The Business of Building Hope in Salinas

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By Mary Ellison and Elizabeth Martinez

Originally appeared in the April 2009 edition of Clarion, magazine of the California Library Association

They're twin sisters and for the past six months they have come faithfully twice a week to the literacy center at Salinas’s John Steinbeck Library.  There they meet with their tutor, a retired school teacher.  They bring their small children along—one baby is asleep in the car seat at her mother's feet, another plays with books and lounges in a bean bag chair, while several of their older kids play in the children's area.  Between them they have nine children, ages 0 to ten.   Both sisters dropped out of school when they were thirteen and neither learned to read.  After failing classes and falling too far behind, they did what many of us would do in their circumstances: they quit and gave up hope.

Today, working with their tutor, the twins are mastering the alphabet and learning to read by sounding out letters, vowels, and blends.  Using second-grade materials and the simple Cinderella storybooks they purchased at the Dollar Store, they are becoming readers.  They laugh as they sound out words, and discover new ones that sometimes make little sense.  For the first time in a long time, they are building their confidence.  “They're learning so fast,” says their tutor, who delights in their progress as much as they do. “But they still have a long way to go,” she cautions. 

We know that learning to read is a slow process.  It does not happen overnight.  We look at the work we're doing in our literacy center as building Hope: hope that something lost can be found again, hope that something never acquired can be attained and even mastered, and hope that a library card can represent an admission ticket to a world of learning. 

Literacy is a community issue in Salinas and the entire Monterey County, where only 58% of the people 25 years or older have a high school diploma (compared to 84% nationally).  It impacts everyone.  Our goal at the Salinas Public Library is to make literacy a part of everything we do.  From bookmobiles that stop at Mi Pueblo supermarkets and low-income housing projects, to digital arts labs and weekly story times, all of our programs are targeted at improving literacy.
We are fortunate to have a mayor, Dennis Donohue, who is committed to literacy and makes the connection between a thriving city and the literacy of its residents.  Last year, the city council adopted four goals, one being a “Culture of Literacy.”  When the mayor asked us to issue library cards to all third-grade students in the city, we did one better. We made it our goal to issue library cards to every K-12 student in Salinas public schools.  By June 2009, more than 31,000 students will have library cards.

To achieve this goal, we learned quickly to think creatively and change some of our processes.  For example, one superintendent asked if we could use the school’s address for all the students in her district, thus eliminating the need for an application form.  She agreed to be responsible for any lost books and overdue fees.  We then designed a card specifically for her district, using its logo and colors. Library cards were delivered to every classroom in each school.  As a result of our card drive, we now have more children in our libraries, more books circulating, and more people attending our programs.  What could be more simple?

Salinas is a very young community. The median age is 26, with 32% of the population under 18 years old.  Just as the twins gave up hope in middle school, we know there are many more youth in school today who will eventually dropout because they can't read well enough to succeed.  These are the same kids who are more likely to get involved in gang-related activities and won’t be able to find jobs. To attract them to the library, we worked with San Jose State professor Anthony Bernier to create a space for young adults, called the “U Name It Lounge,” that features a plasma screen TV and Xbox.  Youth come in to socialize and play games, but they also read and check-out books.   

Knowing that access to technology and computers is an issue for many in Salinas, and that there is a huge interest in learning digital arts and technology skills, we also opened a digital arts lab at the John Steinbeck Library, equipped with Mac computers and software for filmmaking (Final Cut Pro), music composition (Garage Band), photography, and graphic design.  Students and adults are using the lab to make movies, create music, and mix photographs. Classes are offered several times a week, and mentors are available from local nearby colleges.

Last November we held “Dinner in the Stacks” with poet Jimmy Santiago Baca to raise funds for new youth literacy programs.  We hope to engage parents in their children's reading progress as well as helping students directly.  The library, of course, is a nonjudgmental and non-graded environment where students feel comfortable asking for help.

Because many adult learners can't get to our libraries, we decided to offer a “Families Learning Together” adult literacy program at several low-income housing projects and at a local family resource center.  We provide the instruction and childcare at the housing projects.  The local family resource center provides the facility and childcare when we visit there.  Not surprisingly, we have long waiting lists for these classes.  Our bookmobile also visits homebound mothers and young children who have never been to a library.  Soon, we hope to provide a Babymobile that will carry board books and other infant materials to childcare centers, pediatric clinics, and preschools throughout the area.

The Salinas Public Library is looking forward to celebrating its centennial this year.  Thanks to a generous grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, we’ll be collaborating with the National Steinbeck Center to explore the past, present and future of Salinas through book groups, workshops, conferences, video and oral histories, art projects, and original theater performances.  All these programs will provide hundreds of opportunities for children, students and families to engage in community-building, reading and choosing knowledge over ignorance. 

Mary Ellison is Literacy Program Manager for the Salinas Public Library.  Elizabeth Martinez is the Library Director.