The global adult literacy rate has improved over the past 50 years from about 50% to 86%. Still, according to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2016, more than 30 million adults could not read. One organization helping reduce this number is the Racine Literacy Council (RLC). Beyond its mission of teaching adults to read, the non-profit organization has expanded by offering computer classes, financial management courses and driver’s education. Steven Mussenden, executive director since 2015, discusses how he arrived at RLC, its mission and what he would like to achieve in the years ahead.
What brought you to the Racine Literacy Council?
I started working at nonprofits right around 2006. I worked with the Wisconsin Black Chamber of Commerce, started on their board and made my way to president of the organization. I worked with a lot of business owners in Milwaukee. One of the things that was a reoccurring issue was the lack of education. Some entrepreneurs may have had a great product or great service, but they didn’t have the education background that they needed to make their businesses successful. I figured if I’m going to work with entrepreneurs, why not start working with them from the beginning stages and that’s the education component.
What accomplishment by the Racine Literacy Council are you the proudest of in the time you’ve been here?
The implementation of our most recent program, the high school equivalency diploma (HSED) program. This May 22, eight people graduated with their high school equivalency diploma. Of the eight students graduating, six of them have already indicated that they will be seeking post-secondary education. I am really excited and looking forward to expanding this program into the next semester.
How does the RLC work with other organizations?
Currently, we are trying to get an inmate program. A lot of times, there’s a high rate of recidivism because they [former prisoners] either don’t have an education or don’t have a job. The Racine Literacy Council can step in and provide literacy services prior to them leaving. The hope is that, once they come out, they become students here. That pushes them forward and gives them a positive outlook on things as opposed to thinking they have to do what they did previously to make ends meet.
How can people become involved with helping the literacy council?
We are always in need of volunteers. Right now, we are trying to work with the Racine Unified School District. I’m from Kenosha and in Kenosha, they [the school districts] have mandatory community engagement for the students. They must complete a certain number of hours of community service. I’d like to incorporate that, so students can get an idea of what they want to navigate towards. This gives them the idea of what a work environment looks like. For the adults, all we want is two hours a week. It’s difficult because we are so reliant on having volunteers or tutors come in that it can determine how many students we take in. If we have a flush of tutors, we can probably get up to 300 students a year.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
One of the things I am going to start focusing on in the fiscal year of 2019 to 2020 is really taking a grassroots approach of getting into the community. I had an experience where I was out in the community taking care of business for the office and I ran across two people literally around the corner. They didn’t know about the Literacy Council. I thought it was amazing that they lived around the corner while we’ve been here for 15 to 20 years. I mentioned it to them, an older lady and a younger gentleman, and she said, “my grandson wants to take his Commercial Driver's License (CDL) written test.” Two days later, a man comes in asking for CDL training and tells us his grandmother told him to come here. That was just an interaction with the community, walking down the street. You need to get out and start talking to the people and I think that’s the next thing I’m going to try to accomplish.