THE MIDLANDS LITERACY INITIATIVE AND ITS PARTNERS
In 1995, the United Way of the Midlands received a grant from the Knight Foundation, which funds community partnerships to address several priority areas, including education and economic development. Based on a community-wide assessment, the United Way had identified low literacy levels among area residents as a major obstacle to economic and social development in the Midlands, and this became the focus of the Knight grant. At the time, the various adult education programs operated independently, often duplicating their services, and businesses had very little involvement in adult education. The United Way of the Midlands used the Knight grant to create a neutral context for adult education providers to form partnerships and coordinate their services in the community.
The Midlands Literacy Initiative grew from this effort into an extensive coalition of partnerships. Businesses, faith communities, school districts, state agencies, and local literacy councils all contribute to the initiative. Since it began in 1997, the MLI has served several thousand3 learners through partnerships with family literacy, adult basic education, and workplace literacy programs.
The MLI unites adult education and business partners to advocate for high-quality literacy and basic skills education in the community and the workplace. The mission of the MLI is to “promote systemic change in the lifelong learning system, so that adults gain the skills they need to be successful and self-sufficient at work, at home, and in the community.” Since its inception, the MLI has been a business-driven initiative, actively seeking partnerships with businesses.
Local industries and sound business principles play a large role in enabling the MLI to recognize and serve the changing needs of the community effectively. Initially the MLI intended to offer pre-employment training for potential employees. However, the economy declined and local industries were not hiring as frequently. So the MLI shifted its focus to providing training for current employees. The idea of a pre-employment curriculum evolved into one that businesses could use to train their existing workforce.
Housed at the United Way of the Midlands, the Midlands Literacy Initiative is an umbrella organization for adult literacy and workplace training programs throughout the four-county area. The United Way supports the MLI by providing administrative and leadership support and by serving as its fiscal agent. In addition to supplying funds, United Way raises grant money for MLI-related activities. According to members of MLI, the United Way's role is important because it provides “neutral ground,” allowing community groups to form partnerships around the central issue of adult education.
Kathy Olson, director of the MLI and a United Way staff member4, guides the initiative, overseeing the daily operations of the MLI and its board and its many partnership activities. According to MLI board members and partners, the leadership provided by Kathy, coupled with the support and guidance of United Way administrators, has been essential to the success of the MLI. She writes grant proposals, follows up on MLI activities and initiatives, provides technical assistance to partners, and keeps the momentum going. She works directly with the MLI board and, in fact, was instrumental in recruiting the board members needed to build the MLI. Kathy says, “Adult literacy is a primary issue [affecting] other social issues in the Midlands and is the reference point for the MLI's development and for United Way's community-building focus. From the outset, we understood that the right partners had to be at the table if we were going to be successful.”
The advisory board assists the MLI director and plays an active role in fulfilling the MLI's mission by planning activities, such as assessing workplace literacy needs in the region, developing curriculum, or coordinating a screening day for new hires at a business. The board is also involved with initiating and maintaining partnerships and advocating for literacy in the community and among policy makers. Board members include representatives of local businesses, the state department of education, libraries, literacy coalitions, technical colleges, school districts, and adult education providers.
The MLI advisory board is headed by Robbie Barnett, Director of Operations for Honeywell International in Columbia. The centrality of businesses and their concerns in this group have brought structure and focus to its efforts. The board meets quarterly, and board members offer many reasons for its smooth functioning, such as open lines of communication, issue-centered agendas, passionately involved members, and strong leadership. As needed, the board forms subcommittees for particular issues requiring action, such as community awareness, curriculum development, and policy.
THE 80/20 RULE
Board members believe that "success breeds success," so they worked quickly to complete their initial tasks. They knew that to keep all partners engaged and to build support for the MLI, they needed speedy results. Board chair Robbie Barnett says they operated by the "80/20 rule." Instead of aiming for perfection, they aimed to get it 80 percent right at the beginning and to fix the other 20 percent once the program was up and running.
3United Way of the Midlands requires all grant recipients to submit data, including participation rates, but current data are not available for all MLI programs combined. (back to text)
4Kathy Olson is now the Vice President for the Education, Jobs & Life Skills Community Council at the United Way of the Midlands. (back to text)