Friday 24 April 2009

Literature for Life

As academics, it is often easy to lapse into our own narrow worlds of abstract concepts, empirical research, university teaching, and the practical concerns of scientific publishing. Being jarred from this world can be humbling, enlightening, and extremely meaningful. I recently had such an experience after being contacted by Jo Altilia. Ms. Altilia is the founder and executive director of Literature for Life, a charity that promotes family literacy in teen mothers from very disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Toronto. For the past 8 years Literature for Life has provided a number of services to this population, most prominent of which is a series of reading circles based out of shelters and youth centres. For many new members of these groups, participation marks the very first time they have ever read a book. Simply completing a novel is immensely transformative for these young women, allowing them to see themselves as readers. Moreover, the first book read reflects the issues (of domestic violence, gang violence, poverty, etc.) facing these individuals, allowing such problems to be explored and addressed in a safe environment. The reading circles recently finished Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, and Mr. Hill volunteered his time to give a reading. The room was packed with engaged young women who asked thoughtful and intelligent questions. Reading also brings with it the awareness that writing can become a powerful tool for expression and exploration, empowering these women to become active agents of their future as opposed to reactive victims of situation and circumstance. According to Ms. Altilia, many of these women experience an increase in perspective-taking, empathy, and problem-solving as a result of their participation in these reading circles, reflecting many ideas that we have discussed on this site.

It is not only the young women who benefit from these circles, but also their children. A culture of literacy is bred within the family to better prepare that child for education and schooling. This is an important step toward avoiding future gang involvement and incarceration. In this way, the reading circle influences two generations at once, as well as the friends, boyfriends, and extended family of the young women involved.

Remarkably, Literature for Life also manages to provide a number of other important services to this community. They publish two magazines, Yo’ Mama and Solace, both written for young mothers by young mothers, and also delivers a lullaby program. The latter is a music therapy workshop designed to foster language acquisition as well as important bonding between mother and child.

The impact that this organization has had on young disadvantaged families is impressive. Over 1,400 young mothers have participated in the reading circles, 2,200 children have received age-appropriate books to help build a family library, and over 14,000 books have been distributed in total.

Literature for Life is charity that relies on government support (an often inconsistent source), businesses willing to act as a sponsor, as well as those who volunteer their time. I have been discussing with Ms. Alitilia how I can contribute to the important work she is achieving. If you would also like to help out, or would like to learn more about this organization, please visit their website. Contributions to the charity can also be made online. We at OnFiction believe quite strongly in the power of narrative fiction to transform and enlighten; this is a wonderful demonstration of this power exercised to the benefit of some of the most deserving among us.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...