I had lunch a few weeks ago in Detroit with my good friend Judge Damon Keith and Paul Anger, editor and publisher of the Detroit Free Press. (I haven’t always had the best of luck with judges and newspaper editors, but I’m not one to turn down a lunch invitation.)
They wanted to talk with me about adult illiteracy, a serious problem that threatens to stall any meaningful economic recovery in Detroit. I was shocked to learn that a recent National Institute for Literacy study found that an estimated 47 percent of adults living in Detroit are functionally illiterate. That means more than 200,000 adults in our city are unable to read a newspaper, help their children with basic schoolwork or make sense of a contract or work manual. In a world increasingly dominated by 24/7 digital communications, this societal handicap is particularly devastating to individuals, families and communities.
But Damon and Paul were not looking to dwell on the negatives. They’re leading a bold new initiative called Reading Works with the goal of “helping more families develop a culture of learning in the home and giving more adults the tools they need to find jobs in our technology-driven economy.” Along with Wayne State University, the Detroit Free Press, WXYZ-TV, the Michigan Chronicle, and leaders from the business, religious and educational communities, Damon and Paul are determined to make a difference.
In my memoir, Threshold Resistance, I make the point that solving any problem or maximizing any opportunity begins with an honest analysis the obstacles that stand in the way of success. Only then can you plan your strategy and direct your resources. As I listened to Damon and Paul it became clear to me that addressing the obstacle of rampant adult illiteracy is a logical, necessary step toward improving the economic and social prospects for Detroit’s future.
I meet people every day in Detroit who want to know what they can do to help their hometown. They want to get involved and be part of the solution but don’t know where to start. Thinking about the best ways to address adult illiteracy, it struck me that anyone who can read and write is a potential resource for those who can’t. With the proper training and support, an army of volunteers could have an immediate impact on this problem. Working one-on-one, we could turn this thing around one adult and one family at a time. And what a satisfying thing to do for the city you love.
I’m going to get involved with this important effort. There’s no question that the obstacles in the way of success are daunting, and Reading Works is just getting started. But I wouldn’t bet against Damon and Paul. I wouldn’t bet against the people of Detroit.