Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Literacy Roundtable in Chicago shows Funding to be Major Concern

This morning I attended a Literacy Roundtable, hosted by Jeanne Myers, Executive Director of Working in the Schools (WITS). The aim was to encourage programs to get to know each other, identify common challenges, then work in collaboration to overcome those challenges.

In attendance were many programs listed in the Chicago Programs Library and who participate in Tutor/Mentor Conferences. There were also a few programs that I was not familiar with, since they focus on adult literacy, or deliver their services primarily in schools.

The roster included

Literacy Works
Bookworm Angels
Jumpstart Program at DePaul
Howard Area Community Center*
Reading in Motion*
East Village Youth Program*
Literacy Volunteers of Illinois*
Literature for All of Us*
Cabrini Connections
Chicago Lights*
Neighborhood Writing Alliance
Youth Guidance*

*in Chicago Program Links library

Everyone was asked to share what they do and identify challenges. A majority listed lack of funding, and “too much to do with limited staff” as the primary challenge. Those working with Chicago Public Schools noted how difficult it was to get response from the Central Office and Administrators, and how it was more productive to work directly with teachers.

A few shared frustration about how donors expectations were not aligned with the long-term nature of the tutoring/mentoring programs many of us lead. A few talked about how we “Try to sneak literacy and learning into” our programs and “trick kids to be excited” about learning. One leader said we’re “inching toward things where they (donors) expect very measurable fireworks.”

Everyone agreed that this type of networking was valuable, and WITS suggested such events be held quarterly. I urged them to consider holding their November and May meetings within the Tutor/Mentor Conference structure, rather than creating a separate set of meetings at different places. The goal of the conference is not just to bring people together, but to build public awareness that draws volunteers and donors to tutor/mentor programs all over the city. As programs see this in their self-interest, we hope more will become strategically involved with the conference and activities around the conference that increase visibility for tutor/mentor programs.

One leader suggested creating a new web site with listings and links for all of the literacy programs in Chicago. I encouraged them to first see if they were listed in the T/MC library, and were using it for collaboration, before they create a new web site that someone would need to manage on a regular basis to keep the data up-to-date as we do at the T/MC.

One leader noted that for people to be motivated to keep coming to meeting like this the group would need to “expand the resource pie” so that everyone would get some tangible funding relief as a result of their participation.

I’ve posted a graphic that is in one of the presentations on the Tutor/Mentor Institute web site. It illustrates the many funding choices the people and organizations make. Our goal is that every business and foundation in the Chicago region (and the country) has a slice of their donation pie dedicated to volunteer-based tutor/mentor programs like the ones many of us lead, and that they are taking leadership roles that encourage employees, retirees and customers to provide time, talent and dollars to support programs within the tutor/mentor category.

I ended my comments by urging each program to use their own communications ability to share information about this meeting, and to help educate donors on why they should fund volunteer-based tutor/mentor programs. Imagine if 25 or 50 tutor/mentor programs in Chicago were using blogs, facebook, Ning and other forums with the same purpose and vision that I write this blog.

We talked about meeting again and I encouraged leaders to use the Internet to connect with each other. I think face-to-face meetings are important, but it's difficult to get all of the right people into a set of on-going meetings. With the Internet, anyone can be part of the meeting, regardless of where they are in the world.

I believe we have a lot of room to grow in this area. I think many of the non-profit tutor/mentor program leaders in Chicago, and many of the business and foundation leaders we want to connect with, are not actively using the internet for learning, collaboration and capacity building. I say that just because I don't find many forums where there is active participation of other tutor/mentor programs from Chicago, or of those who would benefit if such programs were having a greater impact in helping kids through school and into jobs.

This is a challenge to all of us. What good is all of this information if high level city, state and national leaders are not spending a few hours each week browsing web sites to learn directly from the ideas that are available to them. Having someone on your staff tell you about what they read on a web site is not the same thing as looking at that information with your own eyeballs.

If we want kids to learn to use this resource, we need to find ways that our adults, and older generation of leaders, are finding time to explore it themselves.

If you attended today’s meeting, or share the same concerns, why not write about it on a blog, or on Facebook. Why not join in on-line discussions to share more about what you do, and what you feel you and others can do to increase the size of the pie, so all of us have the resources needed to help kids succeed in school and in life.

If you're already doing this, please share your link and we'll try to give you attention from our own blog and web site, just as I have by putting links to programs in this blog.

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