Artistic Pathways to Adult Literacy with Evanston Public Library

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by Hannah Kucharzak

Read Time 6 minutes
June 19, 2024

Heather Lindahl observed a concerning trend among patrons at the Evanston Public Library (EPL) and made it her mission to dig deeper into the heart of the issue. Older adults frequently requested assistance with using their computers, admitting that they were “tech illiterate.”

Heather, who is EPL’s Library Assistant, Innovation and Digital Learning, explained why some of these tech sessions felt like a larger, systemic problem. “It wouldn't take very long of one-on-one help on the computer to realize that what they really needed help with was reading the buttons, reading the error messages, reading the tabs. They didn't know what to click on. They didn't understand if it was asking for a birth date or… ‘I can start on this date’ in a job application,” she said.

What she discovered wasn’t necessarily technology-related, but rather a deficit in literacy on a broader scale—which carries a painful stigma for adults and oftentimes requires an uncomfortable request for help. According to the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, one in five adults in the U.S. possess low literacy skills that make it difficult to complete basic reading and comprehension tasks.

“If people have already aged out of the school district, they're not benefiting,” Heather explained. "As a society and as an institution that prizes... lifelong literacy and learning, what is our responsibility to the people who can no longer take advantage of all of those advancements that have been made in traditional education?”

Fueled by the library’s dedication to equitable, unrestricted access to all its resources, and with the help of her colleagues, Heather developed Grow/Share/Belong: Art & Reading for Adults, an arts-integrated adult literacy program. Illinois Humanities was proud to award the Evanston Public Library an Action Grant in 2022 to help fund its innovative approach to using the humanities as a tool to engage with their audience.

The pilot program would offer a six-week workshop where participants would be welcomed into a healthy, healing environment to grow their reading and writing skills in creative ways. Drawing from theater exercises, participants would find self-expression in storytelling, artmaking, and collaborating on writing and performing their own play.

The library knew that a program with meaningful, lasting impact comes with a mountain of prep work, and they dove into building Grow/Share/Belong from scratch.

Listening with Intention

Heather’s anecdotal evidence of helping patrons with using technology was supported by the Evanston Public Library’s sophisticated, equity-driven infrastructure. “In 2021, we invested in deep listening and learning through a series of Community Listening Sessions and created a Program Planning Guide as a Library-wide tool to ensure community input in new programs, addressing representative planning, cultural norms, access, and socioeconomic status,” shared Evanston Public Library’s grant writer, Jennifer Shreve.  
Further strengthened by their Racial Equity Task Force and Collections Advisory Group, the library was equipped to begin breaking the barriers holding their community back from confident participation in not only the library’s resources, but also their personal journey in navigating relationships, job opportunities, and gaining a new sense of independence.

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The writer-performers of Memory & Healing bring visiting community members into a round of ”Pass-the-Whoosh!" as they warm up for their performance.

Building a Unique Framework

As Project Director for Grow/Share/Belong, Heather noted the prevalence of interdisciplinary humanities and arts-integrated approaches for children’s literacy education but said that it’s much less common for adults.

“I couldn't find another arts-integrated adult literacy program,” Heather explained, “...and I noticed that the criteria for [most other grantmaking organizations that fund] literacy programs in a more conventional sense really hinged upon ‘what kind of workforce development goals are you going to meet with this literacy program?’

“It was more about: ‘what will society then be able to get out of this person once we teach them how to read,’” she continued. “Will they be a better worker; will they be a better parent to their school-aged children? Nothing about self-expression, nothing about creativity. Nothing about just personal enrichment.”

Heather designed Grow/Share/Belong’s interdisciplinary curriculum in collaboration with EPL’s in-house teaching artist and a literacy specialist from Literacy Works. Utilizing the expertise of an outside partner was instrumental in assessing the model and content from every angle.

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EPL staffer Ozivell (Oz) Ecford runs sound for the performance of Memory & Healing: A Staged Reading

Staying Nimble 

Grow/Share/Belong launched in Fall 2022 and hit its enrollment goal of 20 participants, but the pilot program’s flexibility was put to the test just a few days before the first session began. Evanston Township High School (ETHS) Transition House—which serves young adults who have aged out of high school but are still in need of support as they transition into adulthood—contacted EPL to coordinate atypical scheduling arrangements to allow their members to participate. Grow/Share/Belong gladly welcomed the newcomers and implemented a staggered schedule to accommodate them. The facilitators found that it fractured the ensemble experience, since not all participants were present at once for the duration of the program, but the team handled the last-minute alteration with open arms—no one would be turned away.

Despite logistical challenges, they uncovered an unexpected dynamic. 

“There was something really powerful about having that intergenerational element because the... young adults got to sort of feel a little bit more grown up in the context of an adult learning class... [and the older participants] wanted to be nurturing to the young people,” shared Heather. 

Encouraging a diverse age range is something that she wants to continue in future cohorts. 

Following a lower-attended Spring 2023 session with seven participants, the Evanston Public Library paused the program due to organization-wide leadership changes, but the team is hopeful that Grow/Share/Belong will return, incorporating other disciplines like music, zine-making, or visual art.

“As an organization, we're going through... our strategic planning to really think about, well, are attendance numbers the most important thing? Or is the impact in the community and in individual people's lives what makes a difference?” said Jenette Sturges, EPL’s Marketing & Communications Manager. 

“I have a lot of hope for this program going forward because it has such an immediate and massive impact on the people who participated.”

Outreach Matters

Over a year later, Grow/Share/Belong is still on Evanstonians’ minds. “Just last week, one of our volunteers came in and said, ‘You know, I see people in the community all the time from the workshops, and they're like, that was so great, it really meant a lot to [them],’” Heather shared.

Lasting impressions are one key indicator that the library’s outreach was impactful, which was particularly challenging in this case—adults with low literacy levels aren’t necessarily entering a library.

Heather emphasized the value of “reaching out to people in the community where they're at.... [for example, at] laundromats, barber shops, nail salons or other places where community happens that aren't necessarily within the domain of our municipality.”  

Her biggest advice to nonprofits seeking funding for their pilot program is to stay true to its design. “Don't allow your idea and the thing that you're the most passionate about get railroaded into a direction that you didn't really mean for it to simply because those are the parameters set up by whatever funding source you happen to find,” she said. “This program couldn't have happened without Illinois Humanities—the fact that you were looking for something innovative... I would encourage people to just be patient and stick to whatever it is that makes your program special and make a case for it.” 

Learn more about Action Grants and other grant opportunities offered by Illinois Humanities.

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