Rock for Reading: Literacy's Amplifier
Chicago-based singer-songwriter Alice Peacock is a tireless advocate for literacy. She and her husband, Hugh Haller, formed the organization Rock for Reading to leverage their relationships in the music world to serve the cause of reading. We sat down with her to discuss the organization, the power of books and why benefits are better held indoors.
Editorializing: How do you define the primary goal of Rock for Reading?
Alice Peacock: Our mission is to shine a light on the problem of illiteracy and assist grassroots literacy and reading organizations here in Chicago, to start with, using music as a vehicle to raise awareness and mobilize support.
How widespread is illiteracy?
In Chicago, one out of three people is considered functionally illiterate, which means they can't read above a third-grade level. Some have the skills to sound out words, but they lack reading comprehension — they can't put what they are sounding out into a context that has meaning. There are a lot of statistics about illiteracy on the Rock for Reading Web site, but the implications of those statistics are what is really alarming. When a child is not read to, for instance, he starts school unprepared. He has an extremely limited vocabulary and enters the system fundamentally disadvantaged. Even well-meaning parents think, why should I read to my infant? He can't understand me. But if you read to your infant, he becomes accustomed to certain sounds and eventually starts to recognize basic elements of language.
What are some of the other deficits associated with illiteracy?
If you can't read, you do not have the option to be a fully engaged member of society. It is extremely difficult to become aware of cultural and political issues. Illiteracy creates isolation, which further marginalizes people. If you look at our history, whenever there has been an institutionalized effort to control a population, it has involved barriers to literacy. It was illegal to teach a slave to read; women were discouraged from reading. Reading gives people power. It is a path out of poverty and toward understanding our differences. And, of course, reading is fun. Reading is dreaming.
How does Rock for Reading help?
We seek out grassroots programs that have difficulty applying for big grants because they don't have the resources to compete in that arena. We have a one-page application form that makes the process very simple. We want these organizations to be able to count on us for annual seed money so they can grow and reach more people.
Have you found this to be effective?
Yes. We recently made a grant of $5,000 to the Sue Duncan Children's Center, in Hyde Park. That money helped them hire a part-time reading specialist, which means they were able to bring another dozen or so children into the program. They are a perfect example of the kind of group we want to help. They provide the kids with after-school tutoring, one-on-one mentoring and daily hot meals. And they teach accountability. A lot of these kids have no structure or discipline in their lives. The mentors want to know how they're doing in school, and they explain the importance of doing well. They teach them simple things that seem obvious to us, like the fact that you make more money as a teacher than you do working at McDonalds; they tell the kids what the dollar-for-dollar earning ratio is if they finish high school and go to college vs. dropping out of school.
Who are some of the other beneficiaries of Rock for Reading?
One of the most innovative organizations we've helped fund is called SIT STAY READ, which is built around the principle that children love dogs. The program uses animal-therapy techniques to encourage children to associate the fun they have with dogs with reading. Studies have determined that reading out loud is a key factor in early literacy development. If a child is reticent to read in front of his peers, he will be at a disadvantage in school. Through SIT STAY READ, children are able to practice reading aloud by reading stories about dogs to dogs. The program's reading specialists come into the school and sit down one-on-one with the kids — well, two-on-one when you count the dog. The kids are so excited on SIT STAY READ day, and the teachers absolutely love it.
Rock for Reading also supports the Little Saints Readers program, which is an offshoot of the Casa Juan Diego Youth Center. It's based in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, which is a Latino area. A young, idealistic reading teacher started this kids' book club there. A lot of these children had never associated reading with anything but homework. She said, "We're going to read 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe' — it will be read to the younger children — and we're going to talk about it, and as a reward, I'm going to take you all to the movie." She needed something like $400 to be able to buy the tickets. Her funding request was passed on to us by our sponsor LaSalle Bank, which doesn't handle grants that small. We asked Little Saints Readers to apply for a grant so we could help them create a formal, year-round program. In the short term, Rock for Reading used its discretionary fund to take the 70 kids and their 17 chaperones to the movies. These children and their mothers were coming up to us and giving us these big hugs. A lot of them don't go to the movies, so this was a real treat. This reading teacher had a great idea; she just needed some help. Now she can count on Rock for Reading as a resource. We will go to publishers to help her get copies of the books and do everything we can to get the activities associated with the books donated. This program helps create a culture of reading for the children.
How did you come to start Rock for Reading?
I wanted to contribute to my local community, so I contacted my neighborhood school, Mayer Elementary, which is a block away from my house in Lincoln Park, and I started talking to the teachers. I said, "I'd love to come over and play for the kids and talk to them about music and what it's like to be a songwriter. Or do you need volunteer tutors? Maybe I could also come in and read to the kids."
Literacy is one of those underpinnings of society that people don't realize they're losing until it's gone, and it's going; the fabric is unraveling.
I've always been a voracious reader; it's a passion of mine. And the teachers basically said, "Yes, yes and yes." It just kind of snowballed from there. During that first visit to the school I spoke with the reading specialist, who told me the school did not have a library. I was stunned. All the schools I went to had libraries; I'd never heard of a school without a library. And the classroom libraries are sorely lacking because teachers have to buy the books with money from their own pockets. I'd heard for years about art teachers having to go out and buy supplies, and that's bad enough, but it hadn't occurred to me that this was going on with something as basic as books. I thought it was ridiculous because we live in this fairly affluent neighborhood and anybody here could write a check for a classroom of books. Most of these kids don't have books at home either. They don't understand what it is to own a book, to have their own private, special relationship with a book. It's something most of us take for granted.
When did you realize you wanted to expand your reach beyond your neighborhood?
I started finding out more about the realities of literacy in America. The National Endowment for the Arts released a study called "Reading at Risk." Literacy is a basic standard of measurement of how developed a society is — like life expectancy and income per capita. And this report made it clear that we are in crisis. Literacy is one of those underpinnings of society that people don't realize they're losing until it's gone, and it's going; the fabric is unraveling. It's overwhelming. I know we can't solve this problem by ourselves, but I was sure we could make a difference. We knew that education and activism is the crux of solving the problem. So we just started small; we just did something.
How did that something turn into Rock for Reading?
In 2004 I did a book drive for my local school. Teachers submitted a wish list and I did a fundraising drive at one of my Chicago concerts to buy 36 copies of "The Outsiders" for the sixth grade class. The Chicago Sun-Times approached us and asked what else we'd like to do, and I said, "I'd like to do a concert." The paper gave us lots of ads and space to promote the organization, and a local promoter helped us put on our first Rock for Reading concert that year. 30 artists were there ready to perform — Cheap Trick, Robbie Fulks, Otis Clay, Kurt Elling, Ella Jenkins, who was doing a special show for the kids. And then we got rained out. It was so disappointing. But we learned a lot about putting on a show like that, including that we should do the next one indoors. Lucinda Williams and Nickel Creek performed at our 2005 event and it was a big success. By then we'd gotten our not-for-profit status and formed our board of directors and our advisory board and had really gotten organized. We also did a live event with Steve Winwood at WXRT, which has been a big supporter of my music. The program director's wife is a teacher and the issue really hit home with him.
When is the next Rock for Reading concert?
It will be in October at the LaSalle Bank Theatre [formerly the Shubert Theatre], which is a jewel of a venue. We're working with our promoter, JAM Productions, on getting a national artist.
Who are some of your other sponsors?
LaSalle Bank has been a critical partner. They sponsor the Chicago Marathon and all kinds of other sporting events, and they're also big supporters of the arts. We'd heard from a friend who works on the marathon that they were interested in getting involved with a literacy group, so we approached them and they were really happy to get involved. They've given us a corporate sponsorship and introduced us to some of our other benefactors. LaSalle Bank also sponsors the Shamrock Shuffle, which is an 8K race here in April. That helped us get media exposure and by tying literacy in with sports, the issue starts to gain a certain mainstream social presence.
We're also now working with the Chicago Tribune. Through the Tribune, Rock for Reading is participating in the Printer's Row Book Fair, which is the third-largest book fair in the country.
Corporate sponsors are used to stuffy sit-down dinners, but when they come to our event, they relax and really get into the music and have fun — it's rock and roll, baby.
It regularly attracts 100,000 people — authors, booksellers, readers, families. It's a really cool event and it gets a huge amount of publicity. The Tribune is very interested in family literacy and stressing the importance of parents reading to their children, because children do what they see.
How did you go about putting your board together?
We looked for passion for reading, and all these people who really believe in what we're doing volunteered to help us. Our friend Paul Natkin came aboard as co-founder. He has so much enthusiasm. Hugh and Paul and I were constantly talking to people about it, and so many of them said, "I want to be involved — how can I help?" Of course, we also looked for people with strong corporate ties who could help us with fundraising. One of our board members, Amy Eshleman, is the Assistant Commissioner of the Chicago Public Library. The library has been an incredible partner for us. The commissioner, Mary Dempsey, is on our advisory board. We have a lot of diversity on both the working board and the advisory board. Kurt Elling, the jazz vocalist, is on the advisory board, and so is Ella Jenkins, who recently received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Our promoter is on our board. The publisher of the Sun-Times is on our board. With a lot of these folks, one phone call opens doors. They are extremely busy people who help us so much just by doing whatever they can. As far as our working board, we've been fortunate in attracting people who know how to pick up the ball and run with it.
ALICE PEACOCK'S READING LIST
- Trumpet of The Swan, by E.B. White (my favorite from childhood)
- Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
- Written on the Body, by Jeanette Winterson
- To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce
- Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy
- Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand
- The Tragedy of King Lear, by Shakespeare
- Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
- Little House on the Prairie (the whole series), by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- Woody Guthrie: A Life, by Joe Klein
What do you bring to Rock for Reading from your career as a performer?
Because of my experience with the media as an artist, I understand the platform I have. A lot of organizations take years to build an identity and figure out how to market themselves. We had a jump on that because my work is sharing my experiences and feelings with my audience, and literacy is extremely important to me, so it's very natural for me to talk about it. And we also have an advantage because most of the corporate sponsors are used to going to stuffy sit-down dinners, but when they come to our signature event, they relax and really get into the music and have fun — it's rock and roll, baby. That spirit is contagious; I think it brings more people to the cause.
How much money have you raised?
In 2005, which was our first full year of operation, we nearly raised our funding target of $100,000. And of that, more than 80 percent goes to the organizations we support — the various nonprofit watchdogs say the average is about 65 percent — because we have an all-volunteer staff. We work very hard to keep costs down.
How did you figure out how to do this?
We're still figuring it out, but we had some invaluable mentors early on, including Marianne Philbin and Jo Moore, who founded the Chicago Foundation for Women. They wrote a book on the best practices of nonprofits, and they very generously consulted with us, showing us what we needed to do. One of our board members is an attorney who really knew how to structure the organization, and he was a huge help. Our attitude was that if you wait to learn everything you need to know to get fully organized, you'll never get started. So we just jumped in.
When I was growing up, my brother and sisters and I would invariably say, "Mom, I'm bored." Her response was always the same: "Read a book." What are your own memories of reading when you were a kid?
Well, our family was unusual because we didn't own a TV until I was about 12. My dad would rent one from the local hardware store for the Olympics or the Rose Bowl. Even when we did get a TV, my parents monitored our viewing very closely; it was one show and then it was off. They read to us every night, and they took us to the library all the time. I started signing out my own books as soon as I could write my name. The idea that I could sign my name and take books home, then bring them back and take out a whole bunch more — it was so empowering to me. I spent my childhood with my nose in a book. I was always pretending I was Laura Ingalls Wilder living in the woods; I acted out everything I read.
How did that feed into your becoming a songwriter?
Part of why I'm a songwriter today is because I love stories, and that's the case with a lot of songwriters I've spoken to. They'll tell you about books that inspired them to be writers, that changed their lives. I'm promoting my new album now, and everywhere I go, I'm going to take the video camera and ask the musicians and songwriters I see what they're reading, what their favorite books are and why they think literacy is important. Music is such a universal, shared method of communication; it crosses over ethnic and economic boundaries. If you can get musicians talking about reading, reading becomes cool, and kids start thinking of it as something fun to do.
What have you been reading?
I just read "Their Eyes Were Watching God," by Zora Neale Hurston. The language is so interesting because the story is told in vernacular — the dialogue is spelled out phonetically the way the characters speak. The storytelling and the mythology and the romance ... it's just wonderful. I recently started "Native Son." Hugh's reading "To Kill a Mockingbird." We went to the Illinois Humanities Luncheon honoring Mary Dempsey, and there was a discussion about books that had been banned. "Their Eyes Were Watching God," "Native Son" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" were all banned. I have a button that says, "I read banned books." And, of course, I have a big stack of books I'm just dying to get to. Every time I read a really good book I'm reminded of how it transports me to another place. I love when a writer captures something so perfectly, something you feel but didn't even know could be put into words. That connection between the reader and the author is very powerful.
How do you know Rock for Reading is having an impact?
The groups we sponsor are required to submit reports about their progress, about how many more people they've been able to help, about improvements in their programs and staff — we have a whole list of criteria we ask them to consider so we can measure our effectiveness. But the real measure of how we're doing is right there on the kids' faces. Seeing how our efforts affect their lives has had a huge impact on all of us. That realization is both wonderful and horrible because they're so bright and so curious, and they're so excited that we're there with books for them. But they need so much — I want to take them all home, let alone read to them. Getting to know the kids just makes you want to do more.
One of the best experiences I've had since we started Rock for Reading was with one of the kids at the Sue Duncan Children's Center. I'd seen him several times and I knew he had a very bad home situation. We started talking, and I asked him if he'd thought about what he wants to do when he grows up, and he looked at me very intensely and said, "I want to be a teacher." I was so moved. I said, "You will be an excellent teacher." I don't know if he'll become a teacher — I just wanted him to know that I thought he could do it. I wanted to reinforce that and help him stay focused on his future. I always say, if we help one kid, we're solving the problem.
Do any of your beneficiary groups work with adults?
Yes. We're currently assisting BEST Adult Literacy in Inglewood, which is a tough neighborhood in Chicago. One of their major goals is making sure their clients master
An 80-year-old man came in and said, "I want to learn how to read before I die."
the fundamentals of reading so they can study for their GEDs and improve their outlook for employment. One time when I was there, a woman came in who had been unable to read the label on a medication she was giving to her child. She'd given her baby the wrong dose and said she never wanted to make that mistake again. Another time, an 80-year-old man came in and said, "I want to learn how to read before I die."
I would think that's the kind of thing that keeps you going despite the difficulties of fighting this fight.
Exactly. We know we're not going to solve the problem of illiteracy by ourselves, but every neighborhood, every community, every person — if we all get involved and do a little something, you can make a difference. We think that if we can do this, anyone can. That's what a grassroots movement is: individuals coming together to start from the bottom up. Illiteracy is a staggering problem, but what are you going to do — give up? There's way too much at stake. Giving up is simply not an option.