I was sitting with a bunch of friends during the holidays and we were expressing our personal perspectives on the city, the communities/neighborhoods and what may be some areas that were having a negative or positive impact on the development/direction of the city.  Though there were several individual actions that provided “individual” positive impact there was one negative aspect that universally dragged the numbers down.  It is a sad fact and it’s sadder still that it is happening all across our nation….we can’t read.

Now of course, I know that if you are reading this…you can read…you get this.  What I am talking about or maybe I should say the “who” I am referring to are segments within our communities that for various reasons (I have a need to be politically correct here) have not…did not grasp…but need to…learn how to read.  I have done a little research where I used Detroit, my hometown, as the study’s target  and found data that showed  zip code by zip code the high school graduation rate.   This can be done for any market. It is U.S. Census data and is free.  Check out Kalamazoo or Grand Rapids.  What I found was pretty disturbing.  In spite of the fact that throughout the year I had been hearing and reading about the low grades our children were scoring in the national tests…and what was being done to address that problem…I was distressed nonetheless.  There are a lot of ways that one could look at those particular  numbers and some other information I found.  But before going there I want to add a little more depth to what’s going on.

The Central Connecticut State University Study

A recent national survey, titled “America’s Most Literate Cities 2009, conducted by Central Connecticut State University scored cities of 250,000 people or more against several indicators, including education level, Internet use, newspaper circulation, number of booksellers, library services and local publications.  “This study attempts to capture one critical index of our nation’s well-being – the literacy of its major cities – by focusing on six key indicators (mentioned above)”, said the study’s author, CCSU President Jack Miller, in a published news release.  “The information is compared against population rates in each city to develop a per capita profile of the city’s ‘long-term’ – a set of factors measuring the ways people use their literacy – and thus presents a large-scale portrait of our nation’s cultural vitality.”  Mr. Miller goes on to say that the ranking(s) is necessarily an interpretation of data.  “What matters most is not whether the rank ordering changes but what communities do to promote the kinds of literacy practices that the data track.  From this data we can perceive the extent and quality of the long-term literacy essential to individual economic success, civic participation, and the quality of life in a community and nation.”

Sad to say, Detroit does not fair very well against the 74 other cities that were studied.  Out of 75 cities Detroit ranked…

    • 69th in the number of retail bookstores per 10,000 population
    • 72nd in educational attainment (percentage of the adult population with a high school degree or higher/percentage of adult population with a bachelor’s degree or higher)
    • 19th in Internet resources (number of Internet book orders/number of unique visitors per capita to a city’s internet version newspaper/number of web page views per capita to a city’s internet version newspaper)
    • 46.5th in library support (number of branch libraries per 10,000 library service population/volumes held in library per capita of library service population/number of library professional staff per 10,000 library service population)
    • 19th in Newspaper circulation (weekday total circulation/Sunday total circulation)
    • 54.5th in the number of magazine publishers with a circulation over 2,500 per 100,000 population/number of journals published with circulation over 500 per 100,000 population


51st in the overall ranking (51st in 2008; 50th in 2007; 52nd in 2006 and 56th in 2005)

There are studies which suggest that nearly half of adult Detroiters are classified as functionally illiterate and 75% of unemployed adults in Detroit have difficulty reading and writing.  This is a major issue, in that, it has significant impact on our community’s quality of life.   Probably being the most significant area to yield the most negative impact.


The Negative Impact


Some might say…”gee he/she can’t read…that’s too bad…it’s their problem”.  A  correct assessment, yes…but is it the right assessment…no.  The fact that a person cannot read is much larger than that one individual.  A person that cannot read can’t:

  •  Take the training to get a job
  • Get a job (see above)
  • Expect advancement professionally or socially
  • Open a bank account (Typically does not have)
  • Make sound long-term financial decisions
  • Teach their children (anything)

I don’t want to focus on some of the “heavy” social impact stuff because we all know that some of the most serious implications won’t be solved just by being literate.  But the few that I mentioned are just as serious and if these things were in a person’s grasp maybe they would be less inclined to engage in less worthy pursuits and be in a better position to make a positive contribution within their community and society overall.


Next Steps…What We Can Do?


Not satisfied with uncovering the ugly truth about our illiteracy problem, I started to look for the resources that hopefully would be in place to help these people…the people that wanted help.  Fortunately, I did not have to look wide or far.  For here in Detroit there are a number of institutions and foundations/groups that have stepped up to deal with this problem head on.  One being the Detroit Public Library.  

The Detroit Public Library (DPL) has launched an aggressive literacy campaign.  This citywide literacy program titled “Detroit Reads: Erasing Illteracy, One Word at a Time,” is in collaboration with a new Detroit Literacy partnership, comprising of the DPL, the Detroit Literacy Coalition, Pro Literacy Detroit, Wayne State University, Arise Detroit and Communities in Schools.  “Detroit Reads” provides unique learning opportunities to Detroit adults (this is not a child’s reading program) who desire to learn to read, write, or improve their reading and comprehension skills.  One-on-one and goal-focused tutoring sessions are available for continued educational growth.  It is open to persons 18 years of age and older.


“The work of erasing illiteracy in Detroit is critical to improving the quality of lives in our communities and everyone can help”. 


 Through the Detroit Literacy Partnership, FREE opportunities are available for the following:

  • Literacy Students “Learners” – People who need help in learning how to read
  • Literacy Tutors – People who want to help teach others how to read
  • Library Volunteers – People who want to volunteer their time for library events.

In an article published earlier this year by the Detroit Free Press, the DPL addressed its role in providing educational support to Detroit’s youth.  “We stand ready as partners to assist, challenge and motivate our young learners to succeed in school”.  In 2008, the Detroit Library Commission approved a five-year strategic plan with a mandate to address Detroit’s literary divide.  In May 2009, the library commission established the Detroit Literary Council, with the charge of advising the library on literacy issues.  The council is made up of leaders in business, the community, government and literacy providers.  There is a lot of quality help for there is a lot that needs to be done.


One of the stated strategic directions of the DPL is to “aggressively explore and integrate strategies/partnerships for addressing literacy and career/life enhancement needs.”  In a few words, they are looking for sponsors/partners that will provide support ranging from a donation to underwriting certain aspects of the program.  And there is a lot that we can do as individuals or as a business that can make this program work harder for more people.

I, for one, have arranged for a business to underwrite certain areas that needed financing and strategic direction. I am just getting started!  I have also recruited a few people to serve as tutors.  Small steps…but steps that are in the right direction.


If you want to help please contact the Detroit Public Library at (313) 833-4043 or go online to www.Detroit-Reads.org

If as a business you would like to know how you can get involved with this or other community initiatives please contact Arthur Littsey/Nine Below Zero by phone (313) 369-1710 or online at:


 www.ninedegreesbelowzero.officelive.com or  www.projectsweettomato.com

Click Here Literacy Program


Another quality program is The Literacy Center of West Michigan in Grand Rapids.  Go to http://www.literacycenterwm.org for information.