Universal Right to Literacy: A Shared Mission to Establish the Constitutional Right to Literacy
“It doesn’t even feel like school,” says Jamarria Hall, a senior at Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy. “It makes my stomach hurt just walking into the facility, knowing we’re basically getting cheated — really, getting robbed — of education.”
Jamarria is one of the thousands of Detroit Public School students, of whom only 2.2% last year achieved college-ready scores in reading and English. Faced with teacherless classrooms, buildings without heating or cooling, and falling tiles from library ceilings, these students are being deprived of both dignity and opportunity. The conditions in these schools have become so bleak and unacceptable that the students, represented by Public Counsel, the nation’s largest pro-bono law firm, are filing a class action lawsuit charging that the State of Michigan denies children their constitutional right to literacy.
The filing in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan is the first of its kind in the nation and seeks to vindicate the rights of Detroit students who are functionally excluded from Michigan’s statewide system of education. Some lawmakers and scholars predict this case will make history, much as Brown v Board of Education did, by creating equal educational opportunity for all kids, regardless of race, class, or geography.
The 133-page complaint says the state of Michigan has disinvested in education in Detroit so much that children lack fundamental access to literacy. And lost is not only the ability to read, but to think, analyze, synthesize and distill information. The personal and collective growth ends when we stop learning to read, limiting our ability of reading to learn.
But significant change happens when legal efforts are paired with the weight of public will. Recognizing the need to spark a cultural fire for the literacy mission, enso and Public Counsel convened more than 100 leaders and activists from the worlds of education, pop culture, public policy, business, civil rights, design, and philanthropy at the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles. On June 19 and 20, we brought together the charter members of this movement for a collaborative creative sprint with the goal of surfacing new ideas that make the issue infamous, and the need for collective action urgent.
First, we heard directly from students and teachers in marginalized communities like Detroit about conditions in schools that would have shocked our consciences a hundred years ago, let alone today. We heard from experts in education, like former U.S. Secretary of Education John King Jr. and bestselling author and Executive Director of The NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and The Transformation of Schools, Dr. David Kirkland, that universal access to literacy is solvable if we can galvanize the public will to face it head on, from a place of strength and dignity. And we heard from activists, like Chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon and creator of the #WeThePeople campaign Mark Gonzales. They reminded us that in order to bring unexpected allies together behind a shared vision for success, we need to stop talking to the head, and start speaking to the heart.
We heard several guiding principles that we used to help steer our design process:
The power of personal stories
“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
— Chimamanda Adichie, “The danger of a single story”
Behind every statistic are hundreds of stories, like that of Jammaria, who says he has friends who can’t read “but it’s not because they aren’t smart, it’s because the state has failed them”. Every story brings power to the movement, and to create the public will, we will need to speak to people’s hearts by shining a light on the faces and uplifting the stories behind the case.
The fight for democracy and freedom begins with the fight for literacy.
We heard that the right to literacy is the foundation of all meaningful participation in society. Underserved communities can’t exercise their right to vote, participate in the national census, and exercise their ability to fully contribute as citizens without the basic skills of reading and writing.
“Literacy is the cornerstone of all education; it is the cornerstone of our democracy. Absent literacy, a child has no way to obtain knowledge, communicate with the world, or participate in the institutions and activities of citizenship,”
— Mark Rosenbaum, Director of Public Counsel’s Opportunity Under Law project.
Literacy goes beyond reading
“Literacy as a human right is about something more than access and opportunity . . . It is also about hope, and it is also about healing.” — Ginwright
The right to literacy goes beyond words and books. It goes beyond reading and comprehension. Within literacy, is the core human right to offer dignity to all, so children everywhere can experience the pleasure of play, curiosity, and creativity that will fuel their personal and our collective potential.
Following a morning of inspiration and education, it was time to get to work on designing the mission. We broke into teams to work on framing the problem around the simple truth that our failure to provide equal access to literacy for all children puts our whole country at risk, while our success in giving all kids a chance to shine can create a brighter future for every American.
Each group was tasked with visualizing their message into a poster to symbolize the movement, followed by a series of tangible activations that could raise awareness and instigate action. The summit concluded with group presentations showcasing the collective action solutions, and personal pledges to bring the top ideas forward.
So what’s next?
We are assembling a board of advisors and circulating an action plan that prioritizes the ideas surfaced in our working sessions, and provides clear actions everyone can take to move this mission forward.
One important milestone to note is Thursday, August 10, when Public Counsel will be in federal court in Detroit arguing that a right of access to literacy exists under the Fourteenth Amendment. The team will argue that this right means that students in Detroit like Jamarria must go to schools staffed by qualified teachers, supplied with textbooks and other instructional materials, offer core curricular classes and otherwise have what’s required to deliver proper literacy instruction. We’ll be discussing ways of drawing attention to this critical hearing, to the students of Detroit and throughout the nation attending schools where learning and teaching do not meet the standards we would find acceptable for our children and therefore for all children.
So what can you do immediately? First, visit our working hub at www.righttoliteracy.co
1. Spread the word.
We all know people who are active in this space and should be involved in our radically-inclusive mission. So reach out on your social channels, your networks and invite at least five people to participate in making the literacy crisis infamous, and the need to collectively solve it urgent. Please direct them here.
2. Connect and communicate.
With the other participants and broader coalition we’re building. Offer to help others in this fight, and ask for support in your own efforts. Together, we can accomplish more, faster, so reach out and let us know how we can facilitate those connections.
3. Raise your hand.
If there’s anything that you can contribute, be it ideas, shared resources, introductions, influence, or stories, we want to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On behalf of David Johnson, Public Counsel, and enso, our special thanks to our speakers and sponsors:
- Secretary John King
- Amanda Gorman, Youth Poet Laureate of the United States of America
- Gordon Ip + Raul Herrara, GetLit
- Dr. David Kirkland, Executive Director of The NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and The Transformation of Schools.
- Jamarria Hall, Alumni, Detroit public schools
- Coach Williams, Parent and coach, Detroit public schools
- Shalon Miller, Teacher Detroit public schools
- Manny Rivera, Director, RALLY
- Terri McDonald, Chief Probation Officer, LA County
- Mara Abrams, Managing Director of Census Open Innovation Labs at the U.S. Census Bureau,
- Mark Hutchins, Managing Partner, KPMG
- Mark Gonzales, Narrative Growth
- Robert Raben, The Raben Group
- Hillary Moglen, RALLY
- Jason Nichols, enso
- Catherine Lhamon, Chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
- Mark Rosenbaum, Public Counsel
- Shinola Detroit
And all our participants:
Adam Fletcher / Aida Palma Carpio / Alisa Hartz / Alysha English / Amanda Gorman / Amanda Hunt / Ana Aguirre / Ana Ponce / Andrew Guzman / Anne Hudson-Price / Antonio Villaraigosa / Ashley White / Asil Yassine / Austin Dove / Barbara Facher / Bhavna Sivanand / Bill Raden / Bill Thompson / Brad Phillips / Brian Muhammad / Brian Strange / Carla Fernandez / Catherine Brown / Catherine Lhamon / Charles Barth / Chris Edly / Chris Giglio / Christina Lindstrom / Coach Williams /Dan Clivner /Dan Goldman /Daniel Aguilar / Danielle Tenner / David Johnson / David Kirkland / Diane Lane / Dixon Slingerland / Dolores Huerta / Ebram Naftzger / Elizabeth Hadaway / Ellie Song / Erica Schlaikjer / Gary Blasi / Gerald Cantu / Gingger Shankar / Glenn Rothner / Glenna Avila / Gordon Ip / Henry Elkus / Henry Weinstein / Hillary Moglen / Iris Zuniga / Jackie Wei / Jama Adams / Jamarria Hall / James Lanich / Jason Nichols / Jasper Goggins / Jaylene Chung / Jeanne Hoel / Jen Martindale / Jenna Greene / Jennifer Bezoza / Jennifer Braun / Jesse Noonan / Jessica Gomez / Joan Wicks / John Kim / John King / John Szabo / Jon Moscone / Josh Conviser / Josh LeVine / Joy Resmovits / Juan Devis / Kathryn Eidmann / Kerry Stranman / Lauren Lowenthal / Leah Bernthal / Libby Jacobson / Lila Kalaf Reiner / Linda Lopez / Liz Dwyer / Manny Rivera / Mara Abrams / Margaret Morrow / Mark Gonzales / Mark Hutchins / Mark Rosenbaum / Marleen Wong / Marshall Tuck / Mathew Swenson /Melissa Orozco /Micah Ali / Michael Cirelli / Michael Kelley / Michael Riley / Michael Smith / Mikaal Sulaiman / Monica Groves / Nicole Katz / Noah Steinberg / Paul Heavenridge / Paul Ryan / Pedro Noguera / Rabeya Sen / Raul Herrera / Rob Kramer / Robert Raben / Rupa Balasubramanian / Sally Glass / Sam Durant / Sam Feinburg / Samara Rosenbaum / Samuel Garrett-Pate / Sara Zaidi / Sarah Bowman / Sarah Maiani / Sarah Worth / Satra Zurita / Sean Knierim / Sean McNamara / Sebastian Buck / Shalon Miller / Shelley Ong / Shlomy Kattan / Spencer Mar Guilburt / Sydney Kamlager Dove / Ted Lempert / Tom Unterman / Tracy Rice / Veronika Shulman / Viridiana Chabolla / Wes Clark Jr
“Do not underestimate
The Hercules behind your tongue.
Your voices are the reasons this planet’s axis is tilter.
But your silence is the reason this planet is dying.
So let’s cause a ruckus!
If earthquakes can destroy lives,
Our voices can rebuild them.”
— Raul Herrara and Gordon Ip, Get Lit — Words Ignite