SILER CITY — This year, attendees of the Chatham Literacy’s Fall for Literacy Luncheon found something unusual at each of their tables: a small collection of small, rusty nails.
Why the nails? To honor keynote speaker Jaki Shelton Green, North Carolina’s 2019 poet laureate and a celebrated social activist and instructor within Duke University’s department of Documentary Studies. Along with a catered lunch and plenty of networking, Green took to the stage at Saturday’s event to speak about the power of storytelling.
But first, true to form, Green told a story: the story of one rusty nail. Her great great grandmother, a slave, had been separated from her mother as a child on the plantation where they worked and been sold away to another plantation. The reason? The white children on the plantation had secretly taught her to read and write. The mother kept a rusty nail as a personal token as she sought to buy her own daughter back from slavery. That same nail, like the story that accompanies it, has been passed through Green’s family for generations.
“...My grandmother said, ‘You have to know this story,” Green explained to the audience at the Western Chatham Senior Center. “Your job is to tell. Your job is to write.’”
Green’s longtime passion for serving members of all communities through writing complements Chatham Literacy’s ongoing commitment to teaching literacy skills to Chatham County adults, many of whom are learning English as a second language.
Linda Nalty, Chatham Literacy’s board chairman, said that the organization served 188 adults last year alone, its 11th year of operation. Chatham Literacy’s tutors provided more than 5,000 hours of free instruction to Chatham learners during that time. The result of that work is striking.
“Thirty-seven of those adults increased their literacy by at least one grade,” she said. “Twenty-six adults obtained a new job or promotion; 14 adults became citizens from that group.”
Carolina Fernandez Bello, a 15-year-old high school student, says there are plenty of families in Siler City that could benefit from literacy programs. She is even interested in becoming a tutor herself one day. Bello has watched her own mother, Olga Bello, improve her English skills through the program.
“She has gotten better at English…,” Bello said of her mother. “She doesn’t know a lot of English, but ever since she started coming [to Chatham Literacy], there would be times where I’m having conversations with my sisters and she catches onto what we’re saying and she asks some more about how to pronounce things. That’s something I’ve noticed about her: she’s gotten more excited about understanding English.”
Green encouraged English learners like Bello’s mother to keep investing in their own stories. She urged all those in attendance to show vulnerability, write out their own stories, and imagine themselves “as human museums” with many rooms. Those rooms, Green said, “are really your story rooms.”
“Only you should be the ones constructing these rooms,” she said. “Only you should have a conscious sense, or a conscious awareness of your personal power that is lodged deep in the DNA of your stories.”
Still, she shared a word of warning.
“In our immediate present lives in this American culture,” Green said, “we witness how judgements, stereotypes and fake information has literally destroyed lives. Be very, very careful with your power, and the powerful truths of your story.”
Retired educator Gwen Overturf attended the fall luncheon partly because of her interest in tutoring Chatham County adults. She became familiar with Chatham Literacy though her work with Communities in Schools. After years spent working with young students, she now wants to “make that little turn” and serve adults seeking higher levels of literacy.
“This has really gone so far to bring [together] not only people who are .... trying to acquire literacy and the people who want to impart literacy, but to bring Siler City more into the fold [of Chatham County] in a really positive way,” she said.
Joan Lipsitz served on Chatham Literacy’s board for almost seven years. She also spent time tutoring a young woman who later became a U.S. citizen. She recalled the memory fondly.
“It was thrilling,” she said. “My husband and I had tutored her and my husband got our representative to have a flag flown over the capitol... our congressman had a flag flown for her, in her honor, with a certificate. And that was our gift to her for her getting citizenship. And that was just thrilling.”
Lipsitz wants to see Chatham Literacy continue to work in coalition with other community nonprofits to serve Chatham’s changing demographics and “deep needs.”
Some of the nearly 100 fall luncheon attendees walked away with copies of Green’s many poetry collections. Others had won raffle prizes. But still more left the event with memories of a rusty nail and a renewed sense of urgency for community, collaboration, literacy and learning.
Vicki Newell, Chatham Literacy’s executive director, said more than $14,000 was raised for the organization at the event.