from industry and toward information, increasingly likely to be so. These dynamics of inequality affect every aspect of adult basic education, from program funding to student retention, to curriculum and pedagogy.

Fine, M. (1997). "Witnessing whiteness." In M. Fine, L. Weiss, C. Powell, & L. Mun Wong (eds.), Off White: Readings on Race, Power, and Society (pp. 5765). New York: Routledge. 

Imel, S. (1995). Inclusive Adult Learning Environments. ERIC Digest 162.

Kerka, S. (2001). "Adult education and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered communities." Trends and Issues. Alert 21. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University ERIC Clearinghouse.

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