By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
Five questions for the CEO of Mission Valley-based literacy group
Over 500,000 adults in San Diego County have a below-standard level of literacy, according to the San Diego Council on Literacy (SDCOL).
This is why the Mission Valley-based nonprofit group works to “unite the community to support literacy through advocacy, partnerships, resources, and coordination,” according to its mission statement.
SDCOL’s vision is to develop literacy programs with partners throughout the county that are data-driven and produce outcomes that are measurable, lasting and will have an impact on the illiteracy problem in the area.
The council is led by CEO Jose Cruz, who has 32 years of experience working in literacy. In addition to heading SDCOL, he also serves as vice-chair of the board of directors of ProLiteracy, the world’s largest literacy organization, and is past-president of both the National Alliance of Urban Literacy Coalitions and the International Dyslexia Association of San Diego.
Cruz was recognized as Educator of the Year by the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2003; and was a KPBS Local Hero for education in 2007. In 2014, Cruz was given a Latino Champion Award for “Civic Leader of the Year” by the Union-Tribune.
Ahead of the SDCOL’s upcoming Eat.Drink.Read. fundraiser, Mission Valley News sent Cruz some questions about literacy efforts in San Diego and his experience in combating illiteracy.
For further information about the San Diego Council on Literacy, or to purchase tickets for Eat.Drink.Read., go to literacysandiego.org.
- How does San Diego’s problems compare to other areas nationwide? What are the reasons for illiteracy here; are they different than other areas around the country?
Literacy figures for adults in San Diego County and nationally are virtually the same. That is, 20 percent of adults both here and in the U.S. read at the lowest level of literacy. Seventy percent of adults in the U.S. who read at the lowest level of literacy are fluent in English. Nationally, 20 percent of individuals, age 5 and over, do not speak English as a second language. In California, that number doubles, and in San Diego County, that figure is at 37 percent. Overall, most adults who need help with reading are fluent speakers of English.
Our affiliated partners serve residents of all ages, 170,000 annually. We emphasize adult literacy because of the role that parents play in the early years of child development – when children learn language, critical thinking skills, and are exposed, or not exposed, to books, songs, stories and other invigorating stimulation that prepare them for school and for becoming readers.
- What are the challenges in addressing illiteracy in San Diego and how does the SDCOL address those challenges?
We know that literacy skills play a vital role in quality of life for families and communities. We know that the workforce in our community is more productive and competitive when it is stocked with workers who have strong basic reading and writing skills. And we know all of the things that can go wrong when people don’t have the skills that they need to function in our complex world.
People feel left out, they’re angry, they try to find the skills that can open the doors of opportunity. Our society is still not doing enough to produce the action that actually does more than address symptoms. The lack of literacy skills is not a symptom; it’s a problem that needs to be addressed with other basic health and human needs related to mental and physical health and safety. When these matters are addressed separately, change is only temporary.
We need to do more to break cycles of illiteracy, dependency and dysfunction. We need more collaborations that are creative, strategic and visionary. Over the past few years, the SDCOL, in addition to playing the role of a traditional literacy coalition, is also playing a leadership role in working with and convening partners to produce outcomes that are more lasting.
- You’ve been advocating for literacy for over three decades. What drew you to taking on illiteracy? How does this work inspire/fulfill you?
I’m a giver, it’s my nature, and literacy has allowed me to be in a position to be who I am. Also, over the years I have heard hundreds of stories in which learning to read was the one thing that made the difference in a person’s life.
I like being where people dream about learning to read as though it were something magical. I like being in a place where the dream to read, to read to children and to be able to take a job that requires higher level literacy can be a reality. I like being a part of helping that one important dream come true.
- What kinds of advancements in literacy programs have you witnessed over the years? What does the future look like from your perspective, are you optimistic?
We have definitely become better at teaching reading, especially to individuals with learning differences, often referred to as learning disabilities.
Technology has helped, especially by bringing more learning opportunities into homes and at our fingertips. I believe strongly that, as a society, that too much is being placed on the backs of our schools and educators. We need to invest more in low-income communities, in those homes where 60 percent of low-income children have no books.
We need to give all people the resources that lead to learning, to success in school, to being in a career of choice and to jobs that pay. The examples of inequity are glaring. It is up to those of us who are in the right places to be a voice for those who are voiceless. We need to change our way of thinking and rethink how we are applying our interventions, especially in communities of need. Yet, I am always optimistic. We should all be. Attitude is powerful and contagious.
On another note, our society has become heavy on entertainment, and this has affected learning. We need more games for children that teach them what they need to learn to succeed in life. We need to replace the addictions of sugar, salt, Facebook likes, and fantasy conquest of monsters in space with a passion for learning that contributes to a better quality of life for everyone. We’re smart enough to do it.
- SDCOL has a big fundraising event coming up. What is that all about?
Eight years ago, our staff, along with Jon Bailey from i.d.e.a., and other investors, came up with the idea for Eat.Drink.Read. — an event that could be informal, fun, affordable, with wonderful food and drink.
We came up with the idea of chefs creating dishes inspired by their favorite books. We learned over the years that many local chefs are gluttons for books. And, they liked creating new dishes inspired by books that they read.
It is their creativity, along with the generosity of the restaurant owners that has made this event a success! This year, we are excited about our new location – the San Diego Air & Space Museum – and our aviation-flavored theme: “Books are wings!”
Guests who join us will have the same great time that hundreds of others have enjoyed since 2010. We have amazing auction items and a chef competition. The food is always incredible. It’s simple: all you can eat and drink for $75 … for a life-changing cause! This year’s event is happening Thursday, May 18, 5:30 to 8 p.m.
—Reach Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.