The President’s Perspective
By Alderman Ashanti Hamilton
Common Council President City of Milwaukee
The extreme winter weather that has been the story of the past week, and many of us find ourselves dealing with school closings, days off of work and a general need to hunker down and stay warm and safe. While I am sure most of us would prefer to avoid the inconveniences that come with this weather, it has provided us with a unique opportunity to take a collective break from the day to day and explore new things with our unexpected down time. Maybe it is getting some cleaning done, catching up on emails from home or simply taking a minute to rest and have a day of self-care. Either way, we can take advantage of these closings to do something positive for ourselves and families.
My family and I utilized this re-acquired time to read. As a former English teacher, reading has always been something enjoyable for me but is also something I find to be of great importance to our society.
Books and literature provide us with a unique opportunity to gain an in-depth understanding and perspective on issues and experiences that extend beyond our individual lives. The knowledge I have gained from recent reads such as Evicted, The Color of Law, and Michelle Obama’s Becoming have been transformative, and altered the lens through which I see a number of societal problems. These books remind me of the need to be informed in order to make change. Taking some time to educate ourselves through the written word is one of the best ways to create a foundation from which we can make an impact on the world.
Finding innovative solutions to the world’s problems is not the only reason why taking the time to read is important to me. Promoting literacy has long been something that I have viewed as a cornerstone to ensuring a better future for our community. Through Be the Change and the Office of Early Childhood Education Initiatives, we have been working vigilantly to close the disparities in literacy rates that exist in Milwaukee. Without strong reading and writing skills, it is hard to succeed in this rapidly changing world. To prepare our kids for what lies ahead, we have to not only teach them to read, but foster a lifelong love of learning in our next generation.
One of the ways we can do this is through finding ways to connect our students to the material they are reading. For Be the Change, we use Dr. Alfred Tatum’s ID curriculum from the University of Illinois. The four pillars of this curriculum focus on how literacy can help an individual Define Self, Become Resilient, Engage Others and Build Capacity. Students are faced with questions that they deal with in their own lives. How can another person’s thinking give power to your own? Is justice always just? Can you use writing to define who you are? Using books such as Tupac Shakur’s The Rose that Grew from Concrete and Francisco Stork’s Behind the Eyes, the young men in our program think through these questions and develop their own perspective by reading material that they can relate to. Along the way, they start to apply that knowledge to their own lives and the reading becomes less of a burden and more of a joy.
When our young people read and write they open themselves to a whole new set of skills that will benefit them in the short and long term. Expressing yourself, understanding your identity and effectively communicating your ideas are abilities that will reap lasting dividends. These are the skills that our Be the Change Kings tell us they gain during their time in the program and are skills that we can give our kids at home and in school if we are intentional.
Be the Change is directed at our young adults, but promoting literacy can and must start even earlier. We know that reading to our children and exposing young minds to a wide vocabulary are essential to giving them the fundamental abilities they need for academic and professional success. Using the infrastructure of our Office of Early Childhood Education Initiatives, we hope to provide this foundation for every child in our City through Daycare and Early Education Centers; however, we need also to take this goal upon ourselves as a community. Many of us have little ones in our families. Let’s be intentional as a collective to give them a head start when it comes to literacy.
During this time of harsh outdoor conditions and an infinite list of school and office closures, we have been given the ability to spend our time on the things that are important to us. My challenge to us is to be intentional about our literacy. It truly is the key to higher levels of knowledge, success and change than we may think possible.