Literacy and Social Justice, 50 Years On

The sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis took place 50 years ago, but the literacy issues at its heart are still with us, as Courtland Milloy of the Washington Post points out.
[The Memphis sanitation strike was a fight for better pay and working conditions. Now workers need to fight for better training, 1 February 2018]

In 1968, sanitation work was one of the few options available to those with limited literacy skills. Milloy describes Alvin Turner, who paid for his three children’s college educations on a sanitation worker’s income. Turner himself “didn’t have a lot of opportunities for formal education,” Milloy writes. “He had to take a job with low pay and high risk.”

Yet even the limited opportunities that were available to Turner have become scarce 50 years later. Milloy quotes Cleophus Smith, a Memphis sanitation worker since the 1960s.

“Years and years ago,” Smith recalled, “I told a co-worker, ‘Look, the day is going to come when we are going to have to know how to read and write because if we don’t we are not going to be able to hold a position on these garbage trucks.’ ” And sure enough, Smith said, “We had to take a skill test a few weeks ago, six to nine sheets of questions you had to read and answer. The next thing I know, these young guys are whispering to me: ‘Doc, can you help me? What’s the answer to this one?’ I don’t blame them for not being able to read. Nobody taught them.”

“To operate equipment on virtually any job today means being able to read directions,” Milloy writes. “Too many adults still have not acquired that basic skill. …If federal officials ever make good on their pledge to spend billions if not a trillion dollars to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, local officials need to be ready.”

“Tough as the fight for social and economic justice may be, it’s a whole lot harder if you’re illiterate.”

The Adult Literacy Caucus Is Growing

Thanks to the efforts of our dedicated adult education advocates in Pennsylvania, Congressman Ryan Costello (R-PA-06) has joined the House Adult Literacy Caucus. Welcome, Representative Costello!

For more information on the Adult Literacy Caucus, visit the Caucus page on the NCL website at
If your Representative is not listed there, contact her/his staff today to promote participation in this important way of supporting adult literacy and adult education.

Literacy Leadership Awards 2017

The NCL Literacy Leadership Awards event on October 4 was a great success, attended by numerous Congressional staffers and representatives of organizations across the adult literacy spectrum. Four awards were given:

Representative Rosa DeLauro (CT), for her long-standing dedication to our nation’s adult literacy and language programs. The Congresswoman was unable to attend the awards event in person, as she was busy with budget debate on the House floor at the time. Her legislative aide Brandon Honoré accepted the award on her behalf. The award was presented by Judy Mortrude of CLASP, the nominating organization, and Deborah Kennedy, NCL president.


DeLauro Award
Brendan Honore receives the award on behalf of Congresswoman DeLauro


Dr. Stephen Reder, Professor Emeritus of Applied Linguistics, Portland State University, for his tireless advocacy for adult learners and the field of adult education. Dr. Reder was not able to attend the event. He was nominated by both ProLiteracy and Margaret Patterson of Research Allies for Lifelong Learning, and his award was presented by Michele Diecuch of ProLiteracy.

M Diecuch photo
Michele Diecuch presents the Literacy Leadership Award to Steve Reder.

The Minnesota ABE Teaching and Learning Advancement System (ATLAS) at Hamline University, for its innovative, practitioner-centered program that provides quality in-service professional development for the ABE/ESOL workforce. Silja Kallenbach of World Education, the nominating organization, presented the award to Patsy Egan and Marisa Squadrito Geisler of ATLAS.

ATLAS award photo
Patsy Egan and Marisa Geisler of ATLAS with Silja Kallenbach of World Education

Sharon Darling, Founder and President, the National Center for Families Learning, for her key role in recognizing the critical link between parents’ education and children’s learning. Sharon spoke movingly of the importance of high quality, accessible family-based education. Representative John Yarmuth of Kentucky came straight to the event when debate on the House floor had ended, and arrived just in time to congratulate Sharon in person.

Yarmuth Darling photo
Congressman Yarmuth congratulates Sharon Darling.