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Communique: Wiley Cash & Yasmin Tomkinson Contemplate The Value Of Literacy | Literacy Luncheon 6/14

Mallory Brady Cash
Wiley Cash

Cape Fear Literacy Council (CFLC) holds its 9th annual Literacy Luncheon this Thursday, June 14. Students will present a Readers' Theatre performance, and best-selling author Wiley Cash offers the keynote address.

Listen to Wiley Cash and CFLC Executive Director Yasmin Tomkinson above; see our extended conversation below.

The Luncheon runs 11:30am-1:00pm at Pine Valley United Methodist Church on Shipyard Blvd. Ticketsare still available. 

Yasmin:   This year is our ninth annual luncheon. We are very excited about it. The theme that runs through every element is perseverance. So that is the focus of our luncheon. But actually the other thing that is true about our luncheon is it's all about Wilmington. Our readers' theater performance, which is done by some of our adult learners, is about Althea Gibson and the title of it is "From Wilmington to Wimbledon." It is very engaging and entertaining and really informative as well. And then our keynote speaker this year is Wiley Cash.

Gina:      Wiley Cash, you are obviously a successful author and a professor. I'm wondering what kind of message you have for the literacy council luncheon?

Wiley:     Well, we're, no matter where my wife and I have lived, Mallory, we've always supported two organizations, in whatever community we've been in: public radio and literacy counsels, or literacy projects, because we believe in facts and dissemination of facts. And we also believe in helping people parse through those facts and read those facts and learn those facts. And in the state of North Carolina, there are estimates as high as 10 percent of adults have trouble reading prescriptions, reading rental agreements, helping their children with their homework ... and what the Cape for literacy council does, which is so amazing, is kind of bring those adults out of the shadows that can be very shameful and an embarrassing. And they've created an environment where people willingly go into the door and say, I need help. I need help doing this thing. And so that's what I really want to discuss at the luncheon on Thursday is just the intense bravery of these people who persist and come and say I need help. I need assistance. I mean, that's braver than anything we could do on this side of the educational experience, I think.

Gina:      I know that the literacy council addresses multiple types of illiteracy--or multiple types of literacy. Let's say that. Yeah. Is "illiteracy" a bad word yet?

Yasmin:   I think it has a connotation, a very negative connotation, and it, it makes it sound very extreme. Most of our students, we serve about 500 adults each year. We have an adult literacy program in English also. We have an English as a second language program. Most of our students,  71 percent last year tested below a fourth grade level, but all of those folks have lots of life skills. They are adults who are working in jobs, raising families, participating in church. I feel like "illiteracy" has a connotation of somehow not being able to do things. Whereas, you know, the basically our students aren't confident, they're not comfortable either with reading or speaking, communicating in English and  we want to close that gap for them.

Gina:      There's always some level of literacy.  It's really about the scale of where are you.

Yasmin:   And there's health literacy, there's computer literacy, there's math literacy, and so we are trying to address all of those things because we're able to personalize the education that we provide. So if an adult comes to us, longterm goal to get a GED, but along the way has to read a prescription, like Wiley said, actually it's 50 or 60 percent of adults cannot read a prescription. It's amazing, right? That's nationally.  So we help them with the practical things in their lives along the way as they are trying to achieve academic or other personal goals.

Gina:      When you have like an author, like, like, like Wiley cash, I'm somebody who has used language to tell a story to tell stories and where it becomes a part of your life that is, it's enriching for you as a writer. It's enriching for the reader who is reading at a, at a level where it's not just about survival. It's not just about reading prescriptions or knowing what the road signs say, but it's kind of going up on that Maslow's hierarchy of enrichment.

Yasmin:   That's a great point actually, because I think there are a fair number of people who think, oh, can't read for pleasure, they can't enjoy books and just kind of get swept away in a story, get involved in it. But you're right for us are our, most of our students are trying to read for survival for uh, for functional purposes. But actually Wiley, one of our students has started reading one of your books and loves it and he and he and his tutor are working on it together. They're finding it accessible and she can help him navigate the parts that he doesn't get. And he's really excited to meet you and wants to get his book signed at the luncheon.

Gina:      Yeah. And I think that you don't have to be literate to love story and to understand story. It's built into us.

Wiley:     Speaking to different kinds of literacy. I think there's as Yasmin was saying, I think civic literacy is a big part of it and I think being part of a community and entering into dialogue, telling stories to your children or to your grandchildren and to your colleagues or coworkers. And that's kinda how I write like I write because I grew up hearing stories from people who weren't ... you know, my grandparents weren't incredibly literate people.  My parents didn't grow up with books in their home. I was very fortunate that I grew up with books in our home and it, and it made me who I am. But when I think about writing, you know, I have a PhD, I teach at UNC Asheville, but when I think about writing, and the stories that I want to tell, I'm thinking about my grandparents.

I'm thinking about people who told stories to me orally and I'm trying to capture that oral tradition on the page and use the diction and a narrative style that captures how we tell stories in North Carolina. Not how we write stories, but how we tell stories.

Yasmin:   But I think that's beautiful because even at the Literacy Council, once students get beyond the fear, which is the first stage, and then start to learn and develop the skill set to be able to read or understand or communicate in English more effectively and get past the, you know, get involved in the functional side of it, there are lots who realize that they love the story that they can get caught up in a, we have a gentleman reading To Kill a Mockingbird. He just wanted to feel more educated. We have folks that we're, you know, so we have people at all different levels. And our ESL students represent 43 different countries and we have folks from refugees who never got a chance for any education all the way up to master's degrees from their native countries. We have people at all different levels and backgrounds and the enrichment that comes from understanding a story I think is accessible in any culture, in any language.  and we're just trying to help elevate their levels so that they can enjoy exactly what you're saying.

Wiley:     And what I think is so amazing about adults who choose to seek a literacy program and take the steps in the door, which I don't think I would be brave enough to do something like that, is that they're super literate in other parts of their lives. In their jobs and their interpersonal relationships and their churches and their civic organizations. And then you have these people who are approaching English as a second language who are completely literate in a different language. And I think so often we see people as, as people who are in desperate need of our help are in desperate need of our charity are in desperate need of our pity. Aw, they're not literate. But in reality, they're super literate, but not everyone's literate in the same way as. And what literacy council's do is they bring people in and they create these welcoming environments that say, you know, here's a different way you can be literate, here's a different way you can navigate the world. Here's a different way you can navigate this new world that you found yourself in.

Gina:      I agree. And I, I mean in terms of the way, the skills that people have in their management of the world that is so text based are skills that we don't have. To me it's a lot like people who can read music and people who can't.

Yasmin:   That's a great example.

Gina:      Yeah, I grew up learning, I learned to read music when I was really young and then when I got to be in college, I started to play around with some people who were not music readers, they were just musicians, right? And, and I would. And I was stuck. I was, I was illiterate in improvisation, musical improvisation. I couldn't approach it that way. And I had to let go of all the learning, you know what I mean? So that I could just be with the music in the way that they were.

Yasmin:   That's a great comparison. It really is.

Wiley:     That story reminds me, there's a writer from from North Carolina named Ron Rash who has fans all over the country and especially down here in Wilmington. When he was a little boy, he has a story that he wanted his grandfather, who was a mill worker from Appalachia, he wanted his grandfather to read The Cat in the Hat to him and his grandfather would read the Cat in the Hat. And he was like, it was so exciting. It was a different story every time.

And then once he got old enough, he, he realized that's not what that word says, but he understood that his grandfather was able to improvise these wild stories and so it showed him what creativity can do and what kinds of fixes creativity can get you out of. And it's a whole different type of literacy. And I imagine that Ron probably relies his grandfather's approach to literacy much more than he relies-his mother, I think was a school teacher-much more on his mother's approach to literacy.

Gina:      Yup.  That's cool stuff. Now let's, let's say folks who want to come to the luncheon, coming to the luncheon is a way to support the Literacy Council.

Yasmin:   So this event, it's one of my favorites because it really showcases our programs and it highlights our students. There'll be student testimonials, but it is a fundraiser. Ultimately our goal is to raise unrestricted dollars for our programs. Most of the grants that we write have a lot of restrictions attached to them. So our events are very important source of income. And this year we are very lucky we fought hard and saved our federal funding, but next year we anticipate that almost disappearing. So right now, we're not in a dangerous place right now, but we want to prevent that from happening in the future. So I'm every bit of community support we can get and we get a lot.  I mean, don't get me wrong, we're so grateful to this community for how much they already do for the Literacy Council through donations, through I'm having events for us through supporting us through volunteering for us. I mean, we are very, very, very lucky to be in Wilmington.  But it's not going away. And so we need to be to, you know, to be prepared for the future.

Gina:      When you say it's not going away, do you mean that the work, that you still have work to do?

Yasmin:   Oh yeah. I mean, unfortunately, the problem of adult of low adult literacy is not going to go away. And the challenge for every nonprofit to find funding every year is, it's getting more competitive. And while we do a good job I think of collaborating with other organizations ultimately we start every year at zero and we have to raise our funds every year to make sure that we can keep our doing our good work.

Gina:      What is your, what is the story that you tell to people that makes them with all of the competition? There are a lot of money of nonprofits. Why should, why should we support the little, you know, if I have 100 bucks in my pocket and I have to make choices. What is it that the literacy council is going to do for for my community or for my life?

Yasmin:   What a good question. It's a little hard to explain because adult literacy is an underlying factor for almost every social problem you can imagine. The number one determinant in a child's academic success is his or her's mother's ability to read.  Healthcare costs are escalated because people don't know how to interpret medical information.  So the costs of low literacy are astronomical. There's such a direct correlation between incarceration and low literacy, right? So everything that plagues our or many things that plague our society, addiction. When people struggle with understanding, when they feel left out, when they feel marginalized you know, they may turn to - we had a wonderful student for years. He had been a high school athlete. He was a star and he got passed through for everything. The coaches made sure his homework got done for him. He never had a problem. Then he blew out his knee right after graduating. And that was basically sort of the end of everything he knew and he turned to alcohol and then to drugs. And when he came to us, he was in his recovery process and he realized at the core of it, he couldn't read and he needed that in his life. And a lot of it was he wanted to read the Bible, which was a beautiful thing and we were really able to help him. But literacy, adult literacy is an underlying factor in really every challenge that we face.

Wiley:     And I think in terms of, uh, of, uh, of a local literacy council, you, if you make a donation to the Cape for literacy council, you're guaranteed that your money is going to stay in the Cape Fear region. And you can't say that about all charities. And I'm not, you know, saying to turn against any, any charities, I'm not, I'm not suggesting that at all. Sending also to keep in mind is the return on your investment. When you invest in literacy in your community, you're giving somebody a tool, you're not giving them sustenance to sustain them. You're giving a tool to elevate them, for them to move forward. And it's a great financial return on your dollar and your own community. I cannot think of a better investment.

Yasmin:   It ripples through their families, their through their kids' lives, through their work, through their churches.

Gina:      Some people may want to help, but maybe they don't have any money right now. How can they help?

Yasmin:   You know, nonprofits tend to look at people for, you know, we, we look at time, talent and treasure and treasure is wonderful, but talent and time are equally wonderful. We are truly a volunteer driven organization. Each year we have about 200 instructional volunteers who teach one on one teach small classes. They do have to go through pretty rigorous training, but it's excellent. It's very high quality. It's very interactive so it's fun.  and then we have another, almost probably more than 200 people who help us with administrative projects, special events you know, building, you know, building and grounds kinds of things. And so we are, we have a small staff that leverages the talents of this incredible community and the literacy council is a great place to get involved and to be, be part of making a real difference in Wilmington.

Gina:      If I, if I wanted to do that, what, what would be my first step?

Yasmin:   So you can call us at 910-251-0911. You can visit our website, which is cfliteracy.org. We have volunteer orientations every month we have tutor trainings about 10 times, 12 times a year between the two programs.  There's a different training for Esl, adult literacy.  you could just come by and we will, you know, we have some forms that we would have you fill out and make sure that we're matching you up with the right kinds of opportunities that we have.

Gina:      And Wiley, at the luncheon on Thursday, will you have some books?

Wiley:     Yes. Pomegranate books from here in Wilmington, local bookstore will be on hand to sell copies of all three of my books. My most recent novel, The Last Ballad, which was about a mill worker who swept up in the textile mills striking Gastonia, 1929, will be on sale. It just came out in paperback on Tuesday. So the paperback will be there.

Yasmin:   It's a great book.

Gina:      And coincidentally ...

Yasmin:   So the sort of amazing tie in in all of this is that the founder of the Literacy Council, of Cape Fear Literacy Council, is Miss Granger, who before starting the literacy council, her first career was working in a mill.  And she did that until the mill closed. And she said that she knew so many people who struggled with reading and she prayed and prayed on it and decided to get into the literacy work that was starting to happen in this community because she really wanted to be able to help the folks that are very much the subject of Wiley's books.