Literacyworks, a national nonprofit based in Petaluma that helps low-income and low-literacy adults learn to read and write, is bringing high-profile authors - including Robert Reich, Isabel Allende and Daniel Ellsberg - to Sonoma County for a popular series of speaking engagements. The goal of the series is to raise funds for staff costs, while the authors’ goal is to sell new books.
So far, the strategy is working remarkably well.
The credit goes both to Copperfield’s Books, which has partnered with Literacyworks to amp up the two-year-old lecture series, and to the corporate sponsors of the series. Sponsors include the Codding Foundation, Fishman Supply, the Graton Rancheria, SRJC, Clover Sonoma, AT&T and North Bay Children’s Center.
The newest sponsor is Hansel Auto.
“Henry Hansel got it right away,” said Paul Heavenridge, executive director of Literacyworks. “He understands that the return on investment for improving the literacy of valued employees is huge.”
Am effective and trainable workforce, of course, is one that can read and write.
“When I talk to businessmen about adult literacy, I try to put it in a context that is meaningful to them,” Heavenridge said. “Fewer mistakes, less employee turnover, even fewer days off for sickness. This is all well-established and research-based.”
Literacyworks includes the Literacyworks Center, which coordinates services for adults who lack the basic skills to access career and technical education and find living-wage jobs. It helps them enroll in educational programs by providing scholarships, mentoring and counseling.
The Center also runs a program in Sonoma County to provide ongoing scholarships for ninety adult employees of sponsoring businesses. The employees attend Santa Rosa Junior College to become literate. To participate, they must be referred by their employer.
“We serve a fragile population, in the sense that they struggle with low income and poor literacy,” explained Heavenridge. “But scholarship recipients are also workers who have been identified by their employers as highly motivated to improve their lives.”
That high level of motivation, he added, is key to their success in the program.
“In this program, we focus on the persistence issue,” Heavenridge explained. “Our learners rarely drop out, but when they do it’s usually because of problems with money, work, transportation, childcare, or general support. Our drop-out rate over the past four years is less than 10 percent.”
This compares favorably with a 50-60 percent drop-out rate for at-risk (low-income and low-literacy) students throughout California’s community colleges.
There is, not surprisingly, a waiting list of people who would like to enroll in the program.
“We could double our enrollment if we had the funds,” Heavenridge said.
The scholarships are funded by a private family foundation, but staff costs must be covered through fund-raising efforts such as the speaker series. The series received a major boost this year when Copperfield’s Books co-owner Paul Jaffe agreed to partner with Literacyworks.
“With its ties to the publishing world and with its marketing strength, Copperfield’s has greatly strengthened our ability to both recruit well-known authors and to reach a wide audience,” said Heavenridge.
The first speaker, in 2016, was Peter Coyote, who now serves on the board of Literacyworks. Heavenridge revealed that one of Coyote’s passions is adult education. Also on the board is former Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, whose legacy as a 20-year veteran of Congress includes a strong focus on adult education. She helps reach out to potential speakers.