Brenda Brewer Moore: Literacy is freedom

The founder and executive director of Kids Educational Engagement Project (KEEP) Brenda Brewer Moore delivers the keynote address during the celebration of International Literacy Day in Monrovia, Liberia on September 9

Please permit me to stand on the existing protocol in expressing how honored, and humbled I am by the invitation to speak on the occasion of the celebration of International Literacy Day. I will limit my remarks to three points drawn from the theme: Rethinking Literacy Development Through
Multilingualism.

The first point is that being literate is being free and powerful. One of the things I have learned in our work at KEEP as we strive to promote a culture of reading is the power of storytelling. So to make my first point, let me begin with a story.

Frederick Douglass was born in 1818. He was a writer, orator and social reformer who has come to be so widely quoted. One of my favorite Douglass quotes is “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”. Before all of this tough, Douglass was a slave.

Over the protests of Douglass’ slaveholder, he would learned to read and write. The slaveholder said to Douglass that being literate would forever make Douglass unfit for the duties of a slave. He reasoned that learning would do a slave harm because “if you learn him how to read, he will want to know how to write; and this accomplished, a slave will be running away with himself.”

What this story of Douglass revealed, and the slaveholder knew as far back as in the 1800s, is that literacy was the key to freedom. It was the beginning of self-empowerment. Literacy still has that power today.

Such is the power of literacy that it unlocks not just the chains of slaves but also unchains our minds, giving us clarity and understanding about ourselves, our community, our country and our world.

From being a slave, Douglass would go on not just to be free but also to become the first African-American citizen to hold a high U.S. government rank. Can anyone therefore blame Douglass for saying, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free”?

My second point is that it is time to rethink literacy.

I agree with the Director General of UNESCO that literacy is the starting point for any form of quality inclusive education. This is why we must rethink literacy.

Traditionally, we think of literacy as only the ability to read and write. Reading and writing are still very important components of literacy. But today, with the abundance of available information, the increasing influence of technology on our daily lives, and the need to communicate with varied audiences across the globe, literacy has come to mean more than just simply being able to read a book or write a letter. It is expanding to mean being critical and ethical consumers of  information as well as a communicator through varied means, and now in multiple languages.

With this rethink of literacy, each child is enabled to become a global citizen. Rather than only his country of birth, the larger world becomes a place he can seek to understand, live in, as well as interact and communicate with. Rethinking literacy is therefore a chance to cross boundaries, open vast spaces and unleash potentials.

Rethinking literacy means reading and writing are not only to be taught in Language Arts classrooms but by all educators, and teachers of every subject area. Every teacher must share in the responsibility to further develop, strengthen and enhance a student’s literacy in their specific subject area.

Rethinking literacy is understanding that from the moment a child is born, his or her literacy journey actually begins with parents, family and community all playing important roles. Like it is said, a love of reading is a great gift to pass on to a child. And so, every child we provide the best chance to be literate is an adult for whom we would not need “Adult Literacy Programs”.

At KEEP, we believe that the stronger a child’s foundation is in reading and writing, the easier it is to learn other life skills and professions. We know that being a doctor, engineer, lawyer or scientist does not begin in graduate school. It begins in pre-school, kindergarten and grade schools. This is why we are striving, all across the country, to cultivate that love and interest in reading as early as possible, through many strategies, be it storytelling, drawing, read aloud sessions, poetry, etc.

And rethinking literacy is actually getting libraries into every school and communities because to borrow from Walter Cronkite, “whatever the cost of libraries, the price is cheap compared to an ignorant nation.”

My third and final point, on this International Literacy Day, is to again join the Ministry of Education in an appeal to the Legislature to increase the appropriation for education to at least 10% of the national budget.

The challenges in the educational sector are enormous. Of course, money is not the cure-all for all of our educational problems. But more than the current budget of 42m is needed to demonstrate how seriously we are prioritizing the need to improve the quality of education in the country.

For too long now our schools are failing and our children are failing. All Liberians should be concerned because each Liberian boy or girl who fails to be as educated as any child in the region or across the world is a dark spot on the collective bright future that we seek. We simply cannot ignore that too many of our children are either failing, barely passing, or graduating when they can barely read or write!

Liberian children are smart and ready to learn. And so, our children are not failing us. We are failing them.
 
We have called many things national emergencies in our country. The failings of the educational system is a real and serious emergency. It is time to treat it as such. Let us not just talk about it. Let us do something serious about it.
 
A good first and serious step would be to increase appropriations for education in the national budget.

I understand that we need to build roads, bridges and buildings. I know that they beautify the body of our country.But building the minds of our children is best because that way, we beautiful the soul of our nation, and that way also, we protect the future of our country.

We cannot afford to let the educational system become worse than it already is. If we do not invest in improving it, it will get worse.

This is why, I agree with President George Weah when he said, “Education is like a bicycle. You must pedal to keep moving forward.”

What is also true is that the Ministry of Education is the chain that connects the pedal of our national bicycle. And that chain feels slack, and is asking to be reconnected to the pedal so we can move ahead.

We are wise to listen.

May God bless us all. I thank you for you kind attention.
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