Jan. 13 2023
As the new president and CEO of United for Literacy, I’m looking forward to starting new conversations and sharing ideas with you. I am writing this from my home located on the unceded territory of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation, the custodians of the lands and waters from which I come to you today.
2022 marked my 20th year of service with United for Literacy, which used to be Frontier College. It has been 20 years of learning, sharing, and—most importantly—witnessing the courage and determination of our learners of all ages, especially during these past few years, when the world went upside down. During this time, I have had the chance to witness how literacy changes everything! I’ve seen the ways it transforms lives, families, and communities.
Inspired by our learners who make the decision every day to show up and work to improve their literacy skills and reach their goals, we are pursuing our dream under our new United for Literacy identity. This dream is for people in this country have equal access to opportunity, easily navigate the demands of our contemporary world, and contribute to increasing social justice and prosperity for the current and next generations.
By now, you know that we are United for Literacy. But what’s in a name? Why did we decide to change the name that is so connected with our rich history as a Canada-wide literacy organization? We had our old name for much of our 100-plus years of existence. I want you to know that I recognize that the former name remains dear to all who have been touched by “The College,” as we used to say.
A few days after the launch of our new identity, a person asked me some good questions about the new name: What does “united” in the new name mean? Who or what are we uniting with?
I have a short and clear answer: United means that we are working in collaboration with others to improve literacy levels in this country. We are uniting with our learners, volunteers, staff, partners, donors, and funders to support literacy and learning for everyone who wants to work with us, whoever and wherever they may be.
So, what does this mean for the work we do?
There is an easy answer to this question as well. Back in 1922, for a few years, Frontier College was a degree granting institution. It was known as the “University in Overalls” by many and aimed at bringing education to all, especially individuals and communities who were usually given little attention by the formal education system. Alfred Fitzpatrick, the man behind this original vision, was clearly ahead of his time and a true visionary. Thank you, Alfred!
And why Frontier College? The answer can also be found in our early years, when we used to send Labourer-Teachers to what was then called the frontiers of the country: railway gangs, logging camps, and mine pits. The young people (primarily men) would travel from towns and cities to what were then remote regions. There, they would work alongside and teach reading and writing to the workers who aspired to a brighter future. Countless Ukrainians, Chinese, and Italian immigrants, among others, acquired their first words in English and French through the innovative literacy programs that Labourer-Teaches offered in the tents and rooms that were transformed into classrooms.
We love to tell the stories of the people who built this organization. The founder, Alfred Fitzpatrick, devoted his life to one purpose: providing access to education to all. This mission was also carried out by dedicated people, including Margaret Strang, the first woman Labourer-Teacher, who travelled on her horse to bring support to individuals in their learning journeys. Our history is rich and is the story of a powerful social justice movement, which was led by the early superheroes of literacy in our country. Then, as today, the mission was to bring education to all who wanted to learn. Our All Welcome! stance is rooted in the need for social justice. As an organization committed to removing barriers to literacy and aspiring to mobilize a national movement that recognizes the power of literacy, we have listened closely to our community.
In the last few years, when speaking and listening to our learners, volunteers, staff, partners, and funders, we have done some learning that led to the conscious decision of reexamining the way we fulfill our mission. We decided to look at who we are, what we stand for, and how we deliver value across the country. We looked to our past to envision our future. This was not an easy exercise for an organization with more than 100 years of history. But it was necessary since we want to continue serving our learners in the most equitable and inclusive way possible.
We rolled up our sleeves and looked at ourselves, our actions, our partnerships and allyships, and at the way that we choose to engage with the populations we serve, support, and learn with and from. We are thankful for having this opportunity, and will continue to learn, reflect, and evolve. As a result of this reflection, we are making proactive changes to be better allies and to use our voice and actions to this end.
So, what actions are we taking? Considering the long history of United for Literacy and the fact that we partner with over 150 Indigenous communities every year, we first need to acknowledge the role that United for Literacy played in promoting non-Indigenous education. This contributed to the colonization of Indigenous peoples and communities of Canada. As an education-focused organization, we’re committed to learning from our shared history. We will move forward in the spirit of change, growth, and reconciliation.
Thus, we adopt the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a plan for reconciliation, including:
United for Literacy is also working to advance the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action. We have the immense privilege to be surrounded by generous partners who teach us new things every day. At the moment, we are looking at the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and seeing where we need to focus our efforts. There is a long road ahead and we are just getting started.
Literacy touches all aspects of our lives, such as our housing opportunities, our health, and our level of civic participation, we must recognize the role literacy plays in creating fair and equitable communities and societies. So, in addition to our own work, we invite our learners, volunteers, partners, donors, and everyone in Canada to join us as we continue to listen and learn about Truth and Reconciliation and how to be good allies. To do this, we will continue examining and questioning our assumptions and talking to and learning from our First Nation, Métis, and Inuit partners.
We have also created a Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) committee composed of staff from all over the country who are working on increasing our capacity to address JEDI issues. This is critical for us to be successful at reducing barriers to education for all. We are currently finalizing our JEDI framework and action plan for the next three years. The principles guiding us are underpinned by respect for the dignity, rights, and full participation of all those who work and volunteer within or partner with the organization, and those who are served by the organization. We intend to share this plan with everyone who plays a crucial role in the delivery of our mission.
Additionally, we are collecting more specific information from the people we serve and partner with so that we can even better assess the literacy needs in communities. We are looking at if and how we need to adjust our program models to serve our learners in the best ways possible. Again, this is just the beginning. This is ongoing and crucial work.
Beyond the clarity and feeling of togetherness that the new name brings, United for Literacy conveys our solid foundations—the strong connections we have with our learners, volunteers, partners, donors, and communities. Together, there is no doubt in my mind that we will keep turning more places into learning places as we enter this new chapter.
We cannot do this work alone. We will continue to mobilize more volunteers, partners, and communities to ensure everyone in Canada has the skills and confidence they need to learn and achieve their goals through the power of literacy.
Whether you have been involved with us for years or are just getting to know us, I hope you will join us in this journey and that you will continue to help us drive change. I encourage you to unite with us and join us in our renewed vision for the future. We look forward to learning and growing as an organization—with you at our side.
— Mel Valcin