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Focus On Basics

Volume 6, Issue B ::: February 2003

YES! A Literacy Program's Antiracist Journey

by Margery Freeman & Lou Johnson
In September, 1995, a group of community leaders gathered with staff, volunteers, and adult learners of YMCA Operation Mainstream, New Orleans' oldest and largest literacy program, to craft a new vision for the organization. As they shared their hopes and dreams, one neighborhood resident began speaking about the organization's name: "What do you mean, 'operation'?" he asked. "Are you operating on someone who's sick, or do you mean a military operation against an enemy?"

Another local resident spoke up, "And whose 'mainstream' are you talking about? If my people leave to become part of your mainstream, what happens to my community?"
People in the room shifted uncomfortably, defensively. Finally, a young woman who was on the resident council of a nearby public housing development stood up: "They want to tear down our homes! They bring all these HUD HOPE VI documents for us to read, and not one of us has finished high school, so we have to depend on outsiders to interpret for us. We need literacy so we can make our own decisions! Can you help us do that?" 

Thus challenged, we began the process of transforming our literacy program into one that measures its worth by the strength and self-determination of adult learners and the communities in which they live. Seven years later, YMCA Educational Services (YES!), formerly Operation Mainstream, is still striving to become genuinely community-based and community-led. 

The following story is told by two people who have led YES! since 1995. Margery Freeman was executive director from 1995 to 2001, and Lou Johnson served as program director for four years before becoming executive director a year ago. Both Margery and Lou are resource trainers with The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, a national, multiracial organization, and drew upon its Undoing Racism˘ principles and practices in working with YES!

First, a Little History
YES! began like many literacy organizations around the country. It was founded in 1977 by the Greater New Orleans Federation of Churches and rooted in the Laubach "each one teach one" philosophy. Operation Mainstream focused on teaching individuals, through one-on-one tutoring, so that they could "enter the mainstream of society." Its founders believed that a volunteer-centered program would ensure its success (i.e., satisfied volunteers would result in satisfied students). By the time I was hired as executive director in 1995, Operation Mainstream, now a branch of the YMCA of Greater New Orleans, was the largest adult literacy program in Louisiana.

Nonetheless, the YMCA presented several challenges. Many people in the New Orleans YMCA did not view literacy work as "real Y" work. This was ironic, since the YMCA had been among the first organizations in the United States to offer literacy classes. Adult literacy practitioners were not regarded as educational professionals and had virtually no presence or voice in Louisiana's policymaking circles. Also, adult learners who had internalized the stigma of illiteracy rarely thought of a literacy program as a place where they could challenge their second-class status. Perceiving ourselves as thrice marginalized, how would we go about transforming Operation Mainstream into a student-centered organization with a vision of social justice? 

The fourth challenge came from the staff and board: Why change what worked? After all, Operation Mainstream had a reputation as an excellent, award-winning program. Its tutors and students loved their sessions. 

About three months after joining the staff, I visited with members of the St. Thomas Housing Development Resident Council. I had been involved with that community for a number of years, so they knew me. The Development had been located in the Lower Garden District/Irish Channel neighborhood of New Orleans, Louisiana. The buildings were demolished in 2001 and the dispersed community continues its struggle to return and rebuild. I sat at a table with about 10 Resident Council members who, coincidentally, had recently taken stock of their basic skills and realized that not one of them had a high school diploma or a GED [certificate of General Educational Development]. I told them that I had taken a job with the Y's adult literacy program. "What should we do?" I asked them.

"We need literacy!" they responded. "You need to root your work in our neighborhood so that literacy becomes a way of life for us."

"But we don't know how to do that!" I worried aloud.

"Let us help you learn," was their reply. 

Lou Comes Aboard
My involvement with YMCA Educational Services began in late July of 1996, when I answered an ad for the Program Director's position with YES! Being a native son of New Orleans, I knew that 920 St. Charles Avenue, the address to which I had sent my resume, would be close to Lee Circle, a local landmark named for Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

I knew very little about this Lee Circle Y. I am an American of African descent. As a child, I had spent many hours "at the Y," but in the segregated South, that meant the Dryades Street Y in my neighborhood, not the Lee Circle "white Y." The one thing that I did know about the "white Y" was that not many folks who looked like me had ever worked there in positions of authority. With some reservation, I went to the interview with Margery Freeman and three YES! staff members.

Nothing prepared me for the questions they asked of me during the interview: One was "Why do you think people are poor?" Another was "What role do you think racism plays in the way things are in America?" Picture the scene, if you can: I am a 50+-year-old American of African descent in a conference room at the "white Y" and a panel of three whites and one American of African descent is waiting for my answer. I figured they were trick questions, given where I was. I also figured I had nothing to lose. That being the case, I "let it rip." I spoke of my connections with the Black power movement, with the Black Panther Party, with the movement against the Vietnam War. I also described growing up in New Orleans, where I attended separate but unequal schools, where by law I had to ride on the back of the bus or streetcar, where I was not allowed to try things on in the Canal Street stores, where I could only drink from the uncooled "colored" water fountain. I told how I dropped out of high school during my senior year and joined the Navy at the age of 17, despite being in the top five percent of my junior class, because I foolishly thought that color would not matter in the Navy. 

I answered the interview questions to the best of my ability. I guess I did okay, because I was offered the position. Soon after I settled into my new office, which was within the Y's corporate offices, I learned that I was but the second American of African descent that the YMCA of Greater New Orleans had ever hired in a management capacity in 145 years. I also learned that to the white power elite of the YMCA's board I was invisible. As the only American of African descent in the entire open space office area, I was hard to miss. But they did. They always did.

Three things helped me "get it" with respect to this literacy work: the Undoing Racism˘/community organizing workshop; Literacy South's analysis of "Literacy, Language, and Community Action"; and attending two literacy conferences: one national and the other statewide. (I will write about the Undoing Racism workshop later.) 

From Literacy South, I learned that this literacy work is about a whole lot more than "see the word, hear the word, say the word, and write the word." Honoring what students bring has to be part of the work as well. At a Laubach conference in Columbus, Ohio, I learned how capable students could be. I met students who helped create the Voyager Series for New Readers Press, a basic skills text based on adult real-life experiences. I met a learner from Durham, North Carolina, in a public policy workshop, who helped me understand what Ron Pugsley, then director of the US Office of Vocational and Adult Education, and Andy Hartman, then director of the National Institute for Literacy, were talking about. At a local adult education conference, I learned about the rivalry in the field of adult education among community-based organizations, local education agencies, and community colleges. These events galvanized me and solidified my thoughts about what I needed to be about in doing this work.

Some Definitions: Racism and Antiracism
We understand and use the term "racism" to mean "race prejudice plus institutionalized, systemic power." We have gained much of this understanding from an analysis developed by The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond (see box). Racism is more than individual prejudice and bigotry. It is an "ism": a system that gives advantages to some people and places barriers in the way of other people, based on race. The effects of racism are evident everywhere: in schools, prisons, housing, jobs. The disproportionate number of persons of color who have low literacy skills means that literacy practitioners and advocates must understand and deal with racism. If we do not analyze the power of race and racism, we are likely to reach false conclusions about individual learners: that they are less qualified, less motivated, less capable, lessÍ less. 

We also believe that literacy programs (and all organizations) that strive to become "antiracist" are better able to build authentic relationships across racial lines. By describing ourselves as an antiracist literacy organization, we communicate an immediate message to students, teachers, and the larger community that we are working to undo racism in ourselves, our programs, and our community. Rather than being seen as negative, being an antiracist literacy organization announces that we are part of the struggle for equitable education that has historically included antislavery societies, moonlight schools, and freedom schools.

The YES! Antiracism Journey
As YES! travels toward becoming an antiracist literacy organization, we have followed certain organizing principles originally developed by the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond. These principles move and breathe in our everyday work. Even as they take new forms, they help us keep a clear vision and a steady purpose. So we have framed our story within these principles.

We seek to be accountable to learners by building relationships with them and their communities

Margery: If we were to take seriously the St. Thomas Resident Council's challenge "to make literacy part of the community's everyday life," we needed to go to students' neighborhoods and spend time visiting with them and their families. In New Orleans, we call this "stoop-sitting" or "front porch-sitting." 

Such a notion brought us right up against the cultural chasms that separate literacy providers and students. YMCA Educational Services students are mostly Americans of African descent, economically poor, and historically marginalized. Teachers and tutors are largely middle class and educated. Few know about the cultural ways or the impact of racism on the students they teach. How could we build genuine relationships where decades of educational and social service programs have failed? 

The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond 

    The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond is a national, multiracial organization of veteran community organizers, educators, and people of faith dedicated to building an effective movement for social change in this country. The People's Institute's principles, analysis, and practice over 22 years have earned it a reputation for being among the most effective antiracist training and organizing institutions in the country. The People's Institute recognizes racism as the primary barrier preventing communities from improving their effectiveness, building useful coalitions, and implementing a more equitable and just society. Its Undoing Racism/community organizing workshops, conducted with more than 75, 000 individuals across the country, are rooted in an understanding of racism as a system that can be "undone" once we understand what it is, where it comes from, and how it is perpetuated.
    The People's Institute's working definition of race, informed by the analysis of Maulana Karenga, is the following: "Race is a capricious or arbitrary classification of humans, created by white men in the 16th century, that assigns human worth and social status using the concept of white as the model for humanity, for the purpose of establishing and maintaining white skin access and social status and a legitimate relationship to power." 
    The workshop provides an analysis of racism and power in the United States that enables people to work more effectively toward building a just and equitable society. Through a 20-hour dialogue-based process, workshop participants
 ·  Understand racism as a social/political construct that can be undone
 ·  Analyze how racism manifests itself in all institutions of our society
 ·  Appreciate the need to overcome the internalized myths of racial inferiority and superiority
 ·  Know why the concepts of "race" and "white people" were invented and why they have continued to be used throughout US history
 ·  Recognize the importance of culture to community self-determination and liberation
 ·  Learn strategies for effective antiracist organizing
 ·  Value the collective wisdom of people connected through a strong network


Lou: We decided to start a monthly gathering of learners, volunteers, staff, supporters, and family members to open some dialogue. We named this event the "Happening Hour." At first it was a challenge to get not only learners to attend but also staff and volunteers. "Happening Hour" was new and different. We were encouraging learners to get together just to hang out with staff and volunteers and talk about current events or anything else that was on their mind. We used a few program dollars to buy some food for the event. We invited a couple of staff who also are poets to lead the assembled group in writing activities. Together, we wrote group poems, everyone adding a word, a phrase, a thought. Anyone could contribute, regardless of writing skill levels.

"Happening Hours have been a great breakthrough in forging more informal and creative relationships between staff and students," reflects Manon Pavy, a 12-year veteran tutor/instructor with YES. "They provide wonderful opportunities for our students to meet outside of the classroom and outside of their neighborhoods." Today, two years later, "Happening Hour" is a marvelous mixture: It is a pot-luck, a poetry slam, a current events forum, a place where old friends meet and new friendships are formed. 

We learn the history of literacy, poverty, and racism in America

Margery: Spending time with learners and their families was helping us build stronger, more trustworthy relationships, but YES! staff and volunteers needed more: We needed to understand our history. Otherwise we would see literacy simply in terms of individuals and not as a systemic challenge. We had to ask: How did our literacy program get started? How do the policies, procedures, expectations, and ways of behaving in our program reflect the dominant culture, which is biased in favor of people who speak standard English, understand what is expected of them ("Be on time"), and value product over process (academic results over building personal relationships)? We asked ourselves: Do people of color feel they can really "be themselves" when they come through our door? Or do they have to "code switch" to fit in? Do they feel they have to focus on the lesson at hand and suppress heartfelt concerns of family, jobs, health? Such self-analysis was hard. We were so used to focusing on the object of our concern, which we often called our "target." We viewed the problem of illiteracy as those persons with low literacy skills. We wanted to fix that problem.

Lou: Not long after I came to work at YES!, Margery urged me to attend the Undoing Racism/community organizing workshop that had been mentioned during my job interview. YES! would pay my way. I told her that having been born black in New Orleans I already knew about racism. I added that my years in Oakland during the Black power movement had given me even greater insights on the issue. But, being the "new kid on the block" and a team player, I went to the workshop.

Wow! Was I touched. The workshop analysis helped me "connect the dots" in more ways than anything I had ever done before. It served to crystallize things I felt, in my gut or my heart, into my consciousness. The following Monday morning, I informed Margery that she was right and she was wrong. She was right in realizing that the analysis I learned would give us a common language with which to communicate about our work. It would help us develop strategic plans for YES! based on our understanding of power, racism, and culture. Most importantly, the antiracist principles and values we now shared would serve as a foundation for our relationships with students and staff, volunteers and community groups, and with each other.

That's why I also told Margery she was wrong. We could not continue to allow staff members to make the call as to whether they would go to the Undoing Racism workshop. That day, I established a new policy: All YES! employees must attend the workshop. That policy remains in place today.

Margery: As we studied, talked, and listened, we began to understand why people are poor and illiterate. In workshops and retreats, we analyzed our institutional history, values and standards. We began to see how literacy - and illiteracy - is a product of certain social and cultural mores, and of political decisions made to support existing power arrangements. We recognized that YES! - like most US institutions - was grounded in an Anglo-American world view. We realized that such values as punctuality, formal English, and efficiency were the standards against which students were measured. We noticed that programs that practice these beliefs were often rewarded with funding, certifications, and awards. As we examined our cultural assumptions, we realized that we had often labeled as good students those learners who came on time. Those who missed their classes, or worse, dropped out, we had dismissed as not serious.

Now we began to see learners for who they are and what they bring, to work with them, rather than evaluate them by our (unspoken) standards. Manon Pavy talks about her changed perspective: "I had to challenge myself to be more respectful of a student's personal goals and of each student's own understanding of what the written word can do for them. In doing this, I have learned to separate my own interests and markers of success from the student's. While this has often meant giving up certain ideals, and my understanding of a proper education, I am now better able to experience my students as individuals with unique histories and not as my project, something that needs fixing." 

We promote and value the culture of our students

Lou: In 1998, YES! received a small grant to do a creative writing event with its learners. Louisiana Endowment for the Arts provided the money and a writer, a university professor and well-known poet, to conduct the four-hour workshop. Both Margery and I worried that the Tulane University professor, Peter Cooley, might do more harm than good. We briefed him about literacy issues and described our antiracist views and approaches to learning. Peter was nervous but we agreed to try the event.

Peter showed up with a bag of potatoes. He asked everyone, even me, to take one. Peter had us contemplate our potato. He then led an hour-long writing session on the potato. The stories and poems that emerged amazed and delighted us all. Shortly after the workshop, Peter offered to recruit a few students from his creative writing classes at Tulane to work with YES! learners for one extra credit in his course. We would give them an orientation to the world of the adult learner beforehand.

In September, 1999, we started the YES! "Writing to Read" workshop with one small class of basic literacy students. At the class Thanksgiving party, learners read their work to one another. They talked, excitedly, about writing to relatives for the first time ever. The Tulane student/teachers were just as enthusiastic about what they had learned from YES! learners. "Writing to Read" is now part of every YES! small-group curriculum. "New writers" have published two anthologies. The first, entitled Fridays: From Potatoes to People, was named in recognition of the learners who participated in Peter's original potato workshop. The name of the second volume, Courage from Behind the Mask, is taken from an essay one of the contributing authors. One author had less than one month of schooling as a child. She is 69 today. Two authors finished first and second in a writing contest sponsored by the New Orleans Area Literacy Coalition.

We "go outside the box" to adopt new approaches to teaching and learning

Margery: Our program was beginning to feel different. It had a robust, energetic quality about it. We could tell from their eagerness to participate and their informal connections with one another outside of class that an increasing number of staff and students were catching the spirit, internalizing the values of learner self-expression and self-determination. YES! students now read at poetry forums, on television shows, to radio audiences. Last year, YES! students wrote and staged a play, Burying Illiteracy: A Louisiana Jazz Funeral, for a talent show at the South Central Literacy Action conference in Fayetteville, and won first place.

Yet for all the excitement, we knew that much of our program remained the same: Our volunteers and many of our staff were devoted to teaching individual learners how to read. Period. They either ignored or sometimes disagreed openly with an approach to literacy that was rooted in a community-guided, antiracist value system.

They stayed, nonetheless, and we continued the dialogue. A major challenge before us was how to prepare volunteers and staff to teach/tutor within our new, antiracist construct. Our traditional workshop went first. Doug Anderson, who replaced Lou as YES! program director and lead trainer, urged YES! staff to participate in designing a workshop that would engage volunteers and staff alike in pedagogy that we would call a "teaching/learning" model. Students, board members, and colleagues from sister programs all participated in the redesign process.

"We needed to prepare volunteers and staff to be effective in working with students first, to become self-reflective and culturally competent before they begin tutoring," Doug insisted, to the consternation of many who worried that volunteers would not be given enough tutoring skills. "We needed to help tutors see (in Jane Vella's words) the 'learner as subject.'" 

The volunteer/staff orientation was expanded to give workshop participants an opportunity to reflect on their own values and cultural assumptions. Tutors, students, and staff brought a variety of voices to the workshop. We made a strong connection between poverty, racism, and literacy, emphasizing YES! social justice values. We used provocative quotations from well-known writers like Jonathan Kozol ("Charity is not a substitute for justice") as points of discussion. Volunteers were given ample time to build a sense of community so they would feel part of a collective effort. Again and again, we asked for feedback. After our summer, 2002, workshop, Doug said, jubilantly, "No one seemed anxious about getting lots of 'tutoring tools.' They got the value of building relationships with learners and realized their skills would improve over time."

One volunteer wrote after the workshop, "I realized that both my student and I needed to talk about: Why am I here? What do I want to learn? What has value in my life? Then we could begin to build a teaching/ learning process where the student was the subject of her own learning." 

As we write, the process is still in formation. Perhaps it always will be.

We network locally and nationally with other antiracist groups and individuals

Margery: YES! needed allies if it was truly going to transform itself. Although our program and budget were robust and growing, we could not continue our antiracist journey without local and national support. We met continually with a wide spectrum of local community leaders: resident councils, grassroots tenant organizations, cultural and faith groups, local foundations, and other literacy practitioners. With each, we described our antiracist literacy vision: learner-centered; respectful of neighborhood traditions and leadership; committed to strengthening individuals, families, and communities. We asked, "How can YES! help you achieve your goals?" And we listened. With an AmeriCorps grant, we hired residents of several neighborhoods where we had established relationships. These AmeriCorps members, whom we call Reading Leaders, tutor in local schools, lead parent support groups, and organize forums on educational issues and family learning fairs. They have become valued community leaders. After seven years, we have built partnerships based on our antiracist values with more than 130 groups and organizations in the New Orleans region.

At the same time, we understood the dynamics of power: Our experiences could have meaning for the literacy field only when regional and national literacy leaders took note. Our long-term membership in Laubach Literacy Action (LLA) was our starting point. Fortunately, Peter Waite and Mark Cass at LLA had been doing their own analysis of racism and recognized the close intersection of race and illiteracy. In December, 1997, key LLA staff came to New Orleans to participate in an Undoing Racism/community organizing workshop that YES! was sponsoring for staff, board, and students. 

Lou: Having Peter and several of his key staff attend the Undoing Racism˘/Community Organizing workshop was a benchmark event. Peter said something that I shall always remember. He said, "While I get the intent of the workshop, I'm not sure how it will play in Peoria." We agreed to "test the waters" by co-presenting a "Literacy and Race" roundtable in June of 1999 at the South Central Literacy Action (SCLA) conference in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The roundtable was scheduled to last 90 minutes in a room that could seat 25 people. The workshop had standing room only and lasted over three hours. Folks from Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, and Louisiana spoke of their concerns about "race issues" in their literacy programs. Since that Arkansas event, Peter and I have conducted "Literacy and Race" roundtables at every Laubach (now merged with Literacy Volunteers of America to become Proliteracy Worldwide) national and SCLA gathering. Other antiracist literacy leaders regularly hold workshops on literacy and racism at many state and national conferences. The number of people and organizations engaging in dialogue and training on literacy and racism grows each year.

We help learners and their families get a sense of their own power

Margery: Ultimately, antiracist literacy work must be measured by whether learners are finding their voices and becoming leaders in their own communities. Often, organizations seeking to become multicultural will "colorize" their front office (i.e., hire a person of color as receptionist), employ community residents as "field workers" to reach out to prospective students, or add a learner or two to their board. YES! has taken all those steps over the last few years. While such actions don't usually harm anyone, they cannot be mistaken for organizational transformation. An organization that sets the rules, determines the curricula, hires the staff, and speaks for students does not have to account to those students for its actions. And an organization that is not accountable to its constituency can come and go as it pleases or as funding dictates. So we at YES! continue to grapple with that first question put to us nine years ago: "If my people leave to become part of your mainstream, what happens to my community?" 

Lou: This fall, at its annual planning retreat, the YES! board reaffirmed the purpose and values of our vision statement. Once again we ask ourselves: What does it mean to operate a literacy program that is student centered and antiracist? A couple of stories will suffice. Recently, we met with a big shipbuilding company to negotiate a workplace literacy contract. I handed our YES! vision statement to the Director of Training. "This is what we stand for," I told him. "YES! puts students' goals first. Your employees in our literacy class will not only gain stronger skills but more confident voices." We got the contract (after three previous unsuccessful efforts).

At about the same time, I was seeking to be elected to the board of our new regional literacy alliance. I, like YES!, hold a "literacy as social justice" position. And I won.

YES! continues to grow, to be known as the organization in town with the "Literacy and Justice for All" T-shirts. We - students, staff, volunteers - bring our message into every funder's board room, write it into every grant proposal, tell it at every Rotary Club meeting. Michael Polit, a third-year literacy student, captures our vision best in his Introduction to the YES! students' publication, Courage from Behind the Mask (YES, 2002): "We hope this anthology opens your eyes to our experiences, helps you realize we are intelligent and creative. But most of all, we hope it inspires you to overcome your strugglesÍ"

YES! (2002). Courage from Behind the Mask: A Creative Writing Anthology from the Adult Literacy Students of the YMCA Educational Services (YES!). New Orleans.

About the Authors
Margery Freeman was executive director of YES! from 1995 to 2001. She is an educator and community organizer who has taught in public schools, early childhood, and literacy programs for 30 years. She is recognized nationally as an advocate for equitable and fair education and for better understanding of how racism impacts the literacy field. Margery Freeman can be reached at freemannola@cox.net.

Lou Johnson served as program director of YES! for four years before becoming its executive director a year ago. His effective advocacy for adult learners in local, state, and national literacy venues is rooted in his experience as an American of African descent raised in the segregated south. Lou Johnson's email address is loujyesnola@netscape.net.

The YES! website can be reached through www.ymcaneworleans.org

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