The National Coalition for Literacy traces 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 in Washington, DC, to raise awareness of adult literacy 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 & 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 on national 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 in the late 1980’s 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 organization, 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 the McGraw-Hill Foundation, the Coalition functioned with a minimum of staff while increasing its roster of member organizations.

The Coalition’s Third Decade

In the early 2000’s, NCL continued advocating for adult education and worked on building its capacity and expanding its reach nationally.  In a September 2002 evaluation report, The National Coalition for Literacy: Options for the Future, Forrest Chisman of the Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy observed that the NCL’s ability to fulfill its mission was substantially hindered by its lack of formal structure. Acting on this observation, in November 2002 NCL members unanimously approved a resolution in favor of incorporation. 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 to 2009, NCL received 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. NCL also hosted several public policy forums on adult education issues for advocates and legislative staff and met its strategic goals of disseminating information to the field, forming new alliances, and enhancing public policy and advocacy efforts through cutting-edge use of social media and other electronic communications.

New Media and New Recognition

In 2010, NCL contracted with Fission Strategy (now Do Big Things) 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 worked to enhance its electronic presence across the United States and increase the number and effectiveness of grassroots adult education public policy advocates through the use of technology, including the NCL website, advocacy toolkit and blog, a Capwiz (now CQ Engage) system, webinars, and social media tools.

In the early 2010’s, NCL continued 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 also worked with then-Congressman Jared Polis (CO) and Senators Patty Murray (WA) and Lamar Alexander (TN) in introducing and passing resolutions dedicating National Adult Education and Family Literacy Week. The annual congressional recognition of National AEFL Week in September coincides with NCL’s annual Literacy Leadership Awards ceremony held on Capitol Hill.

The House Adult Literacy Caucus

In 2010, NCL worked with Congressman Phil Roe (R-TN) and Congressman Dan Maffei (D-NY) to build a formal bipartisan 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 (D-TX) stepped up as Caucus Co-chair with Congressman Roe in the 112th Congress, and Congressman John Yarmuth (D-KY) became Caucus Co-Chair in the 114th Congress upon Congressman Hinojosa’s retirement.

Ongoing Activities

Throughout the decade since 2010, the Coalition has continued to identify and cultivate new champions for adult education and family literacy on Capitol Hill and to encourage adult educators to become active advocates for their learners and their field. Moving into the 2020’s, NCL is poised to increase its visibility and effectiveness through extended outreach, strengthened partnerships, and creative uses of technology tools.

With thanks to Sherrie Claiborne, Dale Lipschultz, Margaret Patterson, Marsha Tait, Jackie Taylor, and Peter Waite.

NCL Past Presidents

2016-2020Deborah Kennedy
2013-2016Jeff Carter
2011-2013Marty Finsterbusch
2011John Segota
2010-2011Heidi Silver-Pacuilla
2009-2010Peter Waite
2006-2009Sherrie Nevils Claiborne
2003-2006Dale Lipschultz
2001-2003Marsha Tait
1999-2001Lennox McLendon
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