Literacy Beyond Literacy: A Civil Society Engagement, Dr. Robert Zuber

25 Apr

Editor’s Note:  These remarks were given at the Leonard Tourne Gallery in New York City, run by longtime friends of our office, which recently featured the art of Christel Ibsen who graciously arranged for this discussion. 

Global Action is pleased to follow Faye Lippitt, director of the organization Literacy is for Everyone (LIFE). As noted on the LIFE website ( “Literacy goes beyond an individual’s ability to read, write and communicate well – it encompasses an individual’s capacity to use these essential skills to shape the course of his or her own life.”

This sentiment was echoed by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, also quoted on the LIFE site, who I was privileged to meet on two occasions. Freire maintained that literacy involves both “reading the word and reading the world.”  Faye helps people to read the word.  Global Action encourages people to read the world, helping them connect effectively with others across lines of religion and ethnicity, protect their own rights while cherishing the rights of others, and find the most appropriate resources and other support as they face life’s emergencies, including grave illness, unemployment, drought and violent abuse.

The configuration of this “other” literacy changes from place to place. In Central America, literacy means in part learning how to petition the government for a voice in national development priorities.  In Central Africa it means in part learning how to develop civil society that can communicate effectively with funding sources and engage global policy advocates.   In Central Europe it means in part learning how to open the hearts of neighbors to the many migrants who risked their lives in the hope of saving themselves from numbing poverty and terrorist violence.

Global Action assists with these and many other “literacies.” We recognize that all of our tasks in the world have a primary vocabulary to master as well as skills to practice.  For us, the focus of literacy must remain relevant to what people are trying to accomplish for themselves, their families, their communities.  Literacy even has a special relevance as we (with others) try to get governments to open themselves to different ways of solving some very difficult and complex political and social problems, including problems related to the proliferation of illicit weapons.

The world is indeed becoming much more complex and stressful.  There is more for us to do and we seem to have less and less control over the economic, political and environmental factors that both threaten and shape our choices and actions.  In trying to cope and make meaningful change, all of us have so much more to learn, so much we need to practice, so many vocabularies of which we need to gain some working knowledge.  The burdens of literacy are ever-greater.

Sometimes we have to return to basic principles. I spent this morning, as I spend many mornings, in the Security Council.  Today the Crown Prince of Jordan joined with many Foreign Ministers to discuss how to keep young people from being recruited into extremist groups. Some of diplomats talked about how vulnerable young people need to read more about human rights to appreciate better their own advantages and responsibilities but also to understand and highlight the twisted values and priorities of the terrorists.  For others, a different kind of light went on.  Why would suchy a young person want to read about human rights if they have limited skill in reading or any real hope for having their own rights respected?

There is indeed a basic literacy, LIFE’s literacy, which forms the basis for the many other “literacies” that allow us to appreciate art and beauty, participate fully in our political systems, bring abusers and other criminals to justice, even cope with the frustrations of airlines and cell phone companies.   All of these literacies help to create a world of greater competence and trust, a world that our young people can better believe in.

As Faye helped me to understand, Global Action is also in the literacy business, a literacy pointing towards a robust engagement with social and political life based on a prior literacy of the word.

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