As Vanderbilt University Press quickly approaches its 80th anniversary in 2020, we’ve been reflecting on our history as a press, as well as thinking about what we want to focus on to build our community of readers and friends in the future. As part of our anniversary celebrations, we’re partnering with and spotlighting some important local organizations, like the Nashville Adult Literacy Council (NALC). Through its mission of teaching reading and English skills, the NALC has built—and continues to build—a strong community of adult learners and tutors in Nashville from a variety of cultural backgrounds.
The Literacy Landscape in Nashville
Currently, one in eight people in Nashville can’t read at a functional level. 17% of Nashvillians speak a primary language other than English at home. With those statistics driving its mission, the Nashville Adult Literacy Council—with the help of hundreds of volunteer tutors—offers adults in the Nashville area an opportunity to learn the reading, writing, and English skills they need.
“Literacy is the foundation for a better life—whatever that means for you,” says Kim Karesh, CEO of the Nashville Adult Literacy Council. “Not being able to read makes it really difficult for people to do—what we would consider to be—simple things, like read a medication label, apply for a job, or even just read a book to a child.”
According to Karesh, the average NALC student is 30 to 40 years old, and the most common reasons learners cite for signing up for the program are to be able to get a better job or to help their children with school. For adult students who have children, learning to read is essential for being able to help their children succeed in school. Karesh cites a study showing that a child born to illiterate parents has a 72% chance of scoring at the lowest reading levels. She also emphasizes that adult students often experience shame and stigma surrounding illiteracy. And studies have shown that illiteracy is costly not just to individuals, but also to society at large, contributing directly to unemployment, crime rates, and health care costs.
The Nashville Adult Literacy Council serves a dual role in Nashville, offering reading and writing help for US-born adults (including high school equivalency), as well as assistance for adult immigrants learning English. As Karesh points out, the needs of English-language learner students are as diverse as the people themselves; some students were illiterate in their home country, while others were seasoned professionals. US-born students come from a variety of backgrounds as well. NALC offers learners the opportunity not just to change their lives by learning transformative skills, but also to be a part of a community of individuals who come from many different backgrounds yet are joined by a common, fundamental need.
Building a Network of Volunteers
The NALC program relies greatly on volunteer tutors to achieve its mission. Volunteers are able to choose between two different tutoring programs: the One-on-One program and the Start Now program. In the One-on-One program, after training, a tutor is matched with a specific learner, whom they will work with on a regular basis for six months. In the Start Now program (which serves learners who are on a waiting list for the One-on-One program), a tutor works with a different literacy or English learner each time, for as many or as few one-hour appointments as are convenient.
According to Kim Karesh, NALC always has a long list of learners waiting to be paired with a volunteer tutor—the wait can be as long as a year for NALC’s services. Currently, she notes, the organization has a great need for volunteers, as more than 250 people are on the waitlist for services at the NALC office in Antioch, an area in southeast Nashville that’s home to a sizable portion of the city’s immigrant population.
Karesh underscores that NALC’s greatest needs are for donations and volunteer tutors in Antioch. “Volunteering takes an hour or two a week,” she says. “Come with patience and an encouraging attitude. We’ll give you the training and support that you need from there.”
Building Community, Word by Word—and Dish by Dish
Each November, the Nashville Adult Literacy Council hosts its annual Learner & Tutor Banquet, where learners, volunteers, family, and friends of NALC come together to enjoy each other’s company and to celebrate the successes and achievements of students and tutors. The event is sponsored by local organizations, including Vanderbilt UP’s parent institution, Vanderbilt University.
The banquet consists of a free, come-as-you-are, potluck dinner, and Karesh says it’s her favorite thing that NALC does each year: “‘Potluck’ takes on a whole new meaning when you invite 250 people from 20 different countries.” She emphasizes the tangible feeling of community at the banquet, noting that the event, which always takes place the Thursday before Thanksgiving, sets the perfect tone for the holiday season: “We give out some awards, share a few stories, and notice everything we have in common.”