Our History

Since 1975, Literacy Partners has helped more than 25,000 adults make better lives for themselves and their families through free adult education classes in New York City. Emerging from the social-justice and anti-poverty movements of the 1960’s and 70’s, Literacy Partners was founded as the New York City chapter of Literacy Volunteers of America. Begun by Ruth Colvin with $500 in federal funding, the organization has continually evolved, seeking and implementing innovative approaches to illiteracy in the five boroughs.

From the start, Literacy Partners has emphasized support for individuals excluded from education because of racial or ethnic segregation and discrimination, economic challenges, sexism, or immigration status. The organization’s first programs took place in collaboration with unions, libraries, and churches, where its model was based on one-on-one tutoring by volunteers.

Through its history, Literacy Partners’ ambitious mission has attracted a number of guardian angels who have advanced the possibilities and reach of the organization. The organization would not be where it is today if celebrated news anchor Carol Jenkins had not, in 1979, produced a documentary on illiteracy that featured the organization. When her friend, the noted gossip columnist Liz Smith, saw the reporting, she was astonished and began a lifelong personal commitment to support the organization, involving dozens of celebrities in her efforts over the past 30 years.

Starting in the mid-1980s, Literacy Partners began to build a community of corporate sponsors, including Chemical Bank, New York Life, Time, Inc and The New York Times, some of whom provided free classroom space in the evenings. Gradually the organization developed curricular content aimed at helping its students navigate health care, banking, and life in New York City more generally, adding AIDS education, financial literacy, and job preparation components to its classes.

With growing awareness of the toll of illiteracy, along with the effects of welfare reform, which sent thousands of parents into the workforce, the 1990s were a watershed period for Literacy Partners. The organization grew significantly with state and city funding to collaborate with Head Start programs and help women gain the reading, writing, and math skills they would need in the workforce. In 1995, the organization officially acquired its existing name, dropping Literacy Volunteers of New York City, and incorporated its first high-school equivalency diploma programs.

Liz Smith in 1995.

 

By 2000, with a growing number of immigrants making New York City their home, the organization again shifted to embrace a greater emphasis on teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages. The organization had expanded to 15 sites and, with the backing of a number of large corporations, was serving nearly 2,000 individuals annually.

In 1986, Literacy Partners held its first Evening of Readings gala.  With the visionary leadership of Liz Smith and her dear friends, noted fashion designer Arnold Scaasi and his partner, publishing executive Parker Ladd, the Literacy Partners gala became one of the most celebrated annual social events for New Yorkers, raising millions to support our programming.

After more than 30 years, the Annual Gala continues to be a focal point of the Literacy Partners year. Headlining the event have been corporate titans such as Michael Bloomberg, Jack Welch, and Rupert Murdoch.  They’ve been joined by a veritable honor of writers including Toni Morrison, Stephen King, Amy Tan, Tom Wolfe, Kurt Vonnegut, and Alice Walker among many others.  The giants of broadcast journalism hosted our event for more than a decade, including Barbara Walters, Peter Jennings, and Walter Cronkite.  Most would say, though, that the true stars of the event have always been the student readers, who present their amazing and inspiring stories that they are able to write down and share, sometimes for the first time in their lives, on the night of the Gala.

With the appointment of Executive Director Anthony Tassi in 2013, and following an extensive strategic planning process, Literacy Partners refocused its mission on serving the needs of low-income and immigrant parents of young children.  Focusing on parents was the most strategic use of our limited resources to address today’s problems, while equipping parents with the skills and confidence they need to make sure their children achieve academic success, thereby preventing the problem from being transmitted from generation to generation.  

To implement this new focus, we retooled our programming to provide a more intensive, evidence-based classroom experience that has yielded measurably positive (and dramatic) results for the families we serve. We emphasize the literacy and language skills that adults need to achieve their goals in today’s world, while integrating important insights into child development so they can better promote their children’s healthy development.

Today, we also provide each student with a home library with up to 15 age- and culturally-appropriate books for each of their children, while our teachers support our students to make family reading a daily habit. Thus, we directly address two of the biggest drivers of children’s early literacy skills and school readiness: how often they are read to by a parent and how many books they own.