Wednesday, October 31, 2007

have we shot ourselves in the foot?

Sometimes, when we have advocated for better funding for programs and for coherent and consistent literacy policy, practitioners have been told that we are self-interested. Discussions of working conditions create the same danger: Policy-makers can say that we are only interested in improving our own station in life, while we should concentrate on proving that we are truly 'helping' the students in our programs. In the past decade, funders have become increasingly adamant that they will not support anything that even remotely approaches advocacy for literacy.

In the 1980s, learner networks were active and vibrant. While some still do exist, it seems to me that I hear fewer learners speaking as advocates for adult literacy programming, and more speaking about personal transformation.

Have we practitioners shot ourselves in the foot?

Has our focus on accreditation as a route to strengthen the field allowed funders to accuse us of self-interest?

Might things look different today if learners' voices had been at the forefront?


  1. Hmmm... Two points.

    1. For funders - or potential funders - to accuse us of self interest might be the pot calling the kettle black. I know some people working in the field who ask for improvements at the expense of learners. I suppose this happens in any field. Luckily, we have well established best practices that should guard against that, so it doesn't worry me. No, I don't think grumpy or tight-fisted funders are our fault. As well, in my local paper today I read "Treat For Taxpayers: [Federal] Conservatives offer election sweets, cut taxes in fall {sic} mini budget". Federal finance minister Flaherty is quoted: "These are historic tax reductions, they are very bold, particularly on the corporate side." Again, the spending of money is a political choice. Canada has a $12 billion dollar surplus. We're using it to increase private profits, not public services.

    2. I'm sorry there aren't more learner networks, and I'm hopeful they may re-appear in some form as facilitators and tutors make greater use of internet tools, etc. But I'm troubled at the idea learner's are a source of job improvement or political pressure on my behalf. That feels a little exploitive to me.

  2. Without a doubt, learner advocacy is by far the most effective means of getting the attention of politicians. The dilemna is, "Do we spend time preparing students and providing effective venues for them to 'self-advocate'?" or "Do we continue to plug ahead with our present insecure circumstances and limited resources?"

    Perhaps former students need to set up an 'alumni' as a political arm to our provincial literacy organizations.

    Perhaps, every community and provincial literacy organization needs to bombard government officials with a nation-wide campaign with individual students participating during Literacy month or during a particular week or day.

    On another note, those who would criticize literacy workers for trying to receive equality and have jobs with some sustainability obviously have little or know comprehension of what we do 'in the trenches'. Those who don't want to take responsibility or give support need some way of keeping us at a distance. I suppose the best they can do is believe that we are sacrificing our learners for personal gain.

    They probably don't support community literacy at any level. Oh, well....onward and steady ahead we go.

  3. Sorry, the last 'anonymous' was me, and I sent it before editing and adding my name. I apologize for the errors.

  4. I don't think we have shot ourselves in the foot. I know that I am operating out of a community development mindset while working in a field that has become a business.

    When I started working in literacy 20 years ago it was possible to see literacy and experience literacy as community development work.

    As literacy and other sectors were brought into the fold of business, I watched many very good literacy practitioners leave the field. I questioned why I stayed every time one of my colleagues left. What is it doing to me to stay? Where is my energy going? How much of the business model am I becoming a part of?, etc, etc.

    I understand that if I truly embrace the business model and approach, then the thinking and language of advocacy for literacy has to change to fueling a literacy lobby - learning the skill of being a lobbyist the way it works in business and government. Even lobbyists have been restrained over the last couple years by legislation, but that's how funding is leveraged within the government and business sectors, isn't it? Forget advocacy - they just laugh at that and call advocacy groups "special interest groups". Special interest - that's where the self-interest jabs toward literacy practitioners come in.

    Another way to "lobby" or "advocate for" or "demand" rights and respect is through the union movement. Solidarity as a group, a burr in the side of an employer who would try to make workers have less and do more in order to "help" others and be satisfied with "our station in life".

    In Ontario, the wage range, working conditions, access to benefits, and overall reality of literacy practitioners is dismal. There hasn't been an increase in funding to programs in over 10 years!!! Rents go up, insurance goes up, service support goes up, everything goes up except the funding to sustain programs. the results, staff hours are cut, staff are laid off for months at a time annually, funder expectations remain the same and in fact increase, and most programs keep going. Unionization of literacy workers would pull all this into a solid voice - threats of shutting down the whole system would speak loudly, clear leadership and a voice stating for the public record the kinds of conditions literacy practitioners work under would be revealed. There's shame in most literacy practitioner working conditions - but it is hidden from public view. Silenced as "self-interest".

    I too am very saddened by the loss of learner voices in the public space. In Ontario for example, the Ontario Literacy Coalition (OLC) no longer has funding to support the Adult Learner's Network of Ontario (ALNO). At this time the elected learner representatives from across Ontario and the OLC staff are working to find a way to establish a Learner's Association. I ma learning about this effort through one of the ALNO learner representatives who is very active in AlphaRoute, the online learning environment that has been the focus of my work for many years. This learner has started a discussion group in AlphaRoute and is really trying hard to bring the issue of learner voice and it's demise and importance to the attention of other learners using AlphaRoute. She is committed to this effort. She isn't getting much response however and that is so painful to see. I feel like there are seeds of learner voice out there struggling to get a foothold and to grow. But the ground is so hard and undernourished.

    Here's where I currently draw my inspiration and energy. Check out this YouTube video:Learning is Power

    Wendell, I agree that technology can be a vehicle for bringing the learner voice forward.


  5. Hey Nancy - thanks for reminding us about the union movement and its role in advocating for literacy - if not always for literacy workers.

    When I worked at the school board, our union was a very effective way of organizing instructors to advocate for literacy and ESOL programs for adults - at the board and at the governments. Learners were often included in those activities and joined us at rallies and gave deputations at "consultations". It is definitely my experience that the decision makers listened more carefully and respectfully when learners spoke. We instructors on the other hand, were reprimanded for politicizing our students - HA!

    I was always surprised that I did not see more of our colleagues from the community-based programs at these events. I tried to figure out why when I started working in the community-based program but never really figured it out.

    So what am I saying here? It is so hard to keep track when typing in this tiny box. I guess that belonging to an organization that takes advocacy seriously and supports grassroots approaches helps and learners and practitioners working together seemed to be quite effective and positive - even when it seems policy makers are not that moved the solidarity that is built is energizing and strengthening and can help make shifts in the practitioner-learner balance of power ... all good.

  6. Okay, now that I have shared the link to the Learning is Power video (and I hope you have watched it), I can now tell a further story related to it.

    I wrote Janet Kaplan-Bucciarelli an email through YouTube, congratulating her on the video and I shared the fact that I had shared the link to it with learners and literacy colleagues alike.

    Janet wrote back and shared this with me which I share with you in the context of talking about working in literacy:

    "The experience of making the film (shot within about 2 weeks, then edited a couple months later) has actually changed my life. I have left teaching literacy and started my own business producing and teaching others to create digital stories. If you don't know that term, it refers to a multi-media project which combines voice (a person telling her own story), images and music in a short film. You can watch some on my site, if you are interested:

    And here is the 1st one I made - it's about my own decision to leave my teaching position:

    Janet included, with my permission, part of my initial email to her as a testimonial on her new business web site.

    This has made me think - perhaps digital storytelling is the way to go in terms of bringing learner and literacy practitioner voices to the public sphere.

    Image sending tons of emails to a funder each with a digital story link in it - each telling a story. Imagine those stories being the program evaluation for that year - board members sharing their experience and responsibilities they carried out, instructors, volunteers, learners, community members, family mebers, etc. You could even show the program's audited financial statement!

    I know there is a group of literacy practitioners in Toronto working together on a digital story-telling project right now.

    Heh! Maybe you gals could share some of what you are doing here in this forum - because what you are doing is literacy work! And if involves technology!

    Tracey, as you so rightly note in your message - no message gets through better to our target audiences than the stories that learner's themselves tell.

    Maybe Janet Kaplan-Bucciarelli can help us with this!

    (I finally feel that I am ending a message in this forum on an upbeat note). Yeah!!!


  7. "Have we practitioners shot ourselves in the foot?"

    Why blame yourselves? Current governments, in Canada and BC, at least, don't care about the same things literacy workers do. They care about getting and keeping power, not sharing it and giving it away. They care about profits. Practitioners can "focus on accreditation" (I don't understand the reference), or marshall columns of learners, or insist on giving up all pay and benefits and join barefoot orders to work for nothing, or whatever other strategy we dream up. It will not make current governments care about oppressed people; it will not make them care less about power and profits.
    Capitalists pay attention to unions because they have power, not because they have high principles.
    And by the way, Nancy, thanks for the links to the story making! I checked them out and agree with you about the usefulness of the tool. And fun, too.