Adult Literacy Education and Community Development

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Linkping University Library]On: 03 October 2014, At: 05:52Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH,UK

    Journal of Community PracticePublication details, including instructions forauthors and subscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/wcom20

    Adult Literacy Education andCommunity DevelopmentJennifer E. Subban PhD a ba Urban Affairs and Public Administration , WrightState Universityb New Directions community development project,and Community Development Work Study ProgramPublished online: 22 Sep 2008.

    To cite this article: Jennifer E. Subban PhD (2007) Adult Literacy Education andCommunity Development, Journal of Community Practice, 15:1-2, 67-90, DOI:10.1300/J125v15n01_04

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1300/J125v15n01_04

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  • Adult Literacy Educationand Community Development

    Jennifer E. Subban, PhD

    SUMMARY. This article responds to the concern that low-literatecommunity residents often are marginalized in community developmentprocesses. They are unable to give voice to their concerns, interests andtheir vision for their community. Perspectives and approaches in the fieldsof adult literacy education and community development are explored todetermine how adult literacy education might be used to further the goalsof community development. While there are parallels between thesetwo disciplines, there are also barriers to overcome if an integratedapproach to dealing with community issues is realized. This article re-flects an interest in advancing a comprehensive approach to communitydevelopment in communities with limited economic resources, low-levelliteracy and limited access. It seeks to address the issue of whether adultliteracy education programs have a meaningful role to play in commu-nity development. The strengths of participatory approaches such as

    Jennifer E. Subban is an Assistant Professor of Urban Affairs and Public Adminis-tration, Wright State University. She serves as principal investigator on New Directionscommunity development project, and Community Development Work Study Program.

    Address correspondence to: Professor Jennifer E. Subban, Urban Affairs and PublicAdministration, Wright State University, 3640 Colonel Glenn Highway, Dayton, OH,45435 (E-mail: jennifer.subban@wright.edu).

    The author acknowledges Alma H. Young for her support on this and other relatedprojects.

    [Haworth co-indexing entry note]: Adult Literacy Education and Community Development. Subban,Jennifer E. Co-published simultaneously in the Journal of Community Practice (The Haworth Press, Inc.) Vol.15, No. 1/2, 2007, pp. 67-90; and: Interdisciplinary Community Development: International Perspectives(ed: Alice K. Johnson Butterfield and Yossi Korazim-Krsy) The Haworth Press, 2007, pp. 67-90. Single ormultiple copies of this article are available for a fee from The Haworth Document Delivery Service[1-800-HAWORTH, 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. (EST). E-mail address: docdelivery@haworthpress.com].

    Available online at http://com.haworthpress.com 2007 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.

    doi:10.1300/J125v15n01_04 67

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    mailto:subban@wright.edumailto:docdelivery@haworthpress.comhttp://com.haworthpress.com

  • community-based literacy, and community development principles suchas collective action, shared values, participation, social justice, politicalawareness and action, comprehensiveness, empowerment, and learningand reflection, facilitate an interdisciplinary approach. doi:10.1300/J125v15n01_04 [Article copies available for a fee from The Haworth Docu-ment Delivery Service: 1-800-HAWORTH. E-mail address: Website: 2007 by TheHaworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.]

    KEYWORDS. Community development, adult literacy, interdisciplinary,education, community transformation

    INTRODUCTION

    Individuals in the more developed countries pay little attention to theproblem of illiteracy because their countries have literacy rates that ex-ceed 99% (United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], 2003).The UNDP defines adult literacy rate as The percentage of people aged15 and above who can, with understanding, both read and write a short,simple statement related to their everyday life (pp. 354-355). In con-trast, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (2003) states that 14%of the adult population of the U.S. falls within the Below Basic category,with no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills. Besidesbeing incongruent, these measures conceal the distribution of individualswith low-level literacy skills across neighborhoods.

    Low-level literacy negatively affects a persons level of income, abilityto access to employment and institutions, and sense of self-worth. It alsorepresents a barrier to participation in community affairs in general, andcommunity development in particular. On one hand, limited literacy is astigma that can curtail resident input in community discussions anddecisions. On the other, economic status is a primary barrier to partici-pation in community development (Murphy & Cunningham, 2003). Moreaffluent community members tend to take over community organiza-tions and shape the development agenda. In addition, people of all in-come levels participate in community development up to the pointwhere the gains from doing so are greater than or equal to the costs(p. 114). If participation reduces the time available to earn an income,less affluent individuals are likely to relinquish their commitment.

    Articulating the link between literacy levels and community developmentbegs an important question for community development practitioners.

    68 INTERDISCIPLINARY COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT

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  • How might practitioners meaningfully engage community memberswith low-level literacy skills in community development efforts? Thisquestion is particularly important because it examines the potential tolink adult literacy education and community development in interdisci-plinary practice. To answer this question, this article examines the liter-ature on adult literacy education, determines the primary perspectives inthe field, and highlights programmatic approaches that lend themselvesto interdisciplinary practice with community development. Second, itexamines literature on the field of community development, and extractsthe key principles/values that distinguish effective community develop-ment practice. Next, the article presents a critical analysis of the fields ofadult literacy education and community development to determine areas ofcompatibility and the barriers to linking the fields in interdisciplinarypractice. Scenarios and guidelines for interdisciplinary practice are pre-sented. This inquiry focuses on some of the theoretical and practicalapproaches to literacy that have potential to transform communities intomore viable, equitable and just living spaces.

    DEFINING ADULT LITERACY EDUCATION:THREE PERSPECTIVES

    The recent debate over whether to include Intelligent Design in sciencecurricula in U.S. schools is an example of how literacy education is con-structed. Intelligent Design rejects the theory that the origin of plant andanimal species is a result of natural selection, and advocates that a formof life vastly superior to that of humans designed them. This exampleshows that literacy, like other social phenomena, is imbued with mean-ings that differ from person to person, and from community to commu-nity (Graf, 1995). Decisions about how literacy is defined and practicedare subject to personal, cultural, historical, and political positions. Thisincreases the complexity of deconstructing literacy, which is, however anecessary endeavor in order to realize its interdisciplinary potential forcommunity development.

    In discussing the role of education, Fasheh (1990) outlines this po-tential. Accordingly, the role of education in community transformationrequires that education be informed by the needs of a community. Thisprocess must nurture feelings of self-worth, empowerment, and self-acceptance through engagement in concrete projects and programs thathave the potential to enhance life; the primary goal should be the devel-opment of human resources so the beneficiaries can, competently and

    Jennifer E. Subban 69

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  • creatively, perform necessary community functions. Networking, com-munication, and the exchange of ideas and experiences among groupsinvolved in various activities within the community are essential tocommunity transformation. The difficulty lies in the fact that these prin-ciples challenge existing social, economic and political structures. Whatemerges from this discussion of literacy and the quest to define it is thatliteracy is a process governed by a sense of purpose beyond being an endin itself (Wikeland & Reder, 1992). Supporting the discussion of therole that adult literacy education can play in community development isa brief review of Girouxs (1987) classification of three different per-spectives of literacy. These include: (1) functional literacy, (2) culturalliteracy, and (3) critical literacy. A fourth classification, participatoryliteracy, positions adult learners to shape the content and direction oftheir literacy experiences and presents an opportunity for interdisciplin-ary practice with community development.

    Four Different Perspectives on Literacy

    Within the U.S., functional literacy has been the traditional approach,focusing on the skills required to read, write and do calculations (Samant,1996). Teaching these skills is assumed to be a neutral processacultural,non-racial, non-gendered and apolitical (Street, 1984; 1995). In functionalliteracy programs, the relations of power mimic that of oppressive society:teachers know everything while students are empty vessels that come toteachers to be filled with knowledge. Teachers choose the methods andmaterials for instruction while students comply and adapt; teachers arethe subjects of the learning process while students are regarded asobjects (Freire, 2004). The texts used for instruction are imbued withmeanings that largely represent the perspectives of those who createthem (Marshall & Rossman, 1994). Students interpretation of thesetexts may differ from that of their instructors based on variables suchas gender, age, cultural and political context (Smith, 1987). However, inthis perspective, teachers are not likely to entertain alternative interpreta-tions or the deconstruction of texts.

    Generally, in the functional literacy perspective, the underlying struc-tural issues that result in low-level literacy are ignored. As a result,functional literacy is thought to provide a band-aid approach to issues oflow-level literacy. Without attention to what contributes to, or causessituations of low-level literacy, functional literacy programs inadver-tently blame those most in need of the skills being taught (Bhattacharyya,1991), and perpetuate the creation of deficit model programs. Considering

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  • individuals with limited skills to be unmotivated makes it easier to referto them as unworthy, an act, which exacerbates their feelings of isola-tion (Samant, 1996), and contributes to their alienation from the learningprocess. The critiques of functional literacy notwithstanding, the skillstaught in this approach benefit individuals in important ways, includingreduced social isolation, increased productivity and access, and theelimination of the stigma of illiteracy (Mace, 1994).

    The functional literacy approach urges consideration of perspectivesthat appreciate the context of the learners reality. Cultural literacybegins this process by recognizing the importance of culture in thelearning process (Freire & Macedo, 1987) and situating literacy prac-tices within the broader set of social relations that govern teachers andlearners. In doing so, cultural literacy attempts to bridge the gap betweensocially neutered definitions of functional literacy, and the cultural realitywithin which literacy experiences are grounded. In this scenario, func-tional literacy skills are taught within a cultural context that enables thelearner to read the words and interpret them using a cultural context(Heath, 1985). Giroux (1987) highlights the social dimensions of literacy,and shows that cultural and functional literacy are intricately linked. Assuch, the cultural perspective embraces the complexity of literacy andchallenges providers to ponder the question of whose culture should benurtured within literacy programs.

    On the continuum of literacy approaches, prescriptive cultural literacyproponents believe that mainstream culture must be nurtured in students;mainstream culture is akin to the requisite set of skills advocated for infunctional literacy. Labeling individuals knowledge of mainstreamculture as culturally deficient reproduces the hegemonic conception ofmainstream culture as primary. This view maintains relationships ofpower that marginalize communities on the fringes (Asante, 1991). Incontrast, pl...

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