National Coalition for Literacy History
(With thanks to Sherrie Claiborne, Dale Lipschultz, Marsha Tait, Jackie Taylor, and Peter Waite)
By Margaret Patterson, PhD
Throughout its 30-year history, the National Coalition for Literacy (NCL) has proudly led efforts to advocate for adult learners and their educational needs. NCL can trace its roots to an initiative of the American Library Association (ALA) to connect libraries and literacy. In 1981 ALA executive director Bob Wedgeworth approached the National Ad Council with an idea on how to focus a national spotlight on literacy for adults who needed basic skills or English language skills. That same year leaders from Laubach Literacy, Literacy Volunteers of America, the Correctional Education Association, and the Business Council for Effective Literacy convened with ALA at the Allerton Hotel in Chicago, Illinois, to discuss an ad campaign for adult literacy. Also joining in this historic dinner meeting was the non-profit Contact Center of Lincoln, Nebraska, a nationwide referral center.
The group of adult literacy organizations that convened that evening formed the nucleus of 11 adult education organizations which would later start the Coalition. The original group of organizations created a venue that could support and promote the upcoming National Ad Council campaign (1983 – 1985) and establish a first-ever hotline for adult learners who needed referrals to literacy providers as well as volunteers. Since this campaign was the first key program of the Coalition, NCL marks 1983 as its first year as an organization. (See Remarks At White House Ceremony Announcing the Adult Literacy Initiative.)
A New Campaign for Adult Literacy
During the Reagan era, high profile champions such as Senator Paul Simon and Mrs. Barbara Bush, wife of then Vice President George H.W. Bush, hosted breakfast meetings and convened symposia throughout Washington, DC, to raise awareness of adult illiteracy as a national concern and discuss ways to enhance the federal role in adult education.
With the success of the three-year National Ad Council campaign, even Hollywood began to take notice of adult literacy issues that NCL sponsored or in which it engaged. By 1987 ABC and PBS took on adult literacy as a cause and promoted Project Literacy US (PLUS) via public service announcements and documentaries as well as in television series. Literacy was embedded in plots of television shows and in movies such as “The Pride of Jessie Hallam,” starring Johnny Cash, and “Stanley and Iris”, which featured Robert De Niro and Jane Fonda.
When George H.W. Bush was elected president in 1988, First Lady Barbara Bush sponsored a literacy symposium as the first presidential event following the inauguration. The symposium and later national literacy events were broadcast nationally on television from the White House with leaders of Coalition member organizations present. NCL’s first annual literacy awards in 1989 were presented by President Bush at the White House.
New Federal Roles in the 1990’s
Working with NCL, the Business Council for Effective Literacy initiated a campaign to help determine what the new federal role in literacy could be. The resulting report, “Jump Start,” led to the National Literacy Act of 1990 and the creation of the National Institute for Literacy. By 1992, federal funding for adult education nationally had tripled from the $100 million spent annually in the 1980’s.
From its roots of promoting awareness in the 1980’s the Coalition continued to expand as a mostly volunteer-led Coalition, with ALA as its fiscal agent during the early 1990’s. Advocacy efforts on Capitol Hill continued, with NCL member the National Council of State Directors of Adult Education (NCSDAE) heavily advocating for increased funding for adult education. With support from generous donors such as the Verizon Foundation and McGraw-Hill Foundation, the Coalition functioned with a minimum of staff yet added member organizations.
Entering the Coalition’s Third Decade
With the dawning of its third decade in the early 2000’s, NCL continued advocating for adult education under the leadership of Coalition Presidents Lennox McLendon (1999 – 2001), Marsha Tait (2001 – 2003), and Dale Lipschultz (2003 – 2006) and worked on building its capacity and expanding its reach nationally. NCL was incorporated in DC as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization in 2003 and approved the first full board of nine directors in August 2003 as part of its incorporation process.
From 2006 – 2009 Sherrie Claiborne served as President of NCL and the Coalition began to receive financial support from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation to provide statewide advocacy trainings and create a nationwide electronic Advocacy Clearinghouse and Toolkit for adult education. The Coalition also hosted several public policy forums for advocates and legislative staff on the latest adult education issues.
The Coalition met several strategic goals from 2007 through 2010, disseminating information to the field, forming new alliances, and enhancing public policy and advocacy efforts. NCL staff and the board worked together to identify ways to meet these strategic goals through cutting-edge use of social media and other electronic communications.
New Media for Advocacy
In 2010, NCL contracted with Fission Strategy to conduct research on how to increase the grassroots and grasstops advocacy base for adult education and literacy through new media. Based on this research, NCL Technology Coordinator Jackie Taylor worked to enhance NCL’s electronic presence across the USA and increase the number and effectiveness of grassroots adult education public policy advocates through the use of technology, including NCL’s web site, advocacy toolkit and blog, Capwiz system, webinars, and social media tools.
In recent years NCL Presidents Peter Waite (2009-2010), Heidi Silver-Pacuilla (2010-2011), and John Segota (2011) worked to implement key recommendations from strategic planning and bolster the NCL members’ efforts to advocate for adult education. Today, NCL continues to inform and shape federal adult education policy by developing and implementing advocacy and public awareness campaigns, including grassroots advocacy trainings in numerous states and at national adult education conferences. NCL has worked closely with Congressman Jared Polis (CO) and recently with Senators Patty Murray (WA) and Lamar Alexander (TN) in introducing and passing resolutions dedicating National Adult Education & Family Literacy Week. The annual congressional recognition of National Adult Education and Family Literacy Week in mid-September also coincides with NCL annual awards ceremonies held on Capitol Hill.
A New House Adult Literacy Caucus
In September 2010, NCL worked with Congressman Phil Roe (TN) and Congressman Dan Maffei (NY) to build a formal network of Members of Congress that could advocate for increased investments and reform of adult education. The House Adult Literacy Caucus was formed and quickly gained momentum, growing its membership, hosting caucus briefings, and securing commitments from Members of Congress to support funding for adult education. Congressman Ruben Hinojosa (TX) stepped up as Caucus Co-chair with Congressman Roe in the 112th Congress.
The Fourth Decade and Beyond
Current NCL President, Marty Finsterbusch, is the executive director of VALUEUSA, the nation’s first organization run by and for adult learners. Under his leadership, the Coalition seeks to identify and cultivate new champions on Capitol Hill for adult education and expand membership. As its fourth decade begins, NCL stands poised to honor its proud roots by once again shining a spotlight on literacy and raising its advocacy efforts for adult education to new heights.