As a first generation Indian American– the child of a Ph.D. scientist/inventor and teacher/school-owner, the significance of education was ever-present. Growing up, college was a foregone conclusion and the only open question was which graduate field to pursue.For my peers and I in the metro Detroit area, we were fortunate to be able to tap into one of the country’s best school systems.
Like many Indian American’s—my father came to the United States in the mid-60’sfor his graduate studies and stayed on to work at the cutting edge of his field. Because the pursuit of higher education opened the door to the American Dream, Indian Americans have by and large done everything possible to keep that door open for future generations. This value of education and respect for the educated is part and parcel of the Indian culture. With its 1 billion + population, India’s educated workforce is largely responsible for the country’s economic growth over the past decade. Education has uplifted the country as a whole and for individuals it is above all, a means to level the playing field and a ticket to be in control of one’s own destiny.
With this world-view, I was stunned to learn that 47% of Detroit’s population is illiterate– it seemed unfathomable, not in 2012, not in the United States and not in my backyard. Over the past several years, I had worked to help a rural education program in India, because I understood that was where the need was greatest. It never dawned on me that perhaps I could be of greater service in my own community.I was embarrassedto realize that although I grew up in this area, I had no idea of the extent of the problem until I stumbled across the statistic in a GM documentary last summer.
I was so alarmed, that I feverishly began to research the social, economic and health impact of illiteracy. I couldn’t imagine how someone could survive in this day and age in an urban center without basic literacy skills. Today, even McDonald’s employees are required to have a GED certificate. What would become of these people, how would they manage day to day? It didn’t take much to put the pieces together– to realize thatthese were the individuals that were disenfranchised, almost from the start. Statistic after statistic made it absolutely clear, over 70% of juvenile delinquents, unwed mothers and welfare recipients are illiterate. And so, it became clear that people’s lives could be changed forever and the cycle of poverty and illiteracy broken, if a community-wide initiative was undertaken. From the research, it seemed that the area that had received the least attention, but with the greatest potential impact, was in the area of early childhood education—when the problem is first emerging, when it is easiest to address. Whether you looked at it from a social, health or economic perspective, any investment in this area made sense.
While work in third world countries is definitely needed, on one level growing up in the most prosperous country in the world but never having access to the “American Dream” is a different kind of cruelty—one that needed to be redressed. While we can’t tackle every problem,this one is within reach and something almost everyone can do something about. It has been impressed on me that as human beings, we should focus our attention & energy to do what we understand is most significant, where we can make the greatest difference. Notwithstanding the extent of the problem, this problem seemed to be one that we could tackle if we just decided to get involved. It would not require significant funding, monies, or even time, but simply a collective effort— that anyone that can read can participate in.
So, with an inspired and dedicated group of retired teachers behind the effort, we have made strides to partner with a first school, define and test a methodology that could be used by everyone and put together a framework for how to scale up the effort.
Now, all we need is you.