Mayor seeks DLC help in anti-poverty fight

May. 08, 2014 @ 08:26 PM

Building on the theme of his State of the City address earlier this year, Mayor Bill Bell asked the Durham Literacy Center to help find resources for teaching literacy in poor areas of North-East Central Durham, the first focus of the anti-poverty effort he announced during the February address.

Lack of literacy “reinforces poverty,” creating a cycle of low earning potential and hopelessness, Bell said. He called poverty the number-one problem facing Durham. “If we’re not careful, Durham will become a city of the rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots .…” he said during his keynote address at the Durham Literacy Center’s annual breakfast Thursday. “As Durham’s mayor, I do not believe the situation is hopeless,” Bell said.

In February he called for a neighborhood approach to fighting poverty, and he asked the Durham Literacy Center’s officers and supporters to join other groups in the campaign. When he visited the neighborhoods in North-East Center Durham, “I did not see a lot of people who did not want to work,” he said. People in poverty often “just needed a means and a way” to end the cycle, Bell said.

The annual breakfast honors a Leader in Literacy with an award, and highlights the achievements of a student in one of the Literacy Center’s programs. This year, Barbara Newborg and her BIN Charitable Foundation were honored for their work in literacy. Newborg first came to Durham in 1942, and after receiving her medical degree from Johns Hopkins in 1949, returned to the city. She became a volunteer tutor at the Durham Literacy Center in the late 1990s. Newborg and BIN “have assisted in the literacy empowerment of thousands of Durham residents, and ensured local access to literacy training for decades to come,” her award stated.

One of those people Bell said needed “a means and a way” is Walter Ireland, a student at DLC who spoke to the audience. “It took one person for me to be standing here today,” Ireland said, and thanked his tutor volunteer Shawna Alkon. Getting connected to the center was “the best thing that ever happened to me. From there, things took off,” Ireland said.

His story confirms the link between literacy and poverty. He entered school in 1961 in Jersey City, New Jersey. He repeated many grades, and eventually got promoted in spite of his poor reading skills. “I remember a teacher telling me, I’m so tired of looking at you, I’m going to pass you,” he said. He joined the Marines (where he enrolled in a GED class hoping to learn to read), but after three years in the service was discharged because he could not read the manuals to do his job in communications. “I just couldn’t read to advance,” Ireland said.

After being discharged, “I drifted. All I wanted was to read,” he said. His inability to get a good job led to homelessness and drug addiction. His tutor began working with him in February 2010 and he is now an avid reader, he said.

“More than anything, what this program gave me was identity,” Ireland said in a brief interview after his speech. “More than anything, I wanted to feel like somebody.”

Ireland now is working toward his GED and getting more computer skills. While getting off of drugs gave him a good feeling, it did not compare with learning to read, he said. “Reading just opened up a brand new door for me,” Ireland said. “Ever since I found that, I have never looked back.”