Malika Adamsjohnson, an All Write! writer-in-residence, assists Kimberly Bodin at the Copiah-Lincoln Community College literacy program. (Photo by Beth Batton, courtesy of the Mississippi Arts Commission)
The American Deep South is steeped in a rich literary tradition. The state of Mississippi alone has produced such creative masters as William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Richard Wright. Some of today's most popular fiction writers, including Alice Walker and John Grisham, have also called Mississippi home. But living amidst this legacy are many citizens who lack the skills necessary to participate not only in their literary heritage but also in today's demanding social and economic environments.
According to the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), 21 percent of adults in the United States have difficulty applying the basic writing, reading and computation skills needed in everyday life. These individuals do not share the same employment prospects, civic voice or social opportunities that are available to more literate citizens. Lower literacy also coincides with higher rates of poverty, public assistance and incarceration. Boosting reading and writing competency is a longstanding policy goal for states that want to build strong communities.
Mississippi's challenges in achieving this vision are particularly acute. For instance, in the river city of Vicksburg, 41 percent of the population ranks at the lowest literacy level measured by NALS, and 23 percent of the city's residents live below the poverty line. The situation in Vicksburg is not an isolated example. Municipalities across the state have significantly lower literacy levels and higher poverty rates than the national averages. In Mississippi, policy makers have made workforce education a high priority. One of the most basic ways to strengthen a state's workforce is through advancing literacy.
A Creative Solution
The Mississippi Arts Commission developed an innovative initiative to tackle the state's persistent literacy challenge. Launched in 1999, All Write! addresses literacy by improving adults' writing skills and providing instructional resources for community-based literacy programs. Key to the initiative's success has been involving Mississippi authors and poets as writers-in-residence in community centers, prisons and libraries. To develop the program, the arts commission coordinated with Mississippi poet Aleda Shirley, whose artistic knowledge and experience in diverse instructional environments have been invaluable in designing an effective program.
Each year, the arts commission reaches as many as 180 students through 12-session residencies in sites across the state. The program deals with practical aspects of life, such as passing the GED exam and gaining employment, but also provides other benefits. "All Write! enables the students to be more active members of their communities," says Beth Batton, arts-based community development director at the commission and director of the All Write! program. "It also recognizes that there is creative potential in all of us and some have not had the opportunity to hone their creative skills."
In Vicksburg, writer-in-residence Greg Sellers is constantly challenged and inspired by his students in the Family Literacy/GED Program at a community center. "The one thing that impresses me most about my students' work is the honesty with which these student writers convey their ideas and personal experiences. Students gain new confidence and hope in their own work and abilities. They realize that writing is not a process limited to one particular group or class of individuals. The process transcends all boundaries."
In addition to improved literacy skills and increased GED attainment rates, writers and teachers throughout the All Write! sites note improved attendance, social skills and self-confidence among their students. At the same time, Mississippi writers gain employment opportunities and instructional training, while teachers benefit from new curricula and teaching techniques. The program demonstrates that employing artists in educational settings can increase instructional effectiveness and student interest.
Writing a Brighter Future for Mississippi
Based on its successful track record, the Mississippi Arts Commission has increased its support for the initiative. Drawn largely from Challenge America grants awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts, resources allocated to the program have grown significantly since its inception. The additional funds will be used to pilot a curriculum based on Southern writing and a residency in an English As a Foreign Language classroom. But dollars are not the only resource devoted to the initiative. "The generous investment of human resources far exceeds the modest budget allocated to this program," says Tim Hedgepeth, executive director of the arts commission. "Partnerships are formed that are rooted in the magic of the written word. Through All Write!, teachers and students alike are sharing a special contribution to the continued celebration of Mississippi's great literary heritage."
All Write! participants are on their way to passing the GED, writing their stories and even reading Faulkner. Above all else, the program gives residents a chance at a better future--a goal shared throughout the country. Whether in Vicksburg, Seattle or New York City, boosting literacy rates enhances the quality of life available to every citizen. Through programs like Mississippi's, state arts agencies are partners in helping communities, schools and governments achieve their vision of a healthy, prosperous America.