This month, we celebrate the invaluable role women have played in American history. So many women have broken down barriers to open doors for younger generations to careers and leadership roles historically dominated by men. We’ve seen and learned about countless women throughout history who have been inspired to take inequities into their own hands and have created a better world for all people who might not have a voice.
As I reflect on Women’s History Month, I think about Ruth Colvin and all the history she’s lived and change she’s contributed to. I think about how, in her 106 years, it wasn’t always easy to carve out a path, but she never let being a woman stop her from doing anything. And I think about how in 1962, at age 46, she was inspired to change her city, and, in the years that followed, change the world.
When she learned there were more than 11,000 adults in her own community who were not functionally literate, and little was being done about it, she couldn’t stand for it. She stepped up. She built a literacy program in her basement—with her now-iconic broken refrigerator as a library. The need was bigger than she realized, and what she started in Syracuse, NY, spread to become Literacy Volunteers of America, now ProLiteracy Worldwide.
While that’s impressive in and of itself, it’s what she realized about literacy that was really groundbreaking at the time. She recognized that without basic literacy skills, these individuals could not enjoy the freedoms they are entitled to. She was determined to help as many adults as possible, regardless of race, income level, or origin, participate in their society. She saw that literacy was as fundamental as any civil right.
Yet, today, there are still 43 million American adults who cannot read at a functional level.
Low literacy can be considered one of the biggest civil rights issues of our time. Statistics show that adults with low literacy are predominately people of color. Study after study shows young Black boys are continuously left behind the reading benchmarks, which carries through to adulthood. Young Black and Latina women are twice as likely to experience teenage pregnancy, often leading them to drop out of school. Low literacy and lack of education prevents people of color from fully participating in society and creates barriers to civic responsibilities like voting, even years after the Civil Rights Act protected those freedoms. Without education, the cycle of poverty and disenfranchisement continues.
As a white male who is the son of Italian immigrants, in a position of leading an international nonprofit, I don’t pretend to act like I know, or fully understand, what it’s like to have opportunities denied. But, as the first-generation to attend college in my family, I do recognize that education—and, more importantly, equal access to education—is a major part of the solution. It’s not too late for those adults who, for one reason or another, never developed strong literacy skills. We can still ensure the chance to live a fulfilling, literate life.
Ruth knew then the power of literacy and still fights for that today. Ruth is a visionary. In honor of Women’s History Month, we would be remiss to not take a moment to reflect on and think about how we can do better—to be inspired by Ruth and the millions of lives she’s touched. As a country, we can do better.
I was excited to see and be present for the launch of the U.S. Senate Bipartisan Caucus on Adult Literacy formed last month. It’s a start to getting national attention on the issue and, hopefully, increasing funding, which the field so badly needs. When we can ensure every person in America has the same access to education, adults can achieve upward mobility, family-sustaining wages, better housing, and improved family outcomes. We can ensure everyone has the equal opportunity to participate in their communities, elections, and children’s educations. It will level the playing field.
Thank you, Ruth, for your vision and your resolve to never give up on fighting for equal rights through literacy. I’m honored to know you, and I’m honored to continue your work at ProLiteracy.
Happy National Women’s History Month to all the women out there who are breaking barriers, big or small. You are changing the world.
In the words of Ruth:
“Tutoring a student of a different race, education, and culture, varying economic and religious backgrounds, opened my mind in a personal way to the wide world, beyond what I could visualize. It opened the doors to new understandings and allowed me to focus on the things we had in common.”