The Reading Revolution

This post was provided by Usha Tamba Dhar, Chief Executive Officer of Sage Youth, as part of the Ashoka Canada Fellows: Social Innovation Demystified series. Sage Youth’s mission is to strengthen literacy in marginalized communities across Canada by implementing a strong community-based approach. 

Girl and Boy Reading Books

Sage Youth

The vast majority of people struggling with poverty are functionally illiterate. The vast majority of prison inmates are functionally illiterate. Illiteracy is largely a variable of socio-economic status.  It’s hard not to look at statistics and see segregation.

Changing this became our mission. But we didn’t start out that way…

Our story

Sage Youth and, subsequently, the Excellence in Literacy Foundation (ELF) didn’t start with a pivotal moment in my life.  I grew up in great privilege, but part of the culture of my parents’ home was that blessings should be shared. Community service was a gentle but firm expectation.  There was no great intent or moment of epiphany.

Sage Youth began as, and in part remains, a non-profit family business.  My father was our first Chair, my sister our first volunteer.  Our initial goal was to serve marginalized children. But at the age of twenty, I felt like I had no idea what I was doing.  We had a clothing depot, a library, and a homework club. But in a matter of weeks, we noticed that our low-income, newcomer students could barely read or write.  We wanted to get closer to the root cause of their challenges.

Solving illiteracy became the ultimate no-brainer and Sage Youth was reborn as a literacy organization.

“By 2031, more than 15 million Canadian adults – three million more than today –will have low-literacy levels.  The number of Canadian adults with low literacy levels will increase 25% in the next two decades.” Canadian Council on Learning, the Future of Literacy in Canada’s Largest Cities Report, Sept. 8, 2010

Young Woman Reading

Our successes

We developed a series of workbooks, evaluation tools and training systems that helped children dramatically increase their literacy, vocational and leadership skills.  Since 1992, 9,500 exceptional low-income, newcomer, homeless and other Ottawa children and youth have become literate and confident with the support of over 2,200 Sage Youth staff and volunteers.

Word of this successful model spread and organizations began requesting that we share our expertise. In 2002, we launched the Excellence in Literacy Foundation in order to provide our materials, training systems and grants to communities ready to embrace change.  Over 50,000 marginalized children have been assisted in ELF-supported initiatives.

Our students increase their literacy skills by over 200% and more than 99% of our students stay in school.  Our primary partner working in the area of decriminalization, Sisters Achieving Excellence, has a 0% reoffending rate among its program participants.

The future

Literacy has become a vehicle for us to convey two simple truths to our students and the community builders who serve them: We believe in them and they are limitless.

Literacy is an engine of destiny.

Our goal is our own obsolescence.  Global literacy is not only highly possible or even probable, it is inevitable.

 Sage Youth

To learn more about Sage Youth and the Excellence in Literacy Foundation, please visit their charity profile pages.

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