Grassroots Groups and Libraries Join Forces

Local literacy initiatives can reap big results for children in underserved communities.

Literacy is a social equity issue.

The United States is in the midst of a national reading crisis. According to the U.S. Department of Education, approximately 130 million adults (i.e., more than half of the adult population) read below a sixth-grade reading level. This crisis impacts children, too, especially those who live in low-income households, have a disability, or are students of color. Educator shortages, underfunded school systems, book bans, and ongoing culture wars within schools are not offering relief.

Public libraries can help alleviate some of this problem by offering patrons access to a collection of resources, including social and literary programs. Many library programs encourage patrons to build healthy reading habits, while some provide free tutoring services. Libraries often collaborate with other grassroots organizations to facilitate more equitable reading experiences for members of their shared communities. This article features two organizations that bring books and families together to close the reading gap in the local communities.


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Literacy in the H.O.O.D.

Chrishawndra (“Chris”) Matthews, a single mother, is the founder and director of Literacy in the H.O.O.D., a nonprofit organization that serves lower-income communities in Cleveland, Ohio. Matthews founded her organization in 2017 because she did not find adequate reading and language programs for her then-three-year-old son Derrick Smith Jr.

Matthews explains that while the library is a safe place, the inner-city libraries do not offer residents supportive reading programs. She notes that these programs are offered at libraries located near the suburbs and other county libraries.

According to a 2004 Case Western Reserve University Report, 66 percent of adults in Cleveland are considered functionally illiterate. The results of this study were based on the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) assessment conducted in 2003. Study participants were asked to locate information and perform quantitative analysis using newspaper articles and other documents (i.e., bills or bus schedules).

Since its founding in 2017, Literacy in the H.O.O.D. has distributed over one hundred thousand donated books throughout Cleveland at pop-up book distribution events. Literacy in the H.O.O.D. brings free books to senior citizens and hosts free book fairs at local schools (for a fraction of the cost of similar fairs backed by publishing companies).

Most recently, in 2023, Literacy in the H.O.O.D. collaborated with Cleveland Reads and Cleveland Public Library to help the city of Cleveland collectively read one million books by the end of the calendar year. Cleveland surpassed their goal, reading a total of 1,476,215 books. 

Literacy in the H.O.O.D. is fundraising in 2024 to secure a brick-and-mortar location that will allow the organization to host reading classes for families. Once open, parents and guardians will be invited to visit and begin learning how to read to and with their children, and children will be able to visit after school to get help with homework and practice their reading skills.

Derrick, Matthews’ son, has his own initiative called Boys Do Read, which aims to instill and encourage reading among boys throughout Cleveland. Boys Do Read is funded by Literacy in the H.O.O.D. and hosts a monthly pop-up event encouraging boys to meet in a safe space to get excited about reading. (Here is a video of a past Boys Do Read event!)


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Idaho Commission for Libraries

In gathering feedback from library staff, program evaluations, and other sources, the Idaho Commission for Libraries (ICfL) understands Idaho families would benefit from literacy-focused events. Kristina Taylor, Outreach & Family Engagement Consultant for the Idaho Commission for Libraries, discusses the Family Reading Week program:

“For 26 years, the [ICfL] has supported public, school, and special libraries to participate in Family Reading Week (FRW). Currently, the ICfL supports 100 libraries through an open registration process. The spots are filled on a first-come, first-served basis. Therefore, each year, the list of participating libraries is different. The participating libraries receive resources from the ICfL, such as paperback books, bookmarks, activity booklets, etc. These resources vary each year depending on cooperating partner organizations and available funding. For example, in 2022, the FRW theme was ‘Wild Wonders,’ and the ICfL partnered with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. The ICfL printed 8,000 copies of their Idaho State Emblem issue of Wildlife Express magazine. The ICfL provides additional digital resources, the development of theme and related artwork, promotional materials, and early literacy support materials.”

Taylor says that many Idaho libraries are unable to implement this event without the resources provided by the ICfL. This event often introduces new families to local libraries for the first time. Before this introduction, many families are unaware of the free educational resources the library provides. Taylor says, “This program gets kids and parents started with one free book and an introduction to the wonderful world of libraries.”

Several activities occur during Idaho Family Reading Week (FRW) as each participating library creates a unique program based on library and community interest, location, staffing, partners, etc. The FRW theme changes each year, and libraries create programs that align with that year’s theme. Each year, the FRW program involves children, their caregivers, and early literacy activities, but the actual library events are unique to that library.


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Financial Disparities in Communities Impact Libraries

Literacy is an essential human right, but 2019 literacy gap statistics indicate ties between socioeconomics and literacy. In short, illiteracy is more likely to impact low-income households. Poverty is often linked to low academic outcomes, and dyslexia—a learning disability that affects a child’s ability to read and spell—has become one of the latest social justice issues in Black and Latino communities. According to a 1996 IEA Reading Literacy study, 61 percent of America’s low-income children are growing up in homes without books.

Libraries can offer some support to patrons who struggle with literacy; the services libraries provide can vary across communities based on community needs, public interest, and what funding is available to the library. Although public libraries are free for patrons, they still require funding to stay in operation. A library’s ability to provide for its community depends heavily upon the financial funding the library receives.

According to a 2018 summary report generated by the American Library Association, Public Library Association, OCLC, and WebJunction, most library funding comes from local resources like city and county taxes. Communities with lower incomes have fewer financial resources available to give to their local library (as compared to communities with higher incomes).

EveryLibrary explains, “. . . staff salaries, books, other library materials, office supplies, and utilities are funded primarily by city and county taxes . . . municipal taxes fund little more than essential services.” Library programs are usually covered by individual, foundation, and corporate donors. Funding often fluctuates annually based on what is available in local budgets.

Future Considerations

The national reading crisis is a multifaceted problem that requires a multilayered solution. Equity in literacy requires not only that all persons have access to resource materials but also that all persons be encouraged and supported to reach their literacy goals.

A person’s socioeconomic status may hinder one’s ability to achieve their goals, so community members from all socioeconomic backgrounds are encouraged to support local libraries and other literacy work collaboratively. Libraries and grassroots organizations can facilitate access to literary resources, but community participation and support are also required if the nation has any chance of resolving its reading crisis. 



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