THE BLOG
03/06/2013 08:04 am ET | Updated May 06, 2013

Reading: The Key to Development and Community Worldwide

In an early celebration last week of World Read Aloud Day in Kisumu, Kenya's third largest city, the Millennium Cities Initiative (MCI) and Kisumu public school teachers made the rounds of a number of primary schools where we now have Girls' LitClubs, thanks to the New York-based, literacy-focused non-profit LitWorld. As planned, schoolgirls all over Kisumu, including those in a school on the grounds of the local women's prison, recited prepared poems, read stories aloud and sang and danced, all to celebrate literacy.

What our team did not anticipate was the keen desire on the part of the women prisoners themselves to read aloud -- which they did, not just with their wardens' permission, but together with their wardens, page by page, story after story. As our merry troupe of teachers and development practitioners traipsed down the path to and from the prison and school bearing their colorful "World Read Aloud Day!" placards, a woman cooking and selling "chips" (fries) by the side of the road asked whether she, too, might have the chance to read. Our group, eager to get to their appointment on time inside the prison grounds, stopped on the way back so that the woman could read out loud to them.

Across the continent in Ghana, where the Ministry of Education has set as a top priority the establishment of pre-schools affiliated with all primary schools, MCI reached out to Israel's Mount Carmel Training Center which, with generous support from the Government of Israel, has developed an early childhood education program tailored to Ghanaians' needs. This child-focused, curiosity-driven program, piloted in Kumasi, Ghana's second largest city, has proven so successful that it is now being replicated in Ghana's capital, Accra, and thanks to UNICEF, the training of early childhood educators has also begun in the north of the country, in Ghana's poorest region.

Seemingly everyone in Ghana understands how critical literacy is to success. In recent focus groups with Kumasi market women and food vendors, MCI learned that training in literacy and financial literacy are among their top priorities for themselves and their daughters.

And here in this country? Our current trajectory would suggest just the opposite. The new sequester's mandated cuts in non-military discretionary spending are expected to hinder Head Start's proven successes in giving our youngest, poorest children the nutritional support, social skills, school preparedness that can make them lifelong learners. School district administrators are engaging in triage just to hold onto core teaching positions, and federally funded college scholarships, too, will come under the knife.

Have we forgotten something, somewhere along the way, about what it means to be a developed nation?

In his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed "working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America" pointing to the long-term benefits to our public health, graduation rates, crime reduction and the associated cost savings. Former Secretary of State Clinton has also championed literacy and schooling, both in this country, since her early work for the Children's Defense Fund, and internationally, where she worked tirelessly to advance the right to education and economic development for women and girls.

As we all know, this work is far from complete: girls and women and their teachers and protectors are still under attack in Afghanistan and elsewhere, simply because of their passion for reading, learning and a ticket out of crippling poverty and disenfranchisement.

It can't be possible that we don't want everyone here at home to have this opportunity; to not want universal lifelong literacy for our citizens goes against everything America purports to stand for. It must be, rather, that we've come so far -- we're such a mature, sophisticated society -- that we take this simple right, this fundamental skill, for granted.

On this World Read Aloud Day, let's remember the hopes that the Kisumu schoolgirls, women prisoners, wardens and "the chips lady" by the side of the road poured into every word they read aloud. Let's celebrate by remembering and committing to build on the sense of community created by those prisoners and wardens last week, as they read together. Deep in their bones, these women know something that we, in all our sophistication, seem to have lost sight of -- something that, even with all our schooling in this uber-developed nation, we still need to learn: that reading -- and the worlds that come with it -- is a right that must be available to all. In America, we need to make it so.