Alison Austin, Washtenaw Literacy

Published on May 29, 2024 in

I never expected an angry customer to transform my life completely.

Thirty years ago, I was working in a local pharmacy. Every Saturday, the same customer – a man in his 50s – would yell at us for one reason or another. I made it my mission to make this man smile. And so, every time he came in, I went right to him saying hi, how can I help you? It took me about a month to realize that he was so grumpy and mean because he couldn’t read. He was upset because we moved products or were out of things so he would be confused or unable to find things. Finally, after a month of me doing everything I could to build rapport, he asked me to help him find a birthday card for his mom. When he asked me to read the cards aloud, it confirmed what I already suspected.

I reached out to Washtenaw Literacy to see if I could refer him. After learning more about their programs, I started volunteering with the organization. I never could have predicted that 30 years later, I’d still be involved with Washtenaw Literacy and I’m now the program director. Over the years, I’ve come to understand the extent of the need in our community and the diversity of people who need literacy help. Like many people, I had one profile in my head of somebody who struggles with literacy as an adult. It was honestly pretty narrow and shallow.

I didn’t think about the diversity of people from all different economic walks or people with learning disabilities or intellectual limitations or trauma. I didn’t think about ALICE or immigrants. So many of these groups were missing from my vision. That’s why I feel like the 21-Day Equity Challenge is so important. It truly challenges us to see beyond stereotypes.

Washtenaw Literacy has participated in the Equity Challenge every year as an organization and always put a call out to our volunteer tutors to participate. We also offer opportunities for our volunteers to get together and talk about their experiences during the challenge. We reflect on the daily content and discuss what it means for our lives and what it means for our tutoring. When they’re sitting down with a learner who looks different than them, or who is from a such a different country or has different learning needs, it really opens their minds and helps them to be more inclusive from the first moment a learner makes eye contact.

I have never ceased to be moved forward by the Equity Challenge content. Each year, I feel like I learn something and when you know better, there’s an obligation to do better.

Washtenaw Literacy provides literacy support, free of charge, to adults through a network of trained tutors. You can learn more about the organization including how to get literacy help or become a tutor here.