Women in Literacy: The Pioneers

Ruth Colvin

Colvin’s journey to transform the worldwide adult literacy crisis began in 1961 when she read a Syracuse Post-Standard newspaper article based on the results of the U.S. Census.  She discovered that in her hometown of Syracuse, New York, there were more than 11,000 adults who could not read. Because of this, she established a local literacy volunteer recruitment effort that rapidly developed into Literacy Volunteers of America, Inc., in 1972.

Colvin worked with Dr. Frank Green, head of Syracuse University’s reading clinic, to adapt the “learning experience” method to tutoring adults and training other volunteer tutors. She refers to it as a way to teach students their own words from their own experiences. 

While establishing successful methods and community networks locally, Colvin’s literacy work prospered for more than four decades domestically and internationally. She and her husband, Robert, were invited to over 60 countries around the world, by various ministries, governments, and universities to provide literacy training. 

Colvin published nine books and received nine honorary doctorates. Her efforts earned her the highest award for volunteerism in 1987 from President Ronald Reagan, induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1991, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006 from President George W. Bush. 

ProLiteracy Worldwide is the result of the 2002 merger of Literacy Volunteers of America, Inc., and Laubach Literacy International, which was founded by Dr. Frank C. Laubach in 1955. Today, Colvin continues to devote herself to adult literacy as a lifetime member of the board of directors of ProLiteracy. Additionally, she is an honorary member of the board of directors of Literacy New York and is a member of the board of directors and a tutor at Literacy Volunteers of Greater Syracuse. 

Colvin, 101, is one of the founders of the adult literacy movement in the U.S. She has devoted her life to personally teaching hundreds of people to read and has developed and published unique training programs that have supported thousands in their endeavors to learn to read. 

“Because you can’t read doesn’t mean you’re dumb. In fact, you’re really very smart, because you’re able to cope without the skills that we take for granted.  So once you can tap that and give them the self-confidence, and give them the basic skills, they can do anything.”
—Ruth Colvin


Barbara Bush

Former first lady Barbara Bush has always had a special place in her heart for literacy. Sometime after her son Neil Bush was diagnosed with dyslexia, she researched the factors that contribute to illiteracy and worked with a number of literacy organizations to increase awareness.

In 1984, Bush published C. Fred’s Story, a children’s book about her family told from the point of view of their dog, C. Fred Bush. All proceeds from this loving tale were donated to literacy charities. Later on, she developed an even stronger interest in family literacy. “It is the most important issue we have,” she once said. 

Bush wanted to improve the lives of both children and adults through literacy. She increasingly grew dedicated to eliminating the intergenerational cycle of illiteracy by supporting programs that focused on parents being able to learn with their children, and by serving on numerous literacy committees and reading organizations.

In 1989, with a goal to address these challenges and to empower families through family literacy, she founded the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.

The Barbara Bush Foundation focuses concurrently on early childhood education and adult literacy. A part of its mission, “to make literacy a core value in every home in America,” is to get low-income parents reading to set positive examples for their children. 

By 2014, The Barbara Bush Foundation ran 1,500 literacy programs across the country. In 2016, the organization announced a new partnership with Talk With Me Baby, a Georgia-based organization that the foundation helped launch nationwide. By 2017, the Barbara Bush Foundation announced the creation of Voices for Literacy and its partnership with a diverse group of organizations, including the Coalition on Adult Basic Education, Digital Promise, Pi Beta Phi, and Reading is Fundamental. 

The Barbara Bush Foundation is also the sponsor of the current global XPRIZE competition, Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE, presented by Dollar General Literacy Foundation. The current competition challenges teams to develop mobile applications for existing smart devices that result in the greatest increase in literacy skills among participating adult learners in just 12 months.

“The American Dream is about equal opportunity for everyone who works hard. If we don’t give everyone the ability to simply read and write, then we aren’t giving everyone an equal chance to succeed.”  
—Barbara Bush

Dolly Parton

Multi-talented country music professional and devoted philanthropist Dolly Parton changed the future of children’s literacy across the country and around the world.

Parton’s late father was never able to read or write. This inspired her to raise awareness and find a way to help children want to learn how to read, and to enjoy doing it. This led to one of the biggest moves in her already flourishing career. 

In 1995, Parton founded Imagination Library in her hometown, Sevier County, Tennessee. Imagination Library sent free books to children from birth to age five in Sevier County. The program quickly gained momentum and by 2003, it became a national success with over one million books mailed out.

In 2006 the program launched in Canada. The success didn’t stop there and it was launched in the United Kingdom in 2007, and in Australia in 2013.

The Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, a Best Practices award from the Library of Congress Literacy Awards, and recognition in Reading Psychology are just a few among the many of the honors and rewards that Dolly Parton and Imagination Library have received. Additionally, numerous milestones have been achieved with new goals created each time. Such milestones include the addition of free audio and braille books in 2011 and the achievement of sending over a million books a month in 2016. 

Recently, Imagination Library partnered with the Library of Congress and dedicated its 100 millionth book to the library.

The Imagination Library has also acquired a large number of organizations as champions of its service, including our home city of Syracuse’s very own Literacy Coalition of New York. 

 “Inspiring kids to love to read became my mission. In the beginning, my hope was simply to inspire the children in my home county but here we are today with a worldwide program that gives a book a month to well over 1 million children.”
—Dolly Parton


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