CCR 651: Language & Literacy

Literacy, Power, and Social Change

This morning, our class discussion of literacy moved to an argument about power—a discussion about how literacy is controlled and distributed. Then, a claim:

“If we want to use literacy development for social (or community) change, we cannot do it within traditional educational institutions.” And then a question:

“If that’s true, then what are we doing trying to teach literacy for social change in universities?”

This question followed a discussion of literacy sponsors. Brandt defines these sponsors of literacy as “any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy—and gain advantage by it in some way” (166).  That is, sponsors are authorial figures who hold the power regardless of whether they are doing something beneficial for others—such as enabling or teaching—or doing something beneficial for themselves—such as regulating or withholding. And in fact, sponsors hold that power regardless of whether or not they share it.

And though we, as writing teachers, are certainly sponsors of literacy, Brandt argues that we are not the only, or the most powerful, ones. Instead, we act as “brokers” who make our students aware of literacy uses and how they can best navigate a literacy economy (183). For Brandt, then, social change can’t come from traditional educational institutions because writing teachers aren’t powerful enough to make that change happen.

Community literacy is defined by Peck, Flower, and Higgins as “literate acts that could yoke community action with intercultural education, strategic thinking and problem solving, and with observation-based research and theory building” (200). More specifically, community literacy supports both social change and intercultural dialogue, presents strategies for decision-making to the conversation, and addresses a genuine inquiry (205). Within this context, then, community literacy is a collaborative effort to enact change.  And according to the authors, education and inquiry are central to community literacies (214-5).

This education isn’t necessarily attributed to institutionalized education, though. Peck, Flower, and Higgins write, “When university faculty enter communities to “consult,” they often assume their expertise is immediately transferable” (219). This speaks to the power struggles between sponsors and those who are sponsored. Then, a community literacy must negotiate these power struggles and engage with them in an open, intercultural, multi-vocal dialogue to make change. From this perspective, educational institutions can support change, but they cannot control it without community collaboration.

And finally, Kates approaches power and literacy from an historical perspective. Within the segregated South, the Citizenship School founders believed that if community members learned to read and write, so that they could register vote, “they could better address the poverty and social problems faced by their community” (485). In this way, literacy became a tool for fighting social injustice (491) and also a larger community commitment: “The acquisition of literacy comes with a particular responsibility—service to others who do not possess the ability to read or write” (496).

Though the Citizenship Schools were obviously educational institutions, they were not traditional schools. There was also an extracurricular element to these schools because as the students gained reading and writing literacy, they held classes in their own homes and attracted more community members to the cause (487). Because, in this context, literacy acquisition was (and still is) dependent on very real economic and racial barriers, traditional educational institutions alone would not have been able to enact social change through literacy. And as Kates points out in her conclusion, universities still struggle with these issues through service-learning programs.

None of these three articles answer a resounding “yes” to our abilities to enact social change within educational institutions. What they do show is that literacy and its effects are always contextual and local. Who is the sponsor of literacy? Who are the sponsored? What is the historical, cultural, and political context? What is the purpose, the end goal, the “social change”?

Can we teach literacy for purposes of social change within university power structures?


Brandt, Deborah. “Sponsors of Literacy.” CCC 49.2 (May 1998): 165-85.

Peck, Wayne Campbell, Linda Flower, and Lorraine Higgins. “Community Literacy.” CCC 46.2 (May 1995): 199-222.

Kates, Susan. “Literacy, Voting Rights, and the Citizenship Schools in the South, 1957-70.” CCC 57.3 (Feb. 2006): 479-502.


One thought on “Literacy, Power, and Social Change

  1. First of all, I’m glad you’re keeping such studious and well-written notes about most of our class discussions. Takes a load off my shoulders 🙂

    Second, I think one thing that’s missing in our discussion is the “value” of literacy (defined as simple reading/writing) in individual homes. Each individual is connected to innumerable literacy sponsors, but if the individual doesn’t VALUE literacy, then s/he won’t pursue collaborations with those sponsorships, or seek to navigate our literacy economy. A few years back, I volunteered with this Big Brother type program, and the kid I mentored is going to be fine, despite growing up in a rough neighborhood with parents whose English isn’t spectacular. This kid is no doubt going to college and moving into the middle class because he’s interested in things and enjoys academic work. Why? One major reason is that his parents value literacy; their tiny apartment is full of books and magazines and newspapers, in Spanish and English.

    Lacking this kind of family-level valuing (is that even a word?) of literacy, an individual has the deck stacked against her in terms of valuing literacy herself. Lacking value, literacy takes a back seat to other concerns, no matter how many sponsors abound.

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