The Write To Read Project (W2R) began in 2009 when the Hon. Steven Point was BC’s 28th Lieutenant Governor and Robert Blacker, a recipient of the Meritorious Service Medal, was his honorary aide-de-camp at the same time that he was the district governor for Rotary International District 5040, the district that covers much of British Columbia. The project started with a conversation between the two of them about Rotary’s area of focus on education and basic literacy. Out of that conversation emerged the momentum and the action to collaborate with First Nations and Indigenous communities in rural, northern and underserved communities, to establish library learning centres located right in those communities, and operated by local residents. As the name of the project implies, literacy and education with Indigenous culture, traditions and knowledge as foundation pieces, are essential achievements in measuring success and building literacy equity.
The highly effective network of Rotary International’s clubs around the province and beyond has been a channel for advocacy and support. In addition to District 5040, District 5050 (Hope to Everett, Washington) Districts 5020 (Vancouver Island and western Washington State) and 5060 (Okanagan and central Washington) and others have contributed.
Working in collaboration with interested First Nations elders, leaders and communities, and with the support of the Government House Foundation and corporate sponsors, planning, funding and dialogue resulted in the building of numerous libraries and learning centres—twenty since 2011. All have been installed or built and supplied with books, materials, technology and informal training for staff and volunteers. Much of this has been achieved with volunteer contributions from hundreds of people and numerous organizations, and volunteerism remains a hallmark of the W2R effort.
Collection development is a collaborative effort with each W2R library, but processing and classification, both for opening days in new locations and for scheduled collection updates, are centralized in the Lower Mainland. This processing work is undertaken by a group called the Library Response Team, some of whom are retired librarians. With the growth in Indigenous publishing over the past decade, the materials going into W2R communities are highly representative of First Nations, Metis and Inuit stories and cultural traditions. The project is honoured to have Goodminds.com as a sponsor, with its ongoing commitment to donate books and e-resources that are either Indigenous authored or have Indigenous content, to W2R libraries and learning centres.
Evolution: From Libraries to Learning Centres and Community Development
The evolution from libraries that mainly circulated books to more multi-faceted learning centres began with the twelfth W2R community partnership in Nooaitch, west and north of Merritt. There, Band members requested video conferencing capability. That broadened the scope of programs to include adult learning online. This theme and technology component took hold and has been incorporated into the nine centres opened since. In a number of communities, the arrival of a W2R learning centre has also meant the first viable access to computers and the Internet for that area. While most BC residents take having a smart digital device and stable Internet connectivity for granted, these still aren’t available in some rural and remote locations.
In the case of the Tl’esqox First Nation, located 50 km west of Williams Lake, the W2R centre was part of a larger renovation project that turned the building it is attached to into a multi-generational centre. This centre includes early learning, youth and Elders programs as well as a recording studio for language and culture revitalization. This studio was made possible through a joint grant with the Rotary Club of Yarmouth, Maine. It enabled the Tsilhqot’in National Government to connect their radio station that broadcasts locally, and it is a resource for language learning and building of technology and broadcast skills for some community members.
As with most organizations, Write to Read has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in a slowdown of activity. However, two important and related milestones were reached this summer. Installation of a W2R library in the Gitsegukla First Nation took place in August. This is a hybrid library, serving the elementary school during school hours and open as a community learning centre after school ends. This W2R location is also the first to pilot the Simbi platform, an online tool that supports reading and literacy. According to its website, “classroom educators can use the Simbi platform to support their reading programs. Students can work independently to improve their reading skills on the Reading Journey and educators can use the Simbi platform to help them assess, organize, and plan their reading programs.”
Even with the background of the pandemic, contributors to the Write to Read Project are looking ahead and planning new initiatives. Over the next two months there will be updates to its website. Planning has begun for a W2R centre in the Aboriginal Mother Centre, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, reinforcing the contribution of libraries and literacy to community development. Similarly, a hybrid centre in collaboration with the Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw Ns7éyxnitm ta Sneẇéyalh is in the planning stages.
Recently, Write to Read submitted a funding proposal to large philanthropic foundation with a strong commitment to reconciliation. If successful, literacy kits would be developed and tested in selected W2R centres, along with culturally responsive teaching and learning strategies related to the kits.
Stronger collaboration with public and academic libraries around the province is a strategic goal of W2R. However, the first step is a virtual gathering of key stakeholders in the 11-year history of the organization. Discussion and agreement for a cohesive vision and endorsement of a set of common goals by W2R participants must occur before province-wide collaborations with other libraries can occur. In the meantime, smaller pilot projects are feasible, and a pilot with one regional library was discussed recently and is in the initial phase of exploration and development.
Lastly, and most exciting for those of us looking at decolonization, W2R has initiated discussion about decolonizing library classification. This will not be an easy task, since the Dewey system is so broadly used, including in W2R centres. It’s also helpful when Indigenous people want to navigate public library collections. The Brian Deer system isn’t yet adaptable for broad, general collections. So as the Write to Read Project moves forward, librarians will be asked to examine and explore new forms of classification, and work in collaboration with First Nations communities, to test decolonized ways of presenting and arranging knowledge and information. This is potentially a revolution in the making!
Gordon Yusko is an Advisor on the Write To Read Leadership Team. His ancestors came from Europe in the 20th Century and settled on the traditional, unceded territory of the Kwantlen First Nation.
The Nooaich Band is a member of the Scw’exmx Tribal Council
Pronounced “Toosey”, represented by the Tsilhqot’in National Government
Squamish Nation Education Department