According to the United Nations, human rights are defined as “...inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex,
nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status... include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more. Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.”
When we think of human rights we tend to think of food, water, shelter, but we historically have not considered literacy. It’s time to shift our thinking and include literacy as a human right afforded to all, because to lack literacy denies access to the basic things needed to survive in today’s society.
In the film “The Right To Read,” literacy rights activist Kareem Weaver stated, “Our country has always prioritized reading. Always. Either to intentionally include or exclude certain people.”
Literacy has been a tool used to catapult predominantly white males toward success, while simultaneously used as a weapon to oppress by denying others access to literacy, such as the criminalization of reading for African Americans in the United States slave codes. Later, forcing Black voters to demonstrate the ability to read in order to access the right to vote, while simultaneously denying education to the Black community; — a powerful tool of oppression inflicted on Black Americans. A more hidden version of this continues today in the literacy data of K-12 public education by racial demographics where there is clear disproportionality of BIPOC students who are multiple grade levels below in reading than those of their white peers. BIPOC students are graduating functionally illiterate and are
dropping out of K-12 education at disproportionate rates.
The ability to read is not predetermined by race or ethnicity. Instead there is an intentional, historical and political denial of access to literacy that continues to target BIPOC students generation after generation. By viewing literacy as a Human Right, we do the necessary work to reverse the centuries of harm and weaponization of literacy in this country. We intentionally create paths to reading built on justice, making what has been wronged, right again.
The Nation’s Report Card (a congressionally mandated public education project) analyzed the national K-12 testing data and found that there was no significant change in the score gaps of student demographics since 1992, meaning that while overall scores fluctuated over time, the gaps between demographics remained the same. This provides important context for the 2015 data from the American Council on Education which determined that more than one-third of all Black, Hispanic/Latino and American Indian/Alaska Native 12th graders fell below the basic achievement level for reading compared to one in five White and Asian 12th graders. This means the achievement gap is disproportionate by race/ethnicity and the gap is consistent over the course of decades. This data is pre-COVID therefore the cause for this achievement gap is not the pandemic.
What this tells us is that despite decades of talking points by departments of education and politicians, as a nation we still have not addressed literacy as a fundamental human right afforded to all people, and prioritized access to functional literacy for all. Our country has treated literacy as something that some get to have, and others simply do not. Those who do not are trapped in poverty cycles, pipelined to prison systems to be used as unpaid labor through the 13th Amendment, are houseless, suffer from higher rates of depression and are otherwise denied the right to freedom, work, education and the necessary access to basic survival that literacy brings people.
The inability to read makes it difficult to even be poor, especially in a pandemic era when access to services moved to predominantly (and during COVID exclusively) online written formats instead of in-person case management. If one cannot read at a functioning level, how does one apply for food stamps, MediCare, housing subsidy, food banks, shelters, disability, unemployment and cash assistance? No matter how much a person wants to work, how do they fill out the most basic job application? Then there is the shame that is attached to the inability to read, shame that drives so many people to desperately avoid any situation where they are expected to read and write in front of others, shame that can even lead to suicide. Those who cannot read suffer in silence not having basic needs met. They suffer because as a society we have failed them and we didn’t have to. We have had the solution all along, but as a nation have chosen to ignore it. The time has come to embrace the solution, embrace the science of reading and invest in equity and justice work.
Justice requires we let go of ego and defensiveness and make decisions not based on fear of blame, but instead based on compassion. We must use the science of reading which is centuries old. We must invest in literacy in our K-12 schools and in adult education for the adults whom the nation failed and denied the literacy they have the right to obtain. While building child and adult literacy, we must provide the necessary support to ensure that those who lack the ability to read are able to fully access public services. Our starting point in this work is to declare literacy a human right, and we are starting that work here in Sonoma County. At the June 27, 2023 meeting of the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights, the commission approved a resolution declaring literacy a human right.
This resolution will move forward to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors for approval at the August 22, 2023 meeting, in time for National Literacy Month in September. I encourage the community to attend and to support the right to read for all as a human right. Let’s do better than equity, let’s do justice work ensuring everyone is able to access all that the right to read ensures.