Chicago nonprofits aim to dismantle systemic inequalities by improving literacy rates


Miriam Bloom

Kevin Coval and Idris Goodwin were the keynote speakers for the virtual event “DECODE,” hosted by the Chicago Literacy Alliance Oct. 1-2. 

Lucia Kouri, Co-City Life Editor

For the experts on the frontlines of Chicago’s youth literacy crisis, the key to dismantling systematic inequality among Chicago youth is connecting the written word to a lived experience.

Kevin Coval and Idris Goodwin were the keynote speakers for the virtual event “DECODE,” hosted by the Chicago Literacy Alliance Oct. 1-2. 

The purpose of the webinar was to discuss how systematic challenges impact Chicago youth, and the role that literacy can play in dismantling those systems. 

As educators who both grew up in Chicago, Coval and Goodwin discussed the importance of providing mentorship to Chicago youth who aren’t given the tools at home or in school to improve their literacy. 

“Certainly I don’t think Idris and I had that kind of mentorship, or that kind of student-teacher relationship when we were younger and were craving that,” Coval said in the webinar. “As teachers — mentors — now on the other side, I think I see our responsibility as really hearing a kid.”

According to the Chicago Literacy Alliance, 39% of Chicago Public School students do not meet or exceed reading standards and 61% of low-income households do not own any children’s books. CLA believes that providing youth with literacy resources is not just important but necessary to preserve democracy in Chicago.

The Roseland neighborhood’s “Bursting Into Books,” a nonprofit literacy organization that serves children from 6 months to 18 years old, is one of over 100 organizations in the Chicago Literacy Alliance that have made it their mission to provide youth with literacy resources. 

Bursting Into Books’ founder, Jurema Gorham, explained that youth in her community need the same kind of literacy-related mentorship that Coval and Goodwin discussed in their webinar. 

Prior to the organization’s founding, Ms. Gorham explained that she wanted a place where her son could go to read and improve his literacy skills. However, there was nowhere in her neighborhood that offered such resources. 

As she began to express her concerns to more and more parents, she realized that she was not alone in her desire for more local resources.

“It was cool because it just helped me see that it was a need, and not just a need for us,” Ms. Gorham said. “Other parents were feeling the same way.”

Ms. Gorham stressed the importance of providing a space where young children can go to normalize the experience of reading.

“It’s easier to get a kid excited by reading when they’ve always been around it versus when they’re like middle school or 10th grade,” Ms. Gorham said. 

With the closure of schools due to COVID-19, Bursting into Books is becoming increasingly necessary. At the same time, Ms. Gorham claimed that transitioning to remote learning has actually allowed the organization to expand its services to communities outside of its own neighborhood. 

Online has really been more of a benefit because now location isn’t an issue.”

— Jurema Gorham

“Online has really been more of a benefit because now location isn’t an issue,” Ms. Gorham said. 

Having an organization unrestricted by location, allows Bursting into Books to work toward fulfilling its mission on a broader scale. 

“They’re doing interactive activities, we’ve got guest authors, and they’re doing live games and talking about the books,” Ms. Gorham said. “Students are in a space that’s really been designed for them.”

These kinds of spaces are what Kevin Coval and Idris Goodwin claimed were most important for kids to have growing up, and what hundreds of organizations across Chicago are working toward facilitating, so the next generation of Chicago youth to grow up able to tell stories about a different lived experience.