keith and_taubmanDetroit, we have a problem.

Far too many adults in our region can’t read or do not read well enough to get a job that can sustain a family. 

It’s a big problem that runs just underneath many other, more visible problems — poverty, economic growth and education levels, to name a few. But it’s a challenge that, together, we can solve. We should and we must, for we will all benefit, now and for generations to come.

About a year ago, we were approached about a new effort to dramatically improve the level of adult literacy in the Detroit area. With Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, we enthusiastically signed on as honorary chairs of Reading Works, launched last fall by the Detroit Free Press, Wayne State University and an array of partners committed to a brighter tomorrow for this community we love.

We are sure Reading Works is going to make a difference in thousands of lives. We have personally invested in the program, and we hope you find a way to do the same.

For this column, we tried to imagine what it’s like to be unable to read.

Frankly, that was very difficult. Reading has been part of our lives for as long as we can remember. Our parents read to us. We remember turning the pages of our favorite books as children. Today, reading is a constant — newspapers, books, periodicals, documents involving business and the law, and, yes, even at our ages, computer screens. And we still read stories that take us to faraway places or into the lives of wonderful people, real and imagined. 

But we know that for thousands in our area, words represent only a struggle, an embarrassing situation they try to hide, often for years. A study conducted over a decade ago by the National Institute for Literacy estimated that 47% of Detroit’s adult residents were basically unable to read and write effectively in everyday situations. That is a shocking finding, and there’s nothing to suggest it has gotten any better.

  Think for a minute what it must be like to be confronted with a job application or a set of directions or a basic contract that you cannot understand. Think about how that would limit your ability to provide for children who depend on you. For thousands of people, it means turning to public assistance, because they have nowhere else to turn. 

Yes, that system sustains their families in the barest way, but it also costs them independence, opportunities and that one thing we all want: hope that their children will have a better life.

We are frustrated, as you are, by this all-too-common reality. But we are also inspired by those who do enter literacy programs as adults and turn their lives around — people such as Luvanis O’Neal, a woman profiled in a Free Press section last fall devoted to Reading Works.

Luvanis summoned the courage to admit she needed help. She was so ashamed of her secret that, while working at a McDonald’s cash register, she had to memorize the keys because she couldn’t read the words on the menu. 

She entered the Mercy Education Project, one of nine literacy agencies currently partnering with Reading Works. She spent two-plus years learning to read, and she got her GED. Now her 8-year-old daughter can get her mother’s help with homework. And Luvanis can do so much more with her own life. 

Reading Works holds the promise of helping many thousands of people. It’s a coordinated effort to raise money and connect a variety of social services to support well-tested local programs that improve adult reading levels. The graduates of these programs gain a priceless tool to improve their lives. But just as important, if each of these adults has in turn a positive influence on one or two or three children, we can start to break the cycle of illiteracy that has been such a problem for so long. 

It’s clear to us that boosting literacy rates is a logical, necessary step to improve the social and economic prospects for Detroit’s future. We support the Reading Works strategy to enlist the community, partner with more agencies over time, and create so many more success stories.

There’s no question this is a daunting task. But can you think of a more important way to make a difference for our area, for our workforce, for our children?

Over our many years of friendship, we have worked together on a lot of significant issues, often involving education. Reading Works may be the most significant of all. 

We invite you to join us. 

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