This paper is presented as part of the H-Urban Seminar on the History of Community Organizing and Community-Based Development. For additional information on the Seminar, visit the WWW Home Page at or write to


Alma H. Young and Jennifer E. Subban
College of Urban and Public Affairs
University of New Orleans
New Orleans, LA 70148
e-mail: /

A paper presented at the Joint International Congress of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning and the Association of the European Schools of Planning, Toronto, Canada, July 25-28, 1996 .

The Toyota Families for Learning Program, which operates in New Orleans and fourteen other U.S. cities, is a family literacy program which recognizes the link between the educational experiences of adults and the educational performance of their children. As such, it serves to address simultaneously the needs of both parents and children. It aims to foster parental participation in educational activities by building on the strengths of the parents involved. The program targets adults who have not received their high school diploma and or persons who wish to improve their parenting skills. The program requires that participating adults attend school with at least one child who is of pre-kindergarten age (3 to 4 years old).

During any given day, the program is divided into four components: Academic components, when the parent and child work independently on their respective academic goals; Parent and Child Together (PACT) Time when the parent and child interact in play and/or learning under the initiative of the child; Parent Time when parents discuss issues of relevance or participate in activities of interest to them; and Volunteer Time, when parents provide service to the school.

The program is administered through the College of Urban and Public Affairs at the University of New Orleans. The college's involvement came through the recognition that literacy had an important role to play in low-income communities where residents find themselves disenfranchised, undereducated, and often unable to gain the ground they need to make their neighborhoods safe, to find employment that will pay a living wage, or to make decisions about the quality of their families' lives The participants in the program reflect the neighborhoods of which they are a part: 100% of the adult participants are female, 99% are African-American, 85% of the households are headed by a female, 80% of the families receive public assistance, and 97% have annual incomes of less than $10,000 (Toyota Annual Report, 1995).

How did we come to the decision to use family literacy as a means towards community development? It is well-documented that development programs which fail to take the people they are meant to serve into account fall short of their goal of enhancing the quality of life for the people involved (Finsterbusch & Van Wicklin, 1988; Moser, 1993: 173-189). Such programs often emphasize the needs and deficiencies of individuals and their communities, rather than focusing on their strengths and capacities (King, 1994). Finally, such programs, if they do seek input from the community, do so in a language which is foreign, and make few attempts to bridge the language barrier to ensure meaningful participation by community residents. Thus, it was important to find an issue on which we could build common ground, and one which spoke to the needs of the community, as articulated by the community.

We knew from our earlier work in these communities that education (and literacy) was a concern of many residents, especially of parents for their children, and therefore provided a point of entry for collective work. The model of family literacy that we followed (the Kenan Model) advocated building on the *strengths* of the individuals and families involved (Potts, 1992), and had the flexibility to develop curricula around the needs, interests and concerns as expressed by the participating families (NCFL, 1994). Instead of imposing an agenda on the communities in which we worked, the goal was to build the capacity of individuals to develop their communities in ways that made sense to them (see Mayer, 1994) .

Family literacy focuses on the human aspect of the community. If families are viewed as the building blocks of communities, then family literacy is a logical way of strengthening these essential units. Strong families protect their children and each other as they struggle through the maze of life to provide material, emotional, intellectual and spiritual support. For us, the literacy program provides an opportunity for strengthening a sense of community, by facilitating the building of support networks which extend beyond kin folk. These networks then become important as major elements of community development.

Following Bhattacharyya (1995), we conceptualize community development as the pursuit of solidarity and agency. Solidarity is seen as deeply shared identity and a code for conduct. In extreme cases of poverty, as in the neighborhoods in which we work, a sense of solidarity often has to be nurtured and restored. Agency means the capacity of a people to order their have the powers to effectively define themselves, as opposed to being defined by others. Again, among the people with whom which we work, it means throwing off the shackles of dependency and seeking the capacity to speak in their own voices.


One of the most powerful ways that we have seen this happen among our participants centers around the discussion of race, and the growing awareness of the pervasiveness of the "racial state" and the ways that it limits their opportunities. Participants come to understand, as Winant (1994: 2) has argued, that "race remains a fundamental organizing principle, a way of knowing and interpreting the social world.. .that it is deeply fused with the power, order and indeed the meaning systems of every society in which it operates" (also see Omi and Winant, l986). They come to understand how the "racial state" operates within the United States and within their local communities (see Hacker, 1992; Omi and Winant, 1983).

Paradoxically, perhaps, this growing awareness leads to a greater sense of solidarity, not only among the participants, but among participants and their teachers (all of whom are African-American). This growing awareness, however, does not come without a personal (and collective) struggle, as the examples below will show. This solidarity prepares a foundation for agency, since participants are then in a better position to clarify their goals, develop strategies to achieve them, and to act on them using the knowledge, skills and support networks

In this paper, we take race to be socially and historically constructed. It is constantly being redefined and contested (Winant, 1994). Living in a "racial state" means that we are concerned not just with acts of individual prejudice but with a mode of rationality which places certain cultures and ethnic groups in a superior position to others. As such, those who are seen as inferior are impacted in such a way as to limit solidarity and agency, both individually and collectively. Being in a "racial state" affects the way we relate to each other and to ourselves, often resulting in relationships of dependency. Thus, it impacts our life choices and life chances. We understand that in the United States, racism is integrally linked to the definition of culture.

In the remainder of the paper, we discuss how literacy practices (see Levine, 1986) affect an understanding of experiences of racial domination, and how that is played out in the classroom and in the larger community (Fasheh, 1990; Freire and Macedo, 1987). The opening for this growing awareness of the "racial state" each year has been a dialogue in the classroom on linguistic domination, for we see "language as the heart of culture, the medium for the production of collective meanings" (Bhattacharyya, p. 63). The purpose of the dialogue is to unpack the power differential of language. During the process, standard American english comes to be seen as a dialect which has assumed dominance because it is the language of those who hold power in this country.

Participants agree that they prefer black vernacular rather than standard english when they are talking to each other. It allows them to better express what they feel. It is through discussions of this nature that participants gain an appreciation of their own language, an important step given that many tend to see it as an ignorant way of speaking -- ignorant meaning stupid, unknowing, and sometimes uncultured. Participants come to see that when they are speaking black english, they are more likely to call each other "ignorant" when someone enters their group who speaks standard english as a main form of communication. The use of the term "ignorant" reflects how they feel about their language and themselves when they are outside of their immediate community, or when a "stranger" from the outside enters their group.

They come to understand that the impact of the hierarchical status of language is far-reaching. The participants begin to realize how placing a hierarchy on language disadvantages them, since speaking black english limits their access to jobs and a decent living wage. They also see that while one dialect is essentially no different from another, they usually conclude that standard english has a place in the world they live in and that gaining access to that world may mean accessing that language and, in fact, being *bi-dilectal*. In the process, the mindset with which they approach learning standard english changes from a deficit one to one which recognizes the context of the different situations in which they find themselves. It is the context which helps them decide which dialect to use, not that one dialect is stupid, and another not.

Typically, the discussions on language are part of the writing workshops conducted in the classrooms of the adult participants. The workshops take a variety of forms. Most often participants are asked to write about an experience, respond to an event or critical issue, ask questions about something, etc. Discussion is an important part of the process, given that the verbal skills of participants are often much stronger than their writing skills. In addition, it is a way of infusing "new" information into the group through the teacher who facilitates the process (see Freire,1972). Participants share their written pieces with the class by reading them, and the class reciprocates by commenting on the pieces and sharing thoughts which the written pieces trigger for them.

The power of this dialogue lies in the fact that the participants come to recognize that they have had similar experiences and that they can share their experiences in a safe environment. Thus, they come to know the impact that some things they have not wanted to talk about has on their lives and that of their children. In short, they get to *name* their experiences and come to identify the experiences they are having for what they are. In the process, they build bonds of solidarity with each other.

The pain associated with talking about some of the daily issues which face their communities becomes apparent in their discussions and in their writings. One of those issues is race and the impact that racism has had on their lives. In the beginning of the year, it is not uncommon for participants to ask why they need to be talking about race; to say that we should move on because racism doesn't exist anymore, and to talk about it means that we're advocating hatred; that they have never experienced racism; that they don't want to talk about it because they don't want to know about it -- knowing forces them to have to deal with it. But, as participants come to "read the world" (Freire and Macedo, 1987), they also come to understand the context of their feelings. Acknowledgment that they live within a "racial state," and that it has affected their lives in concrete ways, is one of the milestones which participants pass on the road to self- discovery..and to agency.


One of the participants is Catalina, who moved from naming racism to recognizing how those dynamics play out in her daily life. She was one of the participants in the Toyota program who was asked to attend an "undoing racism" workshop by a local organization skilled in community organizing (see Young and Christos-Redgers, 1995). She agreed to attend, but once there she felt uncomfortable. Both the mixture of people there (professionals, community residents, community organizers, and students) and the language used added to her discomfort. She left before the workshop was finished, saying that she had no reason to talk about racism because she had never experienced it personally. She did agree to a request by Toyota staff that she be part of a planning group at her school to develop a class on racism and the role it plays in our daily lives. During the process of planning the class, the staff engaged her in dialogue which opened the way for her to recognize her discomfort with the issue of race. She said that she really knew that racism existed, but that she couldn't see it; that talking about it was a waste of time; and finally, that talking about it could put her in a bad mood and then it would be hard to smile her way through the pain.

Months later, during a summer internship at a local university, this participant came to the program staff and stated quite unapologetically that her supervisors at the internship site were behaving towards her in a racist manner. She was very clear about which of their actions showed them to be racist: for example, not looking at her when they spoke, never engaging her in conversation.

The participant's response raises an important question for the program staff -- how to move from naming experiences to acting on them, so as to create more positive situations for themselves. Another of the stories discussed shows how that was done. It is the story of Wanda, who went from recognizing racism to dealing with it effectively. Wanda is a graduate of the Toyota program, later worked as a teaching assistant in one of our program sites, and now is coordinator of her own adult education classroom at another one of our sites. She worked along with two literacy Americorps volunteers. Wanda is African- American; the two volunteers are white.

When Wanda first joined the program, she displayed a more self-conscious attitude towards the issue of race. For example, she described her level of performance/achievement attained at schools as being under her control, as opposed to recognizing that the information provided conflicted with her cultural education to such an extent that it led to her eventually leaving school in the 10th grade. She had a difficult time talking about race and racism and spent much time drawing attention to the similarities between the races as a way of easing her discomfort. However, in continuing discussions on race in her own classroom, and in her experience working with the volunteers assigned to her, Wanda was able to gain greater consciousness of her feelings towards race.

For someone who started the year saying, "I can't discuss race in my class because I don't know enough about it," she came to see the value of experiential knowledge and the power of sharing that knowledge. It was through the sharing of information with the students in her class that she came to see that race impacted all their lives in many significant ways. The fact that she was responsible for bringing information to the classroom forced her to do her own research on how race impacted African-Americans, and this led her to realize how pervasive racism is and how it limits access to choices and opportunities. This helped her to understand the program's philosophy of putting the participant at the center of the program, which means moving away from a racial state where the participants would be marginalized within the classroom (either because their knowledge would not be privileged, their sense of self-worth would be diminished, or cultural differences -- languages, actions, etc -- would be contrary to mainstream expectations). She came to find the words to express what she and others she knew had experienced.

Perhaps what clinched it for her were the reactions of the volunteers as she changed the mode of operations within the classroom. They clearly felt displaced, and were disgruntled that the norms of their knowledge were no longer at the center. They were very uneasy about not being in control of the situation, having to rely on someone else to direct them. Their discomfort was compounded by the fact that they considered the person directing them to be inferior (academically and culturally). What was obvious was that there was a gap between the words that the volunteers were using (language they had picked up through the program's training sessions) and their actions now that their knowledge was not the only knowledge privileged.

What this experience showed Wanda, and some of the participants, was the kinds of behaviors one exhibits when one feels marginalized. Wanda had moved to the center of the stage by conceptualizing her role differently than she had previously done: in the old role she had established a relationship of dependence with the volunteers; in the new role she recognized and accepted her right and responsibility to shape the classroom. The reaction of the volunteers as she moved to this new role informed Wanda's consciousness of the role that racism was playing in the classroom.

The impact of this enhanced consciousness extends for her beyond the program and her classroom. In retrospect, she now connects the dynamics of racism to her lack of achievement at school. She now is able to act to influence the experiences of her children at their respective schools. Wanda's commitment to her community is stronger, as evidenced by her interest, ideas and assistance in developing the newly-formed group of program alumni. Their aim is to keep alive the solidarity that was developed during their time in the program. She's not the only graduate to share this sentiment. She and others have seen the group as a vehicle for achieving agency. The project they are most interested in at the moment is developing entrepreneurial skills through micro-enterprises, to provide support for themselves and their families. They also want to provide support for new participants in a kind of mentoring relationship.

The teachers, too, have become more conscious of the racial state through the process of dialogue in their classrooms and in training sessions. The teachers came through a traditional educational experience, and they have now come to see how those experiences limited them culturally. The work on race from a critical and cultural perspective provides an avenue for them to explore their racial realities and to move beyond the limiting perspective of racial dynamics taught them earlier.

One of the teachers spent the summer in a writing project for teachers which had its theme, "subvert the dominant paradigm." She was able to explore the racial implications of this theme with her classmates who had neglected to note the impact of race on the society or on their students. She was able to do this because of her participation earlier in the year in an "undoing racism" workshop and subsequent discussions in her class. In one such class discussion, a racial framework was applied to incidents of violence in their community. Students could then see how the criminal justice system is differentially applied to citizens based on race. They began reading the local newspaper more critically. This led to a redefinition of their community, as the students began to debunk some of the stereotypes surrounding black men and crime.


In the Toyota program, we considered race important to bring into the curriculum because of the pervasiveness of race as an organizing principle in the United States, and the institutional nature of racism. It was important to discuss the ways in which racism is internalized at both the individual and the collective levels, and how this lessens the ability to develop one's communities.

If cultural literacy is important to us in that it places the student and her community at the center of the curriculum, and if race has been integral to shaping the culture of the Toyota participants, all of whom are African-Americans, then race needs to be understood as a mechanism for maintaining positions of power..and of subservience.

Race lies at the center of the oppression of African- Americans, cutting across class and gender lines. In the case of program participants, race compounds the oppression they experience as poor women. Beginning to understand race, its dynamics, its faces, its shapes and forms is strategic to developing a sense of solidarity among participants. It can then provide a strong base for action.

In this case, literacy practices provided the mechanism for strengthening community development by building solidarity and agency. Solidarity begins as they come to understand that their own knowledge is validated, that the dynamics of race encourages dependence and self-blame, and that their history and culture need to be uncovered. In many instances, this increased awareness lifts a burden of self-blame, infuses a new sense of self-pride, and a greater willingness to act collectively. They begin to see how they may have contributed to their own oppression and in so doing may find ways to resist this and work to the development of their families and communities.


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