Building Toward the Future of Literacy Equity with Ken Bigger – Episode #22

When you think of literacy, what comes to mind? Is it reading, writing, or something else? Our definition of literacy is often oversimplified, much like the limits often placed on the question of who is and who is not “literate”. In this episode, Alida discusses literacy equity with Ken Bigger, the Director of Thought Leadership at the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.

Episode Show Notes

A vital figure in the movement to improve and facilitate conversations around the future of literacy in the U.S., Ken’s perspective on his field is one built on a deep understanding of human nature and a profound hopefulness for change.

Dig deeper into literacy with Alida and Ken as they explore:

  • The difference between literacy and literacy equity
  • The pitfalls of approaching literacy from the perspective of saviorism
  • Civic fluency and inviting inclusive conversations
  • Why education needs to incorporate literacy in all its forms

Important resources from this episode:


KEN : What civic fluency invites us to do is to think about, what are the full range of skills and capacities needed to live a full human adult life in community.
ALIDA: Welcome to the Care Work Podcast. I’m your host, Alida Miranda-Wolff. This podcast is for anyone in the business of providing care. Whether you’re being paid for it or not, you’ll discover what it means to offer care and how to take care of yourself in the process. For the last ten years, as a diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging practitioner, a care worker myself, I’ve focused on providing care to other people for a living. Now with this podcast, I’m hoping to create a culture of care in my community and help you do the same in yours.
ALIDA: Our definition of literacy, the one that centers reading and writing, is exclusive and incomplete. Or at least that’s what my guest for today’s episode, Ken Bigger, is showing in his work as the Director of Thought Leadership at the Barbara Bush Foundation. There, where he serves as a vocal and passionate advocate for literacy equity, he is exploring multiple ways of honoring the dignity of individuals in all of the literacies they may possess, as well as removing the barriers that keep them from accessing the educational resources they need to best achieve their personal interests. Ken, I am so excited to have you on the Care Work podcast. Would you mind just introducing yourself?
KEN: Thanks, Alida. It’s a pleasure to be here. I’m Ken Bigger. I am Director of Thought Leadership at the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. That is a title that is very much gratifying to my inner philosophy major, and my inner human being is really gratified that they don’t all have to be my thoughts. I am happily in the position that I get to find ways to elevate other voices that I think are doing good work and advancing better thinking with regard to literacy equity challenge. I came to this work after initially pursuing graduate work in religious ethics at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. It’s the University of Chicago connection that brought us together, and I had a career in fundraising and nonprofit management, and I previously served as the executive, uh, director of the Chicago Literacy Alliance, which was an organization that did capacity building, advocacy, and alignment in the literacy sector in Chicago. And that’s really where I kind of found a home in this work and have been pleased to be advancing literacy equity work, both there and in my current role and in between. Uh, I recently served as a senior fellow with the American Library Association’s Center for the Future of Libraries, thinking about the crucial intersection of the multiple ways in which libraries can serve the cause of, uh, greater literacy equity. And it also had me thinking about the future, which I think is an important thing. So it’s a pleasure to be here and look forward to our conversation.
ALIDA: I want to ask you a little bit more about this piece on literacy versus literacy equity and the distinction that you found. How would you concretely describe the differences if you were explaining this to somebody who is just familiar with literacy drive campaigns of how do we increase the number of readers? What sets these two apart from one another?
KEN: It took a while for me to kind of understand exactly what that niche was, and, uh, to a certain extent, what I began to realize was that the Chicago Literacy alliance, for example, was not properly speaking a literacy organization, but rather a literacy equity organization, in that we didn’t provide direct instruction, uh, with regard to the various tools of various literacies, right. We weren’t primarily serving direct communities, but what we were doing was a set of concrete interventions that were lowering barriers to access. We did that through promoting greater coordination. We created the nation’s first and only co-working space that was dedicated to literacy. And part of that was about, uh, leveraging the power of co-location, about the power of collaboration, but primarily this idea that what we really need is more effective network building and coordination. And so we figured out, both through the Literacy Center program, that physical space program, as well as an initiative that we developed called the Literacy Equity Initiative, uh, and literacy equity insights dashboard about developing more effective ways to do what I call asset based, equity focused, data informed, and kind of community partnership work to increase access to educational opportunity. What I’m trying to elaborate is kind of a distinction between organizations that do direct, um, educational work and organizations that seek to expand the sort of systemic conditions for that educational work to succeed.
ALIDA: And I’m wondering, one of the things we talked about when we were first getting to know each other was that you do have this background in religious ethics that you were at the divinity school at the University of Chicago. I wonder if you see a relationship between that area of study and the practice that you’ve taken on now, when it comes to literacy equity.
KEN: So my academic training is in religious and political ethics. I did a dissertation on civil disobedience and democratic theory and, broadly speaking, kind of developing a kind of vision of emancipatory justice through some particular conversations in that. So that gets pretty abstract and arcane, uh, to a certain extent. But broadly speaking is how is it people express their values in public, and how is it that we convene a shared conversation about those values in a way that’s equitable and inclusive and takes us in the direction that we’re going. One other piece of this to kind of inform this conversation about the relationship between my literacy equity work and my background is when I was at the CLA, I got a little piece of feedback at one point, part of, like, a 360 review where somebody had commented like, well, Ken’s not really specifically a literacy guy, but he’s more of a landlord running this space, uh, because we operated the literacy center. But I recognized that to a certain extent, when the CLA got to the business of crafting its equity through literacy framework, its theory of change, that was informed by a concept that I’ve been pushing forward basically in my professional work called civic fluency. One of the problems with viewing literacy as a human right or using that slogan is that it’s really only good for a slogan. It’s kind of communication by bumper sticker or by sweatshirt, right? But it doesn’t, it sort of moves past a number of really important, vital conversations. One, it presumes that you already know what literacy is, which, in the world that we live in, raises the very good and legitimate question of, okay, who was part of that conversation that decided what literacy is, right? And who wasn’t part of that conversation, right. And it also contributes to a number of unfortunate patterns of thought that kind of correlate with literacies and literacy equity thinking, one of which is that literacies are binaries, right. That it’s either something that has an on or off switch, and that’s actually fairly inaccurate to what literacies are. So literacies are, in fact, continuums, right. We’re all on continuums of literacies upon which we can all grow. And the important thing about that is that when we think that way, it gets us out of this mode of saviorism and more into a mode of solidarity. And I think that that’s also really crucial, uh, for doing the work, because it gets into a lot of difficult challenges with regard to establishing effective and equitable partnerships with communities, um, if you’re bypassing some of that stuff. So this is where I kind of felt like my background in my academic training began to crucially inform this work. So I think of this idea of civic fluency, really as the proper orientation of literacy equity work, and what civic fluency invites us to do is to think about what are the full range of skills and capacities needed to live a full human adult life in community, right? And this, I think, is the way that we begin to orient the conversation, futures oriented. It’s deliberately inclusive. We begin to invite people into that conversation to imagine what that looks like, and then begin to think about how it is that we start building the capacities to get there.
ALIDA: In terms of Civic fluency and what it takes to have a good life in community. How do you define that?
KEN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the concept of civic fluency, in essence, is intentionally vague and is intentionally something that one can always approach and never reach, and that that’s, in fact, an asset to it right? So, one way of thinking about civic fluency is that thinking of it as the beloved community of literacy, right? It is a concept that organizes a collective conversation about what our individual and collective flourishing might look like, right? In some respects, uh, organizing your appeal around a complaint is a kind of deficit thinking, right. That’s another one of the patterns of thought that is difficult when you begin to talk about literacies as binaries or literacy as a human, right. That it sort of is a short path from that to deficit discourse, which often involves describing groups of people by virtue of what others think those people lack. And nobody really is all that excited about being defined in that way. So I am looking for a variety of different ways to kind of think through how we can alter our way of talking about the work. And this is a big part of what my work as Director of Thought Leadership at the Barbara Bush foundation for Family Literacy is about, is trying to invite a conversation, even internal to the sector, about how we can more effectively promote a sense of urgency to our cause more by the vision that we want to realize than by the harm that we’re trying to avoid, right? So, in these situations, uh, I can provide a definition, I can provide a conceptual framework for civic fluency, but the value of it really is a way of orienting our thinking, to invite an inclusive conversation about what that looks like. And so that’s what I’m hoping to promote.
ALIDA: When I think of literacy, I think of two activities, writing and reading. But it almost seems like we’re living in a world where writing is more important than the reading of the writing, if that makes sense. It was that point that made me start to think a little bit more about an argument that Richard J. Seymour makes in The Twittering Machine, which is that what we are experiencing is not an explosion of social media platforms, but an explosion of people manifesting a very strong desire to write, that we have become scripturient, and that is what it means to have 6 billion people on social media platforms, including people that may be categorized as illiterate which, again, how can you interact with a social media platform if you can’t read and write when text is the primary mode of communication, although not the only one? And I wonder, if you have any thoughts on that.
KEN: You know, when I first kind of got connected with this work, and I was doing work at the CLA, I was realizing and only considering literacies from the perspective of reading and writing. It seemed to me that the fundamental value proposition of reading, at a certain extent, was this, uh, insight for people to come to understand that they are not alone and they’re not as different as they think they are, right? And I think that this is one of the things that’s really important about defending the freedom to read. Intellectual liberty, right. Through pushing back against book bans, right? The fundamental goal, ultimately, of book band is to keep us from understanding ourselves and from understanding each other. We need to be really wary about that. So that’s the reading thing. So then the writing things, there are a couple of different issues there.
So, one of which is that the writing thing that I resonated with when I was first kind of understanding this, was recognizing that in my own practice, I had developed kind of a side hustle, uh, as an amateur music blogger, writing about a particular subset of musical genre, and recognized that, uh, I would never feel like I was done with a piece of writing until I knew something at the end that I didn’t know when I started. And that what writing provides is that opportunity to kind of push into novelty and to create, and to a certain extent, as influential and as helpful as AI might wind up being with regard to certain points of literacies, I don’t think that it’s ever actually going to replicate that press into novelty, and I think that’s something that is intrinsic to our human potential.
ALIDA: I think that’s an interesting way to get another question that I had for you, which is, what are you building towards? What is the future of literacy and literacy equity, in your view, from your perspective, based on the work that you’ve been doing in so many different ways?
KEN: Yeah,I think, Alida, that the goal there really is to create the ability for people to have ready access to pursue their own individual educational goals. And the future of literacy equity is in the creation of the circumstances which diminish the barriers to access to that. As I talk through this, I am kind of aware of some of the unavoidability of, uh, certain kinds of deficit discourse, or focusing on barriers, right? And really articulating what is the vision. And I think the vision is this idea that there is a ready path for people to be able to access those tools of cultural agency through the ability to connect with educational resources that serve their interests.
And I think the other piece of this, too, is that we engage in a way of building toward that future which expands kind of our moral universe in a way. By that I mean that there is also a way in which, as human beings and culturally, we’ve developed certain practices that have made us want to render our own particular experience of the world as normative for other people. And it’s fundamentally misguided. I took the long holiday weekend that preceded the time that you and I are recording this, uh, to take a quick trip down to Memphis. I wanted a return trip to the National Civil Rights Museum. I had been there before, but had had to cut short my visit a little bit. So this was an important return trip. And so much of the power of that experience was just, in some respects, recognizing the tragedy of how many obstacles people put up to this sort of realization that fundamentally, we’re all in this together, right? And that there is no them, there’s only us. People have invested a lot of time and energy in sort of false notions of kind of cultural distinctiveness, and it’s been counterproductive for all of us. And I know I’m talking about this as a really abstract level, but that’s fundamentally what motivates me. You know I talk about myself as a literacy equity worker because I’m really focused on what are the conditions that serve the purposes of emancipatory justice, and recognize that I’m not necessarily an expert on the educational principles. I have a better than average layperson’s understanding I would expect. But really what I’m trying to do is to foster a conversation that can make the sector work more effectively and to analyze some of the systemic pieces that make it really difficult for the sector to carry it’s workout.
One of the things I’m interested in addressing is not only how the, uh, educational practices, what I call anthropological practices, how we can do those better, but also how we can create a broader social political context to carry them out more effectively. And I think, what’s the middle point in between there, and again, this is the pain point that I think a lot of the nonprofit sector in the literacy equity field is in, is like, how can we begin to talk about the work in a way that enlists consistent enthusiasm among both funders and constituents and doesn’t prioritize one at the expense of the other? And I don’t know exactly how to do that. That is the goal that I am, um, trying to advance. This is an area of work that does not lend itself to silver bullet thinking. The literacy equity challenge is an ecosystem level challenge. You can’t solve global warming just by recycling more. There is no one piece, and there has to be a robust connection in terms of understanding the multi generational aspects of literacy equity, right? That there was an NIH study that indicated that the single biggest influence on a child’s educational prospects was the literacy level of the mother. I will hasten to add that that is not to contribute any sort of particular statement about the essential qualities of mothers. Uh, it’s just that only 4% of American households are headed by fathers alone. And so in order to have a statistically significant sample for the study, they just isolated the mother. So what I tend to say is it’s the primary caregiver. And I think that that is ultimately, uh, an important piece, but that speaks to the intergenerational quality.
You know another way of looking at it is that there’s a factoid out there, and I’m still trying to pin down the exact citation for this, but that for every 100 hours of a child’s life between birth and high school graduation, they spend 9 hours in school and 91 out. And as a society, we keep trying to leverage those nine. In some respects, that’s probably because it’s the area that we have the most social or political control over. But I also think that sometimes the debates about schooling are really proxy wars for other things, about confidence in public institutions and other kind of political questions. But what it does bring up is this, uh, attention to the fact that it really is, like, 90, what’s. What’s happening in that 91%? Obviously, some of that’s sleeping, right? So then you get to waking hours, but also the importance of what happens in those Pre-K years, right? How is it that we provide the structural conditions that provide enough bandwidth for people to be able to contribute to the language environments of their young children, right? And we live in a world that has constrained those pretty significantly through a number of forces. Socioeconomic injustice, the prison industrial complex, right. Has limited people’s access, children’s access to those kinds of things that can promote their greater literacy.
ALIDA: What it brought up for me, as you were sharing, was also, I think, a question about what kinds of literacies we undervalue or underestimate, because we have this very specific view of what it means to be literate, what good writing is, what being a good reader is, and we do talk about the social injustices and inequities that prevent access or that widen this educational equity gap. There’s also this question of what literacies are we missing? Because we think about certain populations of people as lacking in literacy or not having literacy. What literacies do they have, what stories do they have, what modes of civic fluency do they have?
KEN: Right, and how do we begin to correlate those with, uh, increased access to social, cultural agency, right?
ALIDA: Exactly.
KEN: Yeah, and that’s fundamentally a big part of the literacy equity challenge, so absolutely, and one of the things I bring up quite often is to bring to people’s awareness that reading and writing are inventions. They are not natural capacities. The visual interpretation is a natural capacity. The language capacity is a natural. The fusing of the two was something that it took a very long time for us to invent. If you imagine that the human species appeared on the planet 24 hours ago, we’ve been reading and writing for less than the last half hour. It’s roughly less than 2% of human time on the planet has involved those activities, right? So for the bulk of human time on the planet, whatever literacy is represented involves something very well involved. Different things than that, right? So I think it’s important in bringing that up to recognize that sort of artificiality, right? That in some respects, that. That kind of, uh, neuroplasticity connection that we advance as a species, that’s not part of the hardwiring, right. That has to be recreated and passed along, right. And so it’s one of the things, particularly because there’s tremendous aspects of stigma involved, and there’s a tremendous kind of stereotype threat, if you will. Uh, that’s involved in thinking about people living with low literacy, that their low literacy somehow reflects a kind of cognitive lack. It doesn’t, right. This is not the issue. It’s about whether or not they had sufficient access to an effective means of passing along these skills that they could pick up. I know that when I talked with some adult literacy providers in particular, they said it’s really hard to get foundational education support. There’s a lot of good workforce development stuff, but it was really hard to get foundational education support for adults, in part because of the stigma and the supposition that, uh, there was sort of a moral failing, that if you didn’t have these skills by the time you were an adult, it’s kind of your fault, right? And it’s not really accurate. We haven’t bootstrapped ourselves individually to literacies. We are all the beneficiaries of people who cared for us enough to provide those skills in one context or another to the extent that we have them, right? And then, I think, to your point, the Barbara Bush foundation convened a group called the Adult Literacy and Learning Impact Network. All in. And I and my colleagues, Sarah Cassisio and Pam Cody, drafted a white paper on investing in multiple literacies for individual and collective empowerment and wanted to articulate this point, that we should be viewing the literacy’s landscape more broadly. And I think in part because it’s appropriate to the moment that we’re in, that we need to recognize that digital literacy, critical media literacy, health, uh, literacy, civic literacy, all these sorts of things, numeracy, right. Our financial literacy are all very important, and that there are other pieces that I think we should be lifting up. So, for instance, I think oral literacy and storytelling is a hugely important one to lift up, right? That, that piece of understanding, the levers of storytelling, the levers of persuasion, right? Those are really important forms of literacies, right? They are skills that get acquired that don’t actually require the specific inventions of reading and writing, right? But yet, they intersect with them.
Now, none of that is to diminish what I was saying about reading and writing before, in that reading and writing, in some respects, are gateway literacies, right. They provide access to other forms of literacies that, um, is not reciprocated. Right. You can read a book to learn how to play a piano, but no amount of playing a piano is going to teach you to read a book, right? So, uh, there is kind of a gateway is probably the best metaphor, but those pieces, and I think that that’s one of the issues that we bring out in the paper. And I think the other thing to point out is that I think the biggest piece of our literacy equity challenge, I don’t know that we’ve really lived in a substantively more literate age than we do now. Certainly, it’s the case that there have been various, uh, sort of reversals of various policy decisions that have contributed to a diminishment in, like, testing scores and reading and writing. But I think the larger issue that we need to be aware of is that the goalposts have moved dramatically, right. It’s a sports metaphor, apologies for that. But really, what we’re talking about is that the levels of literacies needed for that full human adult life lived in community that I used to talk about, civic fluency have changed rather dramatically. It used to be the case that you could have that level of participation with relatively low levels of traditional literacies. Now, however, you’re in a situation where 92% of jobs involve some sort of digital competency, right? And if you don’t have that, and I think the business sector is waking up to that. Like, all of a sudden, we’re rocketing forward in this. And the business sector is finding that they don’t have the ability to recruit the talent at the level they need. And it’s because we have done a pretty poor job of distributing access to educational opportunity, uh, historically, and haven’t caught up to the way in which technological advance has created increased demands on that human potential.
ALIDA: Thank you so much for sharing that. And I think it actually brings up my last question for you, which is, at least I would say this. I found the white paper that you wrote really illuminating. But for folks who are trying to understand educational equity, literacy equity, and their role or the part they play in it, where do you recommend they start? So my plug is, start with your white paper, but what’s your plug?
KEN: Well, thank you for that. That is very gracious of you. It kind of depends on where people are starting from and what they’re particularly interested in. I’m hesitant to give across the board advice. I know that people need to play to their own strengths. One, uh, work that I found really helpful in kind of understanding the relationship between educational equity and systemic racism is a book called the Color of Mind, uh, why the origins of the achievement gap matter for justice. And it’s by Derek Darby and John Ruri. And it points out a number of ways in which various pieces of kind of racial ideologies have migrated into things, into educational practices that people might not, they might see as racially neutral, but Darby and Ruri kind of uncover the ways in which they’re not. Um, I think it also brings up this important point that it is, in fact, the opportunity gap that precedes the achievement gap, not the reverse, right? And that we need to be paying attention to some of these issues about overall community investment, right? A big part of the educational equity, uh, issue has been created by systemic racism, redlining, disinvestment in communities, the expropriation of wealth through predatory real estate arrangements, right? All of these things have played a role, right? So, super helpful.
With regard to other kind of literacy equity issues, uh, there’s a long standing conversation, what’s referred to as The Reading Wars, about the appropriate ways of teaching. I think there’s some illuminating things within that, some books that kind of lay out the dimensions of that. There’s, um, Mark Seidenberg’s language at the speed of sight, uh, how we read, why so many can’t and what can be done about it, was a really interesting book for me. Another one that’s a little bit more kind of popularly oriented is a book called, strangely enough, it’s called Proust and the Squid, uh, by Marianne Wolfe, that talks about some of these dynamics of reading acquisition, and I think brings to attention certain fundamental, uh, pieces about that. And then the Science Of Reading that just came out from a scholar at the University of Chicago that kind of talks about the history of science that’s much more of a history of science book. And so maybe a little bit more for specialists than others.
One thing that actually was sort of surprised to find was that I was drawn to. There’s a discussion, and it kind of relates to this discussion about, uh, educational equity in the school setting and the science of reading. But there’s a line of conversation about the contrast between knowledge based education and skills based education. And authors, like Natalie Wexler and, uh, Edie Hirsch have written about. Edie Hirsch has a recent book called How To Educate A Citizen. And people might be familiar with him from the kind of, uh, Reagan era cultural literacy publication. And he took a lot of blowback, and the educational sector sort of viewed him as highly conservative, which was sort of a shock to him because he views himself as almost a socialist. I’ve been intrigued by what I’m learning in that line of thinking about, because, um, one of the key parts about advancing literacies is the ability to kind of link these tools and symbols that one’s encountering to lived experience. And I think one of the things that the knowledge based education is talking about is providing, uh, a way to compensate for those anchors, right? There’s a certain extent to which education is always going to serve as a catalyst for one’s readiness for it, right? That people coming in, children coming in with two different levels of readiness are going to be in different positions to capitalize on what education has to offer. And so the real question is, how do we begin to develop strategies that can, uh, ameliorate that, right? That can make that so that it doesn’t lead to sort of permanent, uh, stratification, uh, in terms of where people wind up? And I think Hirsch makes a pretty interesting case that the knowledge based education provides perhaps a more effective way for supporting the needs of students who might otherwise be more socio economically disenfranchised. It’s worth exploring, I think. And again, I picked up Hirsch’s book, expecting to disagree with it, and found that it was actually pretty compelling and was, I think, more oriented towards, uh, equity than I expected. Now, it rases the, the knowledge base education sort of requires the idea that you’re organizing the curriculum around, uh, providing a shared narrative or a shared subject matter that the school is discussing. And so I think you need to be really proactive about making sure that those discourses are inclusive and not hegemonic, that they’re not privileging a majority discourse, right. So I think there probably are ways to do that. I think that’s worth thinking through. So I think those are some pieces, uh, I think if people could connect in with what’s, uh, going out from the adult literacy and learning impact network, uh, in particular, I think there are a lot of interesting, uh, ways for people to kind of plug into that work. You know, in terms of what can people do that can help advance, I think, partnering with organizations that are building coalitions, that are building capacity to get out of an adherence to a kind of silver bulletism, uh, with regard to how they’re thinking. And I don’t mean to be using sort of a martial or violent metaphor with that, but the idea that there’s any one particular solution, what we really need, uh, is more effective collaboration. And I think there also needs to be an investment in understanding that, while sort of simple explanations might have an intuitive appeal rhetorically, they don’t often lead to success in solving complex challenges. And so I think that’s a place where people building their awareness and understanding that a lot of the potential and promise on some of these issues will take some time to realize, and having some patience for that and investing in that long term view will be helpful.
ALIDA: Thank you so much. It’s been such a pleasure talking with you, and I’ve added a lot of different titles to my reading list, which I think is appropriate for an episode on literacy. And I’m just really excited about the work that you’re doing and how this might promote what. I have a big bulletin. You can’t see it, and if you’re listening, you definitely can’t see it. That says, the good future. And I feel like this conversation was really oriented towards how we get there. So thank you so much Ken.
KEN: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure to chat with you today.
ALIDA: Thank you for listening to Care Work. Please share this podcast with other care workers in your community so that we can collectively create a culture of care.
This podcast is a collaboration between Ethos and Alida Miranda-Wolff.
Your host is me, Alida Miranda-Wolff.
Theme music “Vibing Introspectively” was written and recorded by Logan Snodgrass.
Production assistance was provided by Ivana Savic-Grubisich.
Audio editing and podcast post-production were provided by Organized Sound Productions.


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