“Excuse me, do you know what today is?” was the opening line from Joe Rogers Jr. at the corner of Broadway and West 125th Street. His attention-getting tactic worked for a few dozen passersby. “Today is Literacy Across Harlem Day,” Rogers said to anyone willing to listen.
Pointing to his own book, “Sugar Hill: Where the Sun Rose Over Harlem” by Terry Baker Mulligan, Rogers’ follow-up question was always whether the person he’d buttonholed had any reading materials with him or her. That’s the whole point to Literacy Day, he reminded one pedestrian: to get people in the community reading.
Rogers, 35, founded Total Equity Now, a grassroots organization focused on education, youth advocacy and civic leadership, in 2007. TEN has declared the first day of every month Literacy Across Harlem Day, when residents are encouraged to carry their reading materials outside their bags, and to share their love of reading with those around them by swapping books or discussing their favorite reads. “It was a lot of work, but a very simple idea,” Rogers said.
He began carrying his own books in plain sight six or seven years ago, hoping to spark a dialogue among nonwhite males, Rogers said. Literacy Across Harlem Day seemed a natural progression. In July a march concluded with participants donating more than 1,000 books through book swaps, donations and give-aways during the Harlem Book Fair.
Oct. 1 marked the second Literacy Across Harlem Day, an idea that will take some time to catch on, Rogers acknowledged. “I suffer no illusions that this will bring everyone together,” he said. “But it’s a sticky idea; it’s growing.”
The most recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 22 percent of New York State residents, and 25 percent of those in New York County, lack basic prose literacy skills, defined as the knowledge and skills “to search, comprehend, and use information from continuous texts, such as paragraphs from stories.” By comparison, 14 percent of Americans lack those skills. New York State had the second lowest literacy scores in the country after California.
Rogers won support from Manhattan Community Board 9, which last month passed a Literacy Day Across Harlem resolution. CBs 10 and 11 support TEN, but haven’t passed resolutions due to “quorum-related issues,” Rogers said.* However, the boards have helped promote the initiative.
Local bookstores, including the now online-only Hue-Man Bookstore & Cafe, La Casa Azul Bookstore in East Harlem and Sister’s Uptown Bookstore & Cultural Center in Washington Heights also supported TEN’s plan. “For us it was a no brainer,” said Aurora Anaya, owner of La Casa Azul Bookstore. “All of us are invested in promoting literacy and supporting our children,” she said. “It was just perfect.”
TEN decided word-of-mouth (or word-of-mouse) was the way to go. TEN’s Twitter feed promoted #RockThoseReads to get Harlemites to tweet photos of not only their books, but of others reading around them, Rogers said. During the first literacy day, TEN itself tweeted a picture of a man holding a magazine below a street sign at East 109th Street, for instance, with this message: “S. African tourist#Yankees fan@doronisaacs spotted at 109th and Madison.#literacyacrossharlem#rockthosereads”. In all, people tweeted 21 #rockthosereads on Sept. 1, and 53 on Oct. 1.
TEN has no way to assess Literacy Day as a success or failure. But it has coordinated several book swap sites where Harlem residents can trade new or gently-used books. La Casa Azul, for instance, has held several.* “There are already so many great things happening,” Rogers said.
TEN also joined forces with local New York Public Library branches and the Harlem YMCA Literacy Zone, created last year with a two-year* $325,000 annual grant from the New York State Education Department to reduce poverty and increase literacy and English proficiency in Harlem and Washington Heights.
The Zone, at 151st Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, also hosted a Literacy Across Harlem Day book swap. “It’s a great way to promote this idea that reading should be something that people are proud of,” said Program Coordinator Thalia Kwok. “It’s really inspiring to have other people in the community excited about reading and learning.”
Rogers’s ultimate goal is to get residents reading and talking about what they’re reading, no matter the genre, length, reading level or language. “We’re not saying you have to carry around a book,” Rogers said. “For some people, you start out small. Someone was carrying around a book of crosswords puzzles — that’s literacy. When folks start seeing other Harlemites on a bus or train…this’ll start contributing to the conversation of what it means to be ‘Harlem.’”
“If you see one of our young children reading, well, that gives you hope,” he said.
*Clarifications: Community Boards 10 and 11 have helped promote the Literacy Across Harlem initiative but have not yet voted on resolutions. La Casa Azul’s book swaps were unrelated to Literacy Across Harlem Day, though its Nov. 1 swap will be part of that campaign.
*Correction: Because of erroneous information supplied by the state education department and displayed on a YMCA Literacy Zone website, the story originally referred to a three-year grant.