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World Cafe hosts panel “Literacy and Libraries: Brazil and Beyond”

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Teta Banks, President of the Houston Chapter of the United Nations Association and World Cafe at Houston Public Library April 17 2014
Teta Banks, President of the Houston Chapter of the United Nations Association and World Cafe at Houston Public Library April 17 2014Marc Pembroke
Edward Nawotka, Sheri Elder, and Nicole Robinson at HPL April 17 2014
Edward Nawotka, Sheri Elder, and Nicole Robinson at HPL April 17 2014photo by Marc Pembroke

On Thursday, April 17, the World Cafe and Houston Public Library hosted a panel discussion on literacy in honor of National Library Week, with a particular reference to impressive progress by the Brazilian government in improving national literacy rates. The program began with a performance of Capoeira Luanda by the Brazilian Arts Foundation, and free samples of international coffee flavors were offered by Java Pura. The panel included Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief of “Publishing Perspectives,” Sheri Foreman Elder, President and CEO of the Houston Center for Literacy, and Nicole Robinson, Houston Public Library's Director of Digital Inclusion.

Publishing Perspectives” is an online journal of international publishing news and opinion that’s been called “the BBC of the book world,” with correspondents and personal stories out of New York, London, Beijing and Buenos Aires. Editor-in-Chief Edward Nawotka has traveled to Brazil and done extensive research on its literacy, national book industry, and governmental programs. Brazil had drawn international attention and acclaim because of its ambitious programs. UNESCO and Brazil's Ministry of Education released and action plan for 2012-2015 to ensure childhood literacy and decrease illiteracy rates. Among the goals were building 39 libraries per day until 2020. In his presentation Nawotka explained challenges in reaching remote areas with insufficient resources. He pointed out that while technology is a helpful tool, devices such as tablet computers are twice as expensive as in the USA, and most families cannot afford them. Currently, only 25% of Brazil is functionally literate.

Houston Center for Literacy works to improve literacy rates by connecting literacy providers and resources to support adult learners through best practice and resource distribution, advocacy, and volunteer training and placement. In her remarks following Mr. Nawotka, President and CEO Sheri Foreman Elder noted several surprising facts about functional literacy in Houston. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only about 20% of the adults in Houston are functionally literate, about the same rate as Brazil. While childhood illiteracy is a major concern, the adult population in Houston also has one of the lowest literacy rates in the USA. The situation is even more alarming considering the expectation that many of the jobs being created now require literacy and in many cases, college or technical training.

In her presentation, Nicole Robinson, HPL's Director of Digital Inclusion shared information about efforts to help lower-income students in under-served communities gain access to computers and technology. She mentioned that in middle class homes, there are an average of 13 books per child. In lower-income communities, there is an average of 1 book per 300 children. In order to reach give more children access to technology, in addition to programs in the main library and neighborhood libraries, “pop up” libraries in non-traditional locations are being planned. In addition, “digital libraries,” providing several dozen e-readers for on-site use and along with computer terminals with timed access to social networks and entertainment sites similar to a program in Austin are being studied.

The panel then responded to questions from the audience, several of whom were experts in related areas of literacy and education.

The World Café is a public forum co-sponsored by the Houston Public Library and the United Nations Association. Its purpose is to highlight global issues and raise Houstonians’ awareness of their impact on our community as well as identify opportunities to address them at the local level. The World Café encourages the public to “Think Globally. Act Locally.”