People of Literacy Mid-South: Meet Ruby

Ruby Jones

People of Literacy Mid-South is a column that takes a close look at the folks that make our organization tick.

This week, we sat down with Ruby Jones, a veteran of the United States Army, a longtime volunteer tutor and member of Literacy Mid-South’s Volunteer Council, a representative body that speaks on behalf of our volunteers. Literacy Mid-South’s volunteers are the lifeblood of the work that we do surrounding improving outcomes for low literate adults. It would be much harder for us to help Mid-Southerners without people like Ruby.

During her time serving with the United States Army, Ruby learned to speak seven different languages, including Russian. This love of language counts as a large influence in her desire to help low literate Mid-Southerners improve their literacy abilities. She meets weekly with multiple learners, and they really seem to enjoy her focused, language centered instruction. One of the reasons that Ruby has such a fantastic rapport with her learners is her desire to be a teacher–she is a self-described “teacher at heart,” and actually chose to work with adults over the traditional classroom setting.

“Reading opens up so many doors,” Ruby said when asked why she chose to tutor adults over working in a school. “I believe everyone should be able to read. There’s a need in the Mid-South.”

For Ruby, the act of learning is life changing, and she gets “a thrill” at seeing her learners become more and more skilled as they work together. She has been working with her latest learner, Kimberly, for a while now, and there have been some pretty meaningful changes in Kimberly’s grammar, spelling, and math abilities. “I’m learning that there’s more than one way to be successful in life thanks to my tutor,” Kimberly said.

Ruby is one of Literacy Mid-South’s most experienced volunteers, and alongside serving on the Volunteer Council, she is a mentor for new tutors and advises them as part of our Tutor Expert Panel. Much of her advice centers on being flexible and understanding of the learners and their unique lives.

“It takes effort,” Ruby said. “The people we serve, they have lives–jobs, families, problems. That doesn’t mean that they don’t want to be here. They are adults, not children. They are trying, and that is a victory.”

Literacy Mid-South is here to help those who want to improve their reading and writing ability. If you know of someone who needs help, they can reach us at (901) 327-6000.

If you’re interested in helping someone who wants to improve their reading and writing ability, give us a call at the number listed above or visit us online to fill out our volunteer application.



Let’s Talk About Adult Literacy

adult literacy

Hi reader! Thanks for stopping by. I heard that you had some questions about adult literacy, and specifically about the work we do around adult literacy. So let’s talk about it. We don’t necessarily think that you don’t know what literacy is, but there is a lot more to it than just the ability to read. So, without further ado, let’s talk about literacy.

Okay, I’m here. So, what is literacy, exactly?

Literacy is “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts.” This is a fancy way of saying that literacy is the ability to make sense of written words, and in our case, words that are written in English. Our country is full of words and an individual who is low literate will have a harder time making sense of written words than one who isn’t. Think about it: if you had difficulty with reading, everyday things like utility bills, instruction manuals, prescriptions, job applications and books of all shapes, sizes, and genres could be a blank slate for you.

Wait a minute. “Low literate”? You mean “illiterate” right?

You could say that. But we are a society that places a lot of value on the ability to read, and the descriptive term “illiterate,” in our view, has some pretty negative connotations. We don’t use it to describe people if we can help it.

Besides, research has proven that literacy isn’t a static value–that is to say, the days are behind us where we think about literacy as: a person either definitely can or definitely cannot read. Literacy is best measured on a continuum, and individuals who are low literate vary between the inability to understand the most basic of words to the ability to read at a level equivalent to a middle school student. Those are the people we’re helping, and according to our research, the majority of the people that we serve have the same amount of reading ability as an elementary school student. But that measurement still doesn’t account for the ability to do things like fill out a deposit slip, find the time of an event on a flyer, or perform other simple tasks, which many of our learners can do.

Another term that people use is “functionally illiterate.” You can learn more about that term by clicking this link.

So how do people end up low literate?

The reasons are many and varied, but there are some universal markers: people of specific racial/ethnic groups, people at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, and people whose first language is not English are more likely to be low literate than other groups of people. This is very much due to the fact that people from these groups are walking around with a weighted knapsack strapped to them, so to speak: the disadvantages that they face as a result of social marginalization makes educational achievement difficult, even if they try really, really hard.

However, even controlling for this, there is still no one concrete reason for low literacy in adults, and to categorize literacy ability as achievement is wrong of me: Many of these adults terminated their high school career before they completed it, but many still have high school diplomas, and some have even completed college courses.

Even though we have difficulty discussing the reasons why people have a hard time developing intermediate or advanced literacy skills, we are very certain on the factors that DO NOT result in low literacy for adults:

  • Laziness
  • Lack of Intelligence
  • Ancestry
  • Ethnicity
  • Innate Ability
What do illit–I’m sorry, low literate adults look like?

Like you and me! I’m not joking. The most recent statistics report that about 14% of individuals in the United States of America are unable to read at a basic level. That’s more than 30 million folks, split up among all kinds of ethnicities, genders, religions, and walks of life.

More than 100,000 of those people call the Mid-South their home. And they’re a varied bunch of people, any of whom you could be interacting with on a daily basis. We’ve assisted aspiring novelists, business owners, and scholars. At Literacy Mid-South, we recognize where our adult learners have been, but we also focus on where they want to go.

Okay, okay. I’m sold. Low literate adults need help. But how can I help? I’m just one person!

There are a few ways that you can help. Advocacy is important. Tell your friends the truth about what low literacy in adults looks like. Spread the word on the effect it has on people’s lives. Dispel myths, rumors, and misunderstandings about low literate people, and point people in the direction of information and assistance.

If you want to be more active, consider volunteering with Literacy Mid-South. The dedication, time, and energy of our volunteers allows us to directly assist low literate adults across the Mid-South. Tutors not only assist adult learners in directly improving their literacy skill, they also help learners create confidence in their ability to achieve. Even if you aren’t able to tutor an adult, you can help at Literacy Mid-South’s special events, which help foster a joy of reading among Mid-Southerners. You can click this link for more information on volunteering.

If you are someone who is constantly on the go and can’t dedicate time, you can always assist with a financial donation. Donations provide Literacy Mid-South with the flexibility it needs to provide top of the line instruction and training to tutors, as well as assisting with other programs that directly impact the literacy ability of adults in the Mid-South, such as our Read Memphis project. Click this link for more information on donating.

Wow, okay. That’s a lot of information, but I think I got it.

Cool! I’m glad you stopped by to chat. Thanks for being so open minded about this and remember, you can stop back by here anytime if you have more questions!

People of Literacy Mid South: Meet Vernetta

Vernetta Anderson I like big books

People of Literacy Mid-South is a column that takes a close look at the folks that make our organization tick. This week we’re featuring Vernetta Anderson, a longtime member of Literacy Mid-South’s staff. Vernetta’s official position is Training Services Manager, but she wears many hats. Vernetta is a graduate of the University of Memphis, where she earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Business Administration. Her professional experiences are many and varied, as she explains below.

What do you do?

I manage the Read Memphis Project. It is one of our newer initiatives: a training and certification program that helps organizations set up their own literacy or adult education programs. In essence, we are replicating our Adult Learning Program in other community organizations. I assist Read Memphis partner organizations with navigating through the process to become a member of the Read Memphis cohort. I also oversee their training and provide them with all of the resources and materials that they need to be successful.

A number of organizations have already been certified by The Read Memphis Project to deliver literacy services to their clients. Among them are Shelby County Pre-Trial Services, Refugee Empowerment Program, Shelby County Division of Corrections and East End Church of Christ.

What is one of the biggest educational challenges facing the Mid-South?

The number of adults who struggle with reading has reached an epidemic proportion in our city. Adults are leaders of their families and are the pillars of our community, yet only a few providers exist in Memphis that serve adults who read below a 6th grade level. This low number of basic literacy providers for adults is the rationale behind the start of the Read Memphis Project. We need other organizations to join us in serving adults that are struggling with reading. Our attention to them will help them improve their long-term capabilities, which will directly improve the quality of life in the Mid-South.

Vernetta and BorisAs a longtime staff member, what has been your motivation for staying with Literacy Mid-South?

I have always been very sensitive to issues dealing with class, race and gender. So many people who are part of marginalized groups face serious literacy challenges, and a person’s literacy level greatly influences every facet of life and especially the opportunities that they can achieve. At Literacy Mid-South, we want everyone to have the opportunity to reach his or her full potential, and I am all about that.

What did you do before you worked for Literacy Mid-South?

As a volunteer manager, I helped present cultural exhibitions with the Wonders Series, and then helped present the performing arts at the Orpheum Theatre. I did a short stint in higher education teaching nonprofit management and ethics. I tell folks I used to work on the other side of the tracks, and now I work in the trenches…talking about a difference in class!

Would you switch roles with any other Literacy Mid-South employee? If so, who would you switch with?

I would not want to switch roles with anyone. I enjoy my role and feel that I am well suited to it. Due to my past experience with training organizations to set up their programs, I am able to speak to the administrative side of things, as well as the operations or instructional side.

If you could work any career for one day, what career would you choose?

I don’t know. I really have no idea, and I think that is mainly due to my having experiences in work that I could never dream or imagine. For instance, when the Olympic Torch made a trek through Memphis and the cauldron was lit during Sunset Symphony, on the banks of mighty Mississippi, I was a big part of that. It still gives me chills. While at the Orpheum Theatre, I had the opportunity to night after night stand in that grand lobby while the animals were launched down the aisles doing the opening act of The Lion King. Not everyone can include ‘misty water-colored memories’ in describing their work life.

If you could have any one real life or fictional superpower, what would it be?

Invisibility. (For some reason, this sounds better to me than being the proverbial fly
on the wall.)

What celebrity do people say you resemble? Do you agree with them?

I know this is not quite what you had in mind, but it makes a good story anyway. I had a job that required me to spend the day in a great deal of face-to-face persuasive social interaction with many people. One day I overheard some older ladies describing my persona, “Look at her go! She is like a black Scarlett O’Hara.” Did I agree? No, but still today I find the comparison most amusing, and the memory always brings a smug smile.

Describe what happens on a typical day off for you.

My off days begin early in the morning at the salon, followed by a wee bit of shopping (I call it blundering), then lunch with my husband, and I cap off the day by visiting a city attraction or matinee…and yes, I always have a plan for leisure.

What would be the title of your autobiography?

Plain Ole Garden-Variety Black.

Stay tuned for more People of Literacy Mid-South! Connect with Literacy Mid-South on Facebook and Twitter, visit us at, and subscribe to our blog to stay on top of all of our developments!

The Ballot or the Book: Literacy Tests as a Tool of Voter Disenfranchisement

african americans voting south carolina
African-Americans voting in the South Carolina primary on August 10, 1948.

As we merge at the intersection of Black History Month and the 2016 presidential election, it is important to look back at how literacy tests were used to keep voters from marginalized groups (who were mostly the descendants of slaves forcibly transported from African countries, but also poor whites and members of immigrant groups) from participating in the democratic process–a process that directly impacted their lives.  Literacy and education are and will continue to be a civil rights issue, a social justice issue, and an important step in creating a more equitable United States for all people.

Literacy tests–only one of the tools in the post Civil War voting disenfranchisement toolbox–were a simple list of questions that were given to potential voters to block their access to the ballot box. The questions on the test were either worded in a confusing manner or used to assess knowledge that members from these groups simply did not have. Tests were delivered by a single assessor who had the ability pass or fail a voter based on a whether he thought they deserved to vote. These tasks were often impossible: there are reports that literacy tests required voters to read and write complex government documents, and that the marginalized voters often received the more difficult tasks, while the privileged voters received simpler ones. Some tests were even more difficult. Here’s an example of a literacy test from Jim Crow Louisiana. Pay close attention to the directions, and keep in mind that there are 17 more questions as part of the test:

voter literacy test

Other methods to keep these disenfranchised voters from participating in the democratic process were poll taxes, electoral fraud, and outright violence. Many of these obstacles were scaffolded so that even if a member of a disadvantaged group managed to achieve success in one area, they would be faced with a more difficult obstacle at another point in the process. Literacy tests were effective in the case of former slaves when considering that before the Civil War, it was illegal to teach slaves to read.

These tests were in direct violation of the Fifteenth Amendment, but The Voting Rights Act of 1965 protects voters from marginalized groups against literacy tests and other forms of voter suppression. But literacy is still a foundational justice issue. Literacy is a fundamental tool of empowerment for all people, and those who do not possess this skill are often members of communities or groups that have historically suffered from structural oppression. Many individuals from these same groups still lack the ability to read, write, and understand English today, and this impacts their ability to live their lives to the fullest. The fight against low literacy is ongoing, and we need a multitude of help to combat this issue.

If you want to try your hand at more voter literacy tests, you can click here. If you’re interested in joining the fight against low literacy, consider volunteering with or donating to Literacy Mid-South.

The Mid-South Book Festival is Looking For Vendors!

Mid South Book Festival Street Fair Vendors

Last week, Literacy Mid-South issued a call to authors and publishers who were interested in making this year’s Mid-South Book Festival a roaring success. Now, the Mid-South Book Festival is extending an invitation to vendors who are interested in doing the exact same thing by occupying a space in our street fair! For a small fee, vendors will be able to set up their own rockin’ sales space on Cooper Avenue between Union and Monroe streets on the day of the Mid-South Book Festival Street Fair. From 9:00 am – 5:00 pm on September 10th, 2016, a few lucky vendors will be able to present their wares to over 5,000 literature-loving Mid-Southerners.

Mid South Book Festival Street Fair Vendors 2The Mid-South Book Festival will provide the hardware: chairs, tables, space, and audience. It’s up to you to provide the software–your awesome swag! Head on over to the Mid-South Book Festival website to access the vendor application. Booths are available on a first come, first served basis. All applications must be complete and include payment in order to be processed. Incomplete applications will be returned. Vendor space is extremely limited and not all applications will be accepted. Payments can be delivered via check, or paid via credit card using PayPal

Completed applications are due no later than July 31st to avoid late registration fees. Applications are being accepted via snail mail at:

Literacy Mid-South

Attn: Mid-South Book Festival

P.O. Box 111229

Memphis, TN 38111

You can also email your applications and any questions to

We hope to see you there!

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