Partner Interview: Ken Bigger, Executive Director of Chicago Literacy Alliance

Today we share an interview with Ken Bigger, Executive Director of the Chicago Literacy Alliance, our partner organization for The Tip of My TongueThe Chicago Literacy Alliance is an association of more than 100 organizations helping to meet literacy needs for people of all ages and backgrounds. It is dedicated to a mission of increasing the combined impact of the Chicago community’s literacy organizations by providing opportunities for creative and effective collaboration. Working together, the CLA and its members collectively envision a 100% literate Chicago.

Weinberg/Newton Gallery: The history of the Chicago Literacy Alliance is very unique and based not in competition but in collaboration for the greater good. In what ways do the individual CLA organizations work together to advance literacy?

Ken Bigger: Our member organizations work together through the CLA by sharing best practices and professional development programs. They develop organic, entrepreneurial connections that remain responsive to the constantly changing complexity of literacy education. These connections emerge into new programs, and in at least one instance, into new nonprofits. They serve as referral sources for one another. The Literacenter is a terrific tool in facilitating these collaborations, but it is not our only tool.

Although our members have strong, distinctive, and strategic approaches to driving greater literacy, no single tactic will cover all the necessary ground. One of the biggest factors affecting children’s literacy and prospects for success in school is the literacy level of their parents. To meet the challenges and break the cycles of illiteracy and aliteracy, we must be active among all ages and communities.

The Literacenter, hub of the Chicago Literacy Alliance

WNG: You joined the CLA community as Executive Director earlier this year. What about the organization drew you to this position?

KB: I’ve always been a writer, and I continue to work on becoming a better reader. I see literacy as essential to people reaching their potential—not just to understand the world, but to make themselves understood to it. Literacy is a fundamental human right, but there’s no switch that gets flipped from “illiterate” to “literate.” We can all become more literate. Elevating literacy as a value for all will help the people who need the most literacy support.

I also see literacy as a core capacity that addresses several challenges at once. Beyond fundamental goals of education and workforce readiness, it also addresses socio-economic inequality and social justice challenges. It helps us talk and listen to one another in civil society, informing our ability to be democratic citizens and to work with one another to improve our community.

Ken Bigger, Executive Director of Chicago Literacy Alliance

WNG: Being new to the CLA, do you have any particular visions for the ways it can grow in the future?

KB: We’re here to serve our members. We are constantly working to find new ways to provide meaningful collaborations and professional development opportunities that allow literacy organizations to be more productive and better connected. One of our biggest opportunities for growth is to be able to advocate on their behalf and on behalf of the cause of literacy. The Tip of My Tongue has been a wonderful way to elevate the visibility of this issue, which is a challenge that often goes unseen. We’re grateful to the Weinberg/Newton Gallery for making it possible. We hope to build from this effort and contribute to a broader public discussion. We are also looking for ways to bring more organizations into our “big tent.”

WNG: With an estimated 882,000 of Chicago adults having low literacy levels and 54% of CPS students not meeting reading standards, what are some of the biggest contributing factors to these rates? And are there ways we as a community can be proactive in helping to improve them?

KB: As I suggest above, I think part of the answer to this question appears in the pairing of those two statistics. Trying to fix one of those problems alone will not fix the other. A child whose parent can’t or doesn’t read stands a lesser chance of reaching their literacy potential. Our member organizations represent a wide range of expertise and are working together to ensure that people of all ages and backgrounds have the resources they need to be come literate.

Community members have multiple ways they can get involved. Many of our member organizations recruit, train, and deploy volunteers across Chicago to support adult literacy, school-based literacy, and early childhood literacy. Book donations to our member partners or to school libraries also give people a way to support the cause. Financial contributions to the CLA and its member organizations help add capacity and increase our effectiveness in pursuit of our goal of a 100% literate Chicago.

Finally, participation in our member programs that elevate reading and writing will help in driving the cultural change that will aid the efforts of all our organizations. One of the reasons that I love doing this work in Chicago is that this city is the place where many have come to write their American stories. There’s much to celebrate in that, and there’s much in there that shows us a path to realize our vision.

The Painted One, 2018, North Branch Projects movable book station, installed at The Literacenter

WNG: The CLA makes it clear that their goals are deeper than functional literacy alone; the organization also cares about developing and nurturing a lifelong love of reading and writing. Can you expand on the ancillary effects of becoming literate as an individual and as a community?

KB: Three things: understanding, empathy, and self-expression.

Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” contains the passage, “…she opened up a book of poems and handed it to me, written by an Italian poet in the 13th century. And every one of those words rang true and glowed like burning coal, pouring off of every page like it was written in my soul from me to you…”

The power of this line is not about the delights of pre-Renaissance Italian literature. It testifies to literacy’s power to help us understand ourselves and each other. Through literacy, we learn in powerful and inimitable ways that we are not alone. We understand ourselves in the present day, we connect with others in the present day, and we learn that we have connections to those who lived hundreds or thousands of years before us.

One of the most prominent cultural phenomena of this decade has been Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, Hamilton. It tells the story of a person who turned the world upside down through writing. The musical itself also exemplifies the power of writing, in this case Miranda’s, to inform our current values, aspirations, and conversations. The recent Hamilton Mix-Tape includes a new song, “Wrote My Way Out,” that taps into that spirit, evoking literacy’s capacity to allow us to transcend our circumstances—first in our imaginations, then in reality.

Literacy is key to imagining new possibilities for ourselves, both as individuals and as a community. It’s vital that we don’t just stop with making sure that children can sound out the words, we need empower everyone with tools to catalyze imaginations through self-expression. Many of our members do this. 826 CHI, for example, gives kids the tools of written storytelling as a way to find their own voices. Chicago abounds with past and present examples of people who “wrote their way out.”

The Painted One (detail), North Branch Projects movable book station, installed at The Literacenter

WNG: The Tip of My Tongue was curated with the CLA’s mission in mind. From your perspective, were there any particular artworks in the exhibition that you resonated with most?

KB: I appreciated all the contributions to this exhibit. Each artist helped unfold for me another way of looking at the power of words. If I had to pick one, I would say that Judith Brotman’s New Word captures my imagination for being so participatory, and through that, very evocative of the power of words both to allow us to say something distinctive about ourselves and connect with other people. New Word invites viewers to become active collaborators in her art by selecting a novel word of Brotman’s devising, adopt it as their own, and assign it a meaning. The word is unique, but exists within a context of English syllables and roots. It is personal, but inescapably shared.