Literacy Isn’t Just About Decoding Words–It’s About Serving the Community
By: Nick Santangelo
When someone talks about literacy, they’re usually referring to the ability to read and write a language proficiently. That may seem an accurate enough description, but English Professor Eli Goldblatt wants you to know that literacy is about more than just decoding language. It’s the ability to engage in a conversation expressed through written symbols. What’s more, those conversations can and should have a positive impact on the communities in which we live.
This “community literacy” was a major focus of Dr. Goldblatt’s opening keynote speech during the Graduate Students of Language at Temple's fifth annual Language, Linguistics and Life Conference held in the Student Center last Friday. Dr. Goldblatt wanted to impart in students the message that while their understanding of the English language is built in the classroom, their use of it needs to spread to the community for it to have an impact.
“Literacy tends to be thought of as some entering person who really is just beginning to scratch the surface of the real culture,” the professor said in his talk. “But in fact, we grow in our literacies as we grow in the conversations that we want to engage in and that we want to make a difference in. those of you who are undergraduates and those of you who are graduate students are growing in those conversations and contributing to them more and more in ways that will change the conversations.”
In looking at how much Philadelphia’s communities need these conversations and contributions, the professor addressed the well-known issues with the School District of Philadelphia. To Dr. Goldblatt, the reason why the schools aren’t working as well as they could be is obvious: there isn’t enough money. He also pointed out that the best schools in the city are in neighborhoods with lower crime rates, and the worst schools are in areas with higher crime rates. He brought this up not to claim that there is a causal relationship there, but to ask the audience what everyone’s responsibility is with a system that works this way.
“North Philadelphia is not a poor neighborhood,” he said of the community Temple University calls home. “It is a tremendously rich neighborhood that doesn’t have the resources to tap into its richness.”
To illustrate how literacy affects the community, Dr. Goldblatt told a story about an immigrant family that owned a convenience store. The store had a protective glass barrier between the cashier and the customers, and the city wanted it removed. Without it, however, the owners felt their lives would be in danger. Unable to speak English, they sent their 16-year-old child to City Hall to advocate for them.
Dr. Goldblatt wants College of Liberal Arts English students to think about how they can provide language support systems for immigrants like this. He challenged students to think about how literacy can be influenced by shared community interests, job training, adult education, landmarks, museums, media, recreation centers and more.
“I’m interested in how, for instance, if you’re a master’s student and you are passing your master’s test, what that’s doing is deputizing you to become a sponsor, an agent of the institution, which in this case is not just Temple but say English or Spanish as an institutional sponsor,” explained the professor. “The argument here is that authority is not an individual psychological quality.”
Students can look to existing community organizations and efforts for an idea of how this is all possible. Puentes de Salud was started as a service primarily for pregnant women in the undocumented Mexican community. Today, it combines health services, education and research to teach Philadelphians the English language. Another group, SEAMAAC, helps immigrants and refugees by making connections between research, health and social services. Tree House Books, which employs a number of Temple students as interns, helps North Philly children learn to love reading and writing in a non-graded environment.
The city is also filled with urban farms that help bring together young people and teach them how to grow food to make meals their grandparents made in their countries of origins and when they first came over to the United States.
“In every one of these cases, people are coming together, learning together, sharing new things and thinking about the vocabulary they need for the organizations they’re founding,” said Dr. Goldblatt.
One student asked the professor how they can begin getting involved. For those who’ve never done anything before, what should the first step toward fostering community literacy be? For starters, he’d love to see students contacting the dean more. Dr. Goldblatt wants to see Temple bring back the community-based learning center it used to run, and he thinks students can make that happen.
“Asking for it is a really big thing. And students are the key. Faculty can ask, but we get caught up in stuff and say, ‘Let’s make a committee and then another committee,’” he said, laughing.
That’s not to say the faculty can’t or doesn’t help. Dr. Goldblatt pointed out that he pushes his students to get involved in organizations like Tree House. He’s not the only one, either. He mentioned Political Science Professor Barbara Ferman as one of many other College of Liberal Arts faculty members who do great work with pushing students to get involved in the community.
In fact, a member of the Spanish Department commented that the faculty was “working really hard to make sure we’re involved in the community” and incorporating that into their courses. Still, Dr. Goldblatt brought it all back to students one final time.
“Students need to demand this,” he said. “I hate to use that word, but the more students who come to faculty and ask, ‘Why aren’t we out there doing this stuff?’ the more likely it is to get done.”