For nearly four decades, the Literacy Center of West Michigan has been embedded with communities to improve literacy skills of children and adults. In recent years, officials with the Grand Rapids-based nonprofit have experienced a growing demand from employers looking to tap non-English speaking workers to help resolve talent shortages. Executive Director Wendy Falb says working with these companies is just one issue that emerged during the pandemic as the organization relied more heavily on virtual instruction.
What are your priorities for the Literacy Center heading into 2022?
A couple of pretty high pain points are still out in the community that relate very directly to our work. One is the labor market. It’s such a tight labor market and we really work with some extraordinary individuals who are eager to upskill and get something beyond just the frontline work they’re doing. We’re just working as hard and as fast as we can to provide pre-employment certification. We’re also seeing more companies eager to retain, attract and upskill their employees who may not have strong English language literacy. We’ve got about 30 instructors now, but we’re worried about finding more.
The other is related to our family literacy program. So many children and families were really hit hard with COVID both in terms of their health and employment, but especially the disconnect families have had with schools.
With the most recent COVID-19 wave, have you noticed any effects of the relatively abrupt school closures?
Not necessarily in the short term, but definitely in the long term. Like with the kids, we’re struggling. We’ve moved very quickly to providing primarily virtual instruction, but we’ve been really pleased to open a number of in-person classes as vaccines were rolled out. It’s interesting because while virtual instruction removes some barriers for folks — child care, transportation — it has raised other barriers such as digital skills and access to Wi-Fi. It’s interesting because we give people an option, and they’re choosing virtual instruction.
The Literacy Center was recently awarded a $50,000 grant for an Adult Basic Education program. What’s the mission of this project, and how will the funding help achieve that?
We currently serve primarily English language learners, when English is not their first language. But we know statistically that the need is equally high with native speakers, particularly in the Black community because of historical structural inequities. I’ve personally felt — after years of working at Grand Rapids Public Schools and understanding the mandate that we had to give better adult education in the Black community — that we haven’t been very successful at it. We’re really determined and committed as a board to change that. But this is just the beginning. We’re eager to partner with trusted organizations and think very creatively about meeting people where they’re at in their lives, give them the dignity to learn, but not have literacy be a barrier. It’s really essential work for more equitable outcomes in our community. The adult literacy issue flies under the radar.
You recently told MiBiz that it seems like employers have “found religion” when it comes to solving talent shortages by pursuing non-English speaking workers. Why do you think it’s taken them so long?
I think people tend to take the path of least resistance. So often, companies are thinking in terms of innovation with their product development or expansion of their markets. They might see inclusion and diversity as something they’d like to do but don’t put the resources behind it because there are so many other demands for them. With the labor crunch, and probably the awareness that people are reawakened with, people are saying: ‘We can prioritize this.’ Now because it’s really affecting the bottom line, they can say it is a priority.
What have been the biggest challenges of operating in the nonprofit space during the pandemic?
We have had the same challenges everybody did: Our learner numbers were down, it’s hard to reach people. I give our team so much credit. We were providing virtual testing as soon as the national testing company allowed it. It took a minute to shift to virtual instruction, get people comfortable, and get computers donated.
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