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Books Are Playing a Role in Elevating and Transforming Chicago Communities

Illiteracy rates are high in Chicago, and Open Books is working to fill the void.

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, Smart Chicago Collaborative / Flickr

Snuggled under scaffolding in Chicago’s West Loop is an inconspicuous entranceway that leads to Open Books, a bookstore with over 54,000 used books on its shelves. Nearly all of the books for sale are donated, as are the 55,000 for sale online and the 20,000 more at its Pilsen location. This Thanksgiving will be the eighth anniversary of the first store opening, in Chicago’s River North.

Here in the West Loop, Open Books is the anchor store for the space above it, the Literacenter, a co-working space of 123 Chicago-area literacy programs and organizations that range from theater and poetry to childhood homelessness support and books for prisoners.

Tim O’Brien, Open Books executive director—and a former Open Books volunteer—says they process about 650,000 books a year. The book granting team hand-selects books to give to students, classrooms and homes, with a goal of capturing early readers with age- and interest-appropriate stories. “If the student sees themselves in a character, if they identify with the story, they’ll want to read more,” says O’Brien.

This, in turn, leads to community building. For example, cookbooks, especially for baking, are popular among young people because they foster engagement with a parent or grandparent—it gives the family something to read—and do—together.

The bookstore also supports multiple Open Books literacy programs, including creative writing workshops and a publishing academy.

Stacy Ratner, one of the original founders of SitterCity.com, founded Open Books in 2006. When looking for a non-profit project to engage with, she had asked herself three questions: Is it emotionally sustainable? Will I be able to do more good than harm? Does my city need this?

After Open Books, she formed the Chicago Literacy Alliance (which opened the Literacenter in 2015), when she realized just how many literacy programs there were in Chicago—and that none of them were working together or knew about each other’s work. Today, CLA’s member organizations serve 18 million people annually, both children and adults.

Smart Chicago Collaborative / Flickr

Literacy is one of those things many people take for granted—even those who are reading this article right now. But in Chicago, Ratner says nearly a third of the adult population—880,000 people—would benefit by improved reading skills. According to some reports, the number of functionally illiterate adults in Detroit is close to 50%. Meanwhile, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has declared other countries, including Bolivia and Cuba, to be nearly free of illiteracy.

In the U.S., students and adults often lack the support they need to learn to read, and lack access to books at their reading level. O’Brien and Ratner tell of a ninth-grade teacher who reached out to them seeking books about parenting at a third-grade reading level—in Spanish. Unfortunately, they were unable to find such a book, but they were able to put together information using brochures and with the help of a translator. They work hard to fill voids, so no one is left behind.

Ninety-seven percent of the students Open Books serve are low-income, except in their publishing academy, where 60% attend on scholarship. Wherever possible Open Books provides support for students in their native languages, including Polish, Russian and Spanish, in an attempt to reflect the demographics of the community.

Their connection with the Literacenter’s 123 organizations helps with that. Chicago Hopes for Kids, Kids Like Us and Literacy Volunteers of Illinois, among dozens more, including Free Write Arts and Literacy and Chicago Books to Women in Prison provide opportunities to uplift and connect people with resources across cultures.

The Literacenter includes 4,000 square feet of recreational space with a kitchen, foosball table, Wii, pianos, ping-pong, board games, and movie nights. “Just because you’re making less [working in a literacy non-profit] doesn’t mean you should suffer,” says Ratner, who chooses to lead by “servant leadership.” Her office, which she shares with O’Brien, is in a windowless back corner of the basement. The rest of the offices, with the big windows and high ceilings, are for members, she says, and she likes it that way. After all, they’re “helping build joy of reading and writing,” says O’Brien.

In a country where public education can be described as a war, Open Books and Literacenter are an inspirational gem of collaboration and a model for other cities seeking a deeper level of connection, rooted in literacy.

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Full disclosure: The writer is involved with a new Detroit-based literacy organization, Blackbird Literacy, and is collaborating with Open Books.

Valerie Vande Panne is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Columbia Journalism Review, The Guardian, Politico, and many other publications.

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.