Our Ability to Fully Participate as Citizens Is Tied to Literacy | Donalyn Miller

Learning to read is a constitutional right, but functional literacy has never been equitably attained by Americans, says Miller. Here she offers tools of empowerment that enhance information and civic literacy.

Our ability to fully participate as citizens has always been tied to literacy. Learning to read has been determined a constitutional right in court , but functional literacy has never been equitably attained by all Americans. Throughout history, literacy has been used as a tool of both disenfranchisement and empowerment.

For centuries, it was illegal in the United States to teach enslaved people to read and write, because literacy was seen as a dangerous step toward freedom. In the Jim Crow era, literacy tests were included in the voter’s registration process as an intentional effort to deny Black Americans their right to vote. Until a 1975 amendment to the Voting Rights Act, bilingual ballots were not commonly available. Legislators finally recognized that English-only ballots created a de facto literacy tests for Spanish-speaking citizens. Today, election policies and laws in many parts of the country uphold the same racist efforts to prevent BIPOC citizens from exercising their Constitutional right to vote by limiting voting hours, closing polling locations, implementing strict registration and identification requirements, and purging voter rolls.

Too many people remain oppressed by white supremacist systems, including educational and political ones. Education has always been political and white educators like me cannot sit on the sidelines talking about kindness. White educators and librarians cannot remain neutral in conversations about race and the need to help dismantle systems preventing any child from acquiring the literacy skills they need to become participatory citizens. The ability to compare candidates and platforms, reading ballots, creating petitions and protest signs, campaigning and registering voters—all require strong literacy skills. Our students need equitable opportunities to learn to read, write, and communicate—freed from racist policies and systems that deny them these rights.

Young people must learn to: evaluate information critically for credibility, accuracy, and bias; read with comprehension; act and interact with social comprehension (Ahmed, 2018); communicate through written, visual, and verbal modes; consider multiple perspectives and lived experiences; listen to others; and more. Without literacy, it is impossible to achieve our full promise as a country or as individuals.

Look for local opportunities to support voter registration and voting in your community. Include and amplify BIPOC families in policy and programming decisions at your school. Teach students about voting rights in the United States, including the importance of voting and the history of voter suppression. Show students how they can use their developing literacy skills and habits to exercise their Constitutional rights. Incorporate protest signs and songs, campaign slogans, speeches, videos, memes, and other uses of literacy along with other primary sources like legal documents and news articles. Include a range of diverse experiences, historical time periods, and text formats to provide students with the most accurate, relevant, and engaging information possible. Supporting students’ literacy development and our future democracy go hand-in-hand

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