Gene R. Nichol: Fighting for Literacy in North Carolina

Orange Literacy logoGene R. Nichol is arguably our state’s leading expert on the subject of poverty. His new book, The Faces of Poverty in North Carolina, reveals the many years of interviews and research he’s done on the subject. Nichol will be interviewed by the best-selling novelist John Grisham at Orange Literacy’s annual fundraiser, Writers for Readers. In today’s post, Nichol discusses the link between poverty and literacy, and invites all of us to consider supporting Orange Literacy. More information can be found at:  Follow them on Twitter at @OrangeLiteracy.


I’ve spent a good deal of time, over the last decade, in low income communities in North Carolina. That work has taught me, close up, that the economic hardship experienced by many of our sisters and brothers is more intense, more constraining, more debilitating than most of us imagine. Wrenching poverty amidst great plenty is, no doubt, this state’s greatest challenge.

But it’s also true that in every locale and corner of North Carolina remarkable folks are to be found who – with few resources, but with strong skills, unyielding determination and stout hearts – struggle selflessly to sustain and empower those who are, at least temporarily, having a tough time of it. Orange Literacy shares both those roots and those aspirations. And it makes a bold and decided difference in the opportunities and life chances afforded to many of our most determined, resilient and clearly heroic colleagues.

No doubt the path to literacy and educational opportunity is also soundly linked to dignity and social justice. As Susan Attermeier, Orange Literacy’s co-founder, puts it: “every staff and every volunteer here understands that an adult who cannot read or write feels alienated from society and does not have access to economic security and the fulfillment of her personal dreams.” Orange Literacy’s inspiring students demonstrate, daily, the pride that attaches to newly gained job opportunities, previously unavailable promotions, and hard-won academic achievements. Parents learn the joy of helping their kids in school. And, maybe most telling, students gain the satisfaction of taking risks, striving hard and meeting their best aspirations.

I’m deeply honored to be able to join in this year’s Orange Literacy program. (And beyond grateful for John Grisham’s help.)  One of the folks I was fortunate to interview extensively for this book is Pat Yates – for many years the much-loved literacy director of Wayne County in eastern North Carolina. Pat said that “one of the biggest underlying causes of the wrenching problems in Goldsboro is low literacy,” or what she sees as “the ability to function most effectively in the world.”

In the old days, Pat says, “real literacy wasn’t really necessary to get a decent job.” Good, family-sustaining jobs “weren’t dependent on those sorts of skills.” But now, “jobs with every significant employer in our county require analysis, language, and technical skills.” Those without them come to feel “isolated, excluded and disempowered.” Helping folks move past these hardships, past functional illiteracy, Pat reports, is truly “the work of the heart.”

Congratulations to Orange Literacy for its marvelous, sustained and expanding work of the heart.


The Faces of Poverty in North Carolina: Stories from Our Invisible CitizensGene R. Nichol is the Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the author of The Faces of Poverty in North Carolina:  Stories from Our Invisible Citizens, just published by UNC Press.