People of Literacy Mid-South: Meet Dominique

Rhodes Literacy Memphis_P3A7318

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 talking to Dominique DeFreece, Summer Service Fellow for Literacy Mid-South’s Adult Learning Program. Dominique is from Delhi, New York and is a sophomore at Rhodes College. She is an International Studies and History bridge major, with a minor in Urban Studies. We’ve only had Dominique around for a short while, but she’s already proven herself a wonderful addition to the organization!

How did you start working with Literacy Mid-South?

In the fall of 2015 I saw that Literacy Mid-South was having a training session for new volunteer tutors. I decided to sign up to be a volunteer tutor because I was interested in helping adults learn how to read and write. Many people forget that things we do every day like understanding streets signs and filling out a job application involves literacy capabilities. After going through the training I was super stoked and decided I would take on two English Language Learners. I wanted to help Literacy Mid-South more, so I suggested that I be taken on as a Summer Service Fellow.

What kind of work do you do for Literacy Mid-South?

I am currently working on a literacy toolkit to be used with learners whose reading grade equivalency levels range from the 5th to 12th grade. I am looking forward to getting the toolkit to a point where we can test it out and see how learners can use it. This is super exciting to me because it’s something tangible that can benefit others. I’ve also been performing some other duties like revamping the handbooks that each adult learner receives. I’ve been attending the intake sessions for new learners as well.

What do you do on a typical day off?

There is no typical day in the life of Dominique–or as the people at Lenny’s Sub Shop like to call me, Dominam. [This really happened. We have receipts. – Ed.]

But seriously, I usually wake up at about 9:30 and get some brunch: my favorites are pancakes, eggs, and bacon. Then I might read a book or listen to some music. I like exploring Memphis, so then I might catch an Uber down town and window-shop or listen to some live music. Then I would have a snack and take an afternoon siesta. At night I would probably go for a walk through Overton park, hang out with friends, go bowling, or catch a Levitt shell concert.

You’ve only been working with Literacy Mid-South for a little while. What has been your favorite thing about the job so far?

My favorite part has been hanging out with Troy! No, I’m kidding.

So far I have enjoyed the office atmosphere at Literacy Mid-South. It’s really laid back, and I get to work independently. Also, everyone has been really nice. My favorite part of my work so far was sitting in on a meeting with a student who wanted to develop a middle school/high school reading/mentorship group. Before that I was unsure of who could use and benefit from my literacy toolkit. After that meeting though, I am really seeing the need for literacy resources that focus on middle school and high school level readers. I hope that my toolkit will benefit these individuals.

Describe your dream career. What would you be doing?

In my dream job, I would be the Secretary General of the UN. Watch out Ban Ki Moon! I would be responsible for holding the UN general assembly accountable, and trying to implement goals and projects that would benefit the entire planet. One of my main foci would be the education of girls and women around the world.

Dear White AmericaWhat is the last book you read?

Dear White America, Letter To A New Minority by Tim Wise. It’s a great book that EVERYONE should read.

What do you like most about living in Memphis?

I like how Memphis feels like a small town with big city resources. You can go almost anywhere and Memphis and see kind and familiar faces. Last week I was at the Shell and saw at least ten people I know. Unlike bigger cities, Memphis feels very open and accepting no matter where you are.

You have to live the rest of your life as a fruit–what fruit would you be and why?

I would be a Durian because no one wants to eat a Durian.

Tell us something about yourself that would surprise us.

……I’m vertically challenged.

Is the book better than the movie?

Yes. Movies always let me down.



Our Fifth Annual Literatini event is less than six hours away! Buy your tickets now! We’ll see you there. 


People of Literacy Mid-South: Meet Courtney

courtneymillersantoOur column People of Literacy Mid-South has introduced you to several of the staff members that make Literacy Mid-South tick, but we want you to get to know some of our board members, volunteers, and partner organizations as well. We wouldn’t be nearly as awesome without them and their work.

This week we’re profiling Courtney Miller Santo, a native Oregonian who’s made Memphis her home. Courtney is an English professor, a prolific author, and an all around great person. Find out more about her below.

What kind of work do you on behalf of Literacy Mid-South?

I am currently a member of Literacy Mid-South’s advisory board and I serve as co-chair of the Mid-South Book Festival.

How did you start working with Literacy Mid-South?

I spoke at the Literacy is Key Luncheon a few years ago, and I became aware of the organization and the fantastic work it does in our community. I immediately volunteered to help Literacy Mid-South in any way I could. Shortly thereafter I was approached to help with the Mid-South Book Festival.

What has been your favorite Literacy Mid-South related project or event?

Hands down the Mid-South Book Festival.

How do you think we can foster a love of reading and writing in Memphis?

Don’t apologize for what you’re reading. Embrace it. Are you reading about dragons to escape? That’s fantastic. Are you reading about how to be a better parent? That’s fantastic. Are you reading to impress someone? That’s less fantastic, but at least you are reading. Are you reading video game magazines? That still counts. Did you read an article on Buzzfeed today? Totally reading and totally awesome. This idea that the world is divided into people who like to read and those who don’t enjoy it is nonsense. Reading happens all the time. Find what you love to read and do more of it. I wish we would stop telling young readers and new readers that there are REAL books and once they tackle Ulysses or Moby Dick, then they’ll understand. Books are not hierarchies, they are oceans you swim around in.

What’s the last book that you read?

Do audio books count? [They totally count. – Ed.] I listened to Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence recently during a long drive and I was blown away by how incredible it is and how relevant. I’d only ever read Ethan Frome, which while well-written isn’t the same sort of book. It’s a little like seeing Atlanta and thinking you’ve seen all that the U.S. has to offer. The Age of Innocence is New York City, literally (it is set there) and figuratively.

Is there any book that you’d like to recommend to our readers?

I also just finished Landline by Rainbow Rowell and it was one of those perfect, happy, sweet little books that are so satisfying. It is charming and would be a great read for just about anybody—especially a somebody headed off for vacation.

What’s your favorite thing about being a Memphis-based writer?

This city! I am one of those writers who begins and ends and fills all the space in the middle with setting. Living in this vibrant, authentic, delicious city makes it easy to write. Sometimes, especially during that beautiful spring we just had, I have to sit by an open window and write. Or I curl up out on our patio, which backs up to the greenline and a golf course and I listen to all the people riding their bikes, walking dogs, running, along the trail and just let that seep into my sentences. There is such a tradition of storytelling in this city—musicians have known this since the first bluesman walked our particular stretch of the Mississippi river, but artists know it too, and there are so many great writers here.

Is the book always better than the movie?

Yes, but I always go and see the movie. What does that mean?

If you haven’t marked your calendar for September 10th, go ahead and do it now! The Mid-South Book Festival is only months away, and it’s going to be amazing! It’s also free and open to the public, and children are welcome. For more information, visit

Recommended Summer Reading From Literacy Mid-South

summertime reading

Summer is here, and you’re going to need some new books to read at the beach! Luckily for you, Literacy Mid-South is here to help with some cool suggestions for new summertime reads. Our staff has come together and recommended a recent read that they’ve enjoyed, just in time for your vacation. We hope you find something that speaks to you.

Kevin recommends: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

so you've been publicly shamedWhy you should read it: “This book opens your eyes to how far-reaching social media can go, and it provides many cautionary tales about people whose social media posts ended their careers.  Of particular note is the story of Justine Sacco, the communications director of a public company who tweeted insensitive remarks about Africans and people living with AIDS before jetting off to Africa.  By the time she landed in Africa, she had lost her job, was the topic most trending on social media, and had photographers waiting at the arrival gate to snap pictures of her. While many of the stories are horrifying and capitalizes on our own schadenfreude, this could happen to anyone, and the book explores the public’s fascination with publicly destroying people they don’t even know.  It’s eye-opening and scary.”

Vernetta recommends: A Massacre in Memphis by Stephen V. Ash

a massacre in memphisWhy you should read it: “Frankly, I did not know there was a massacre in Memphis, and as Ash brings forth in the book, “… the vast majority of Americans these days, if asked about ‘the Memphis riot,’ would likely either confess their ignorance or mention the events of April 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King.”  Historians have portrayed the events of May 1-3, 1866 (one year after the Civil War) as whites meting out due punishment for black misbehavior. What actually occurred was in no way a riot by blacks but an organized massacre of black people: 46 blacks dead; 75 injured; 5 raped; 100 robbed; 4 black churches, 12 schools, and 91 dwellings destroyed. This book constitutes a thorough overhaul of the egregious historical record.  And the most startling fact is the same rancor regarding race that occurred before, during, and after the massacre will be featured on the evening news tonight!”

Stacy recommends: The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho

the pilgrimageWhy you should read it: “I’ve read this twice and I need to read it again, if only for the reminder that the important things in life are the simple things. Paulo Coelho tells his personal account of his pilgrimage along the Santiago de Compostela in such a relatable way. It allows you to interpret his voyage in your own way and take away inspiration to create your own path in life.”


Knox recommends: What is Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

what is yours is not yoursWhy you should read it: “I love reading short stories and Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours combines an element of what I love most about short stories (they’re short) with what I often miss about reading novels (one longer story with a greater payoff at the end). The stories are not all connected, but there is something besides Oyeyemi’s strong, imaginative writing holding the stories together. All of the stories are quite surprising, but not jarring, and extremely delightful to read.”

Laura recommends: Miss Me When I’m Gone by Emily Arsenaut

miss me when i'm goneWhy you should read it: Miss Me When I’m Gone is a rich story about what happens between two friends when one of them mysteriously dies. It is a clever book within a book within a book. An in-depth character study that examines relationships, presumptions and  redemption.


Jeanne recommends: The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love and Loss By Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt

the rainbow comes and goesWhy you should read it: “I’ve watched Anderson Cooper for many years and I’ve always been impressed by his journalistic talent and style. Also I knew the story of Gloria Vanderbilt, her marriages and lovers and the suicide of her son, Carter (Anderson’s brother). This back-and-forth correspondence as Vanderbilt reaches her 92nd birthday, is as revealing to the two of them as it is to the reader. The story mainly focuses Vanderbilt’s fascinating life story but Cooper provides the perfect foil as each tale unfolds. It is wonderful that the two shared their hearts with each other and with the reader.  It reminds us that money does not protect us from heartache. The title comes from William Wordsworth’s poem “Intimations of Immortality” –  a favorite of Vanderbilt’s. A poignant yet uplifting read.”

Johnny recommends: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

the paper menagerieWhy you should read it: “The Paper Menagerie is a collection of short stories, so it’s a great choice for any busy readers.  Liu uses magical realism to pose some very interesting observations and questions about human nature, technology, and society. Each story is unique, but Liu’s engaging style runs through them all. I definitely found it hard to put down.”


Lee recommends: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

ready player oneWhy you should read it: “This is an ideal choice for the summer due to its underdog main character, world domination obsessed villain, large scale action sequences, fantasy world setting, and ’80s movies/music/video game references. If you’re a pop culture geek, you’ll be anxious to play Joust and watch “Wargames” long before the last page is reached, and if you don’t get all the references, maybe it will encourage you to seek them out! Like a true nerd, I made notes of the games/books I was not familiar with so I could up my street cred. On top of the references, Ready Player One is an entertaining and consistently surprising thrill ride, always staying one step ahead of the reader. And if you’re wondering how this delightfully complex adventure would translate to the big screen, have no fear! Steven Spielberg is directing a film version that is due out in early 2018!”

Troy recommends: How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon

how to slowly kill yourself and othersWhy you should read it: “The past few years have been great for you if you’re a fan of essays that do the added duty of cultural critique. Kiese Laymon is one of the best sentence makers to come out of Mississippi, and his takes on the blackness, family, music, feminism, and politics are fresh, new, and southern as all get out. Laymon is one of my favorite voices, and How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others, for me, belongs up there with essay collections from those that we consider the greats. Laymon is one of the greats, and this collection will challenge everything you think you know about what it means to be an American.”

Even our volunteer tutors got in on the fun. Tutor Molly Polatty recommends Richard Grant’s Dispactches from Pluto, calling it “fun and educational.”

So here it is, Literacy Mid-South’s recommended summer reading list. Drop a line in the comments if there are any books you’d like to recommend to us! And stay tuned for more updates about the Mid-South Book Festival, our annual celebration of literature and literacy.


Rethinking Homework Help


Many of our elementary, middle, and high school experiences have given us fond (perhaps not so fond) memories of homework. Ideas that we had been introduced to in the classroom were ideally reinforced with assignments that we were expected to complete during the time we weren’t at school. We were told that we were assigned homework because it was necessary, because it would instill in us a work ethic and study skills that we’d need to be productive adults–and that’s to say nothing of how effective homework was at helping us to grasp the complicated nuances of the subjects that we were learning in school. We needed the extra practice, right?

Well, perhaps not.

Some researchers are beginning to question the validity of homework as a tool that actually helps students. First, a focus on homework completion is potentially regressive–that is, it hurts students from vulnerable populations. Think students struggling with poverty, students lacking parental support, students with learning needs, and students from racial groups that have been long neglected by our educational systems. Additionally, there is research that shows that there really is no correlation between homework and student academic performance, at least for most elementary school students. Homework’s impact on academic performance increases for middle and high school students.

There are other issues as well. Many students from those targeted or marginalized populations attend schools that give students large homework loads, assuming that the homework will reinforce skills learned in classrooms. But the teachers aren’t always available to assist students with homework, and the parents or support systems aren’t always available for these students. The issue becomes that these students cannot comprehend their homework assignments, and thus, can’t complete them–or if the homework is complete, it’s not necessarily correct.

homework help

Many community organizations are attempting to remedy this by offering homework help to the students that they serve. Their aim is to help the students and reduce the amount of time that the students will have to spend on homework while at home, freeing up students’ time so that they can spend it relaxing or with their family. For middle and high school students, this homework help can be very valuable. However, as we said above, complete homework isn’t necessarily correct homework, and struggling students who receive help that is incorrect or learn ineffective habits can actually exacerbate their achievement problems.

Also, there’s evidence that many organizations just don’t have the staff necessary to ensure that every child receives an equal amount of homework assistance. When the ratio of staff to student is 1 staff member for every 25 students, there isn’t really any hope of individualized help, which means that homework–and homework help–can become a game of completion rather than a tool that eventually helps students become more proficient in their areas of study.

Is there a solution? Not a simple one.

A focus on building comprehension skills in children, and encouraging them to engage with their work in different, more meaningful ways can go a long way toward positively effecting student achievement. Especially in the case of young children, there is not so much a need for help with specific homework assignments as there is a need for children to increase their ability to read and comprehend texts.

Young learners also would benefit from improving their communication ability. This includes their use of oral language in addition to comprehension. If they are guided toward improvement of these skills, they will gain skills necessary to meaningfully engage with their work and be empowered to communicate about not only their academic expectations, but any misunderstandings that arise.

If our goal is to make sure that our students are truly engaged readers and critical thinkers, then we have to make sure that we focus on assisting them with essential skills that will serve them throughout their academic careers–and those skills are developed from targeted reading and literacy instruction as well as homework help.

Want to help us achieve our goal of a 100% literate Mid-South? Consider donating to Literacy Mid-South, or spread the word. And follow our blog for more updates.

The fifth annual Literatini, our book and martini focused event that is “straight up fun for a good cause”, is June 10th at 6pm!Click here to buy tickets.

Literacy Mid-South Executive Director Kevin Dean to Step Down After Five Years at Helm

Dear supporters,

I have had such a wonderful adventure with Literacy Mid-South. From the moment I walked in the door on my first day, I felt like I was home. I have made incredible lifelong friends with my coworkers, the board members, our volunteers, and many of you. Today, though, I am announcing that I will step down from my position as Executive Director following a five-year tenure with the organization.

11043177_10152757618861032_6343002988607011833_nI’m honored to have been given the opportunity to lead such an inspiring organization that constantly strives to improve literacy rates in Memphis for children and adults. In my five years at the helm, we’ve made tremendous progress in expanding our programming and services and promoting a community of readers. I feel now is the appropriate time to pass the torch and allow the next leader to make his or her mark on our community. This is truly an exciting time for Literacy Mid-South and Shelby County, and I can’t wait to see what the two accomplish together in the next five years and beyond.

Thanks to our staff, board, and people like you, we have begun a multitude of initiatives for Literacy Mid-South that have helped the organization achieve the following milestones:

  • Tripled the liquid assets of the organization
  • Increased staff from five people to 46 people (beginning this summer)
  • Overhauled programming to add new programs like the Read Memphis Project and a summer reading program for 3,000 children
  • Created the first-ever adult-learning mobile app for volunteer tutors
  • Increased the number of adults served in Memphis from 500 to 1,500, making the Adult Learning Program one of the largest in the South
  • Decentralized the 40 year-old Adult Learning Program from office space in Cooper Young to 31 different libraries throughout the Mid-South
  • Founded the first-ever Mid-South Book Festival, which is now one of the largest book festivals in the South in only its third year
  • Redistributed saved money to become a granting organization for other education nonprofits, distributing millions of dollars in resources every year
  • Nationally-recognized by ProLiteracy, the Nonprofit Times, and Nonprofit Quarterly
  • Literacy Mid-South continues to need your support. As we make this transition, we will rely heavily on your continued support to ensure an easy transition.

Thank you for all that you’ve done. I have been inspired daily by your unflinching desire to collaborate and work together towards this huge goal of eliminating low literacy in the Mid-South. YOU ARE AMAZING.

I look forward to seeing you soon.

Kevin Dean
Executive Director
Literacy Mid-South

PS. The fun isn’t over yet! Wait until you see our new website, our new logo, and a new program launching very soon!!

The Impact of Immigration on the Workforce

Image by quetzalcoatl2k.

The last time we discussed our workforce, we were talking about how low literacy and limited English Language Proficiency impacts it. (Click here to visit that post). Today, we’re going to bust up some myths surrounding the impact of immigration on our workforce. Just as a refresher, when we say “workforce” we mean the:

Total number of a country’s population employed in the armed forces and civilian jobs, plus those unemployed people who are actually seeking paying work.

There is a persistent myth among some Americans that immigration is a bad thing for us, among other reasons, because it weakens our workforce. The belief is that immigrant workers will replace our existing workers and take jobs that American-born citizens could hold. The truth is that an immigrant labor force will not replace, but complement our U.S. born workforce.

There are several reasons why immigrant populations help to boost our labor pool. One reason is due to the specialization levels of workers from immigrant populations. Many immigrants are either high skilled or low-skilled, which encourages companies to create specialized positions that many different workers can benefit from. In fact, there are studies showing that an influx of high-skill immigrants actually leads to more job creation. Immigrants also fill many of the low skill jobs, which are not taken by U.S. workforce due to higher education and older age.

An aging population is another reason why immigrants are good for our workforce. Many of our workers are getting older, and there is a gap that will be left when these older workers are unable to perform. Immigrant workers come here with all kinds of skills and abilities that they can put to bear to fill this gap, which will strengthen the workforce immensely. By 2030, it’s believed that 20% of Americans will be aged 65 or older. As these aging workers retire, there will be as many as 33.4 million jobs created.


Immigrants also have an impact on the unemployment rate and wages, but not in the way that some might think. Immigrants often move to areas with significant job growth and help boost the economy when unemployment is high. It’s been shown that immigrant workers often help to decrease the unemployment rates for these areas, not increase them. Also, U.S. native workers often make higher wages in cities with a high immigrant population, despite the belief that immigrant workers drive down wages.The average yearly wages of U.S. born workers increased 1.8% because of immigration. A 10% increase in the immigrants might decrease wages by less than 1%, but this number is almost always much closer to 0%. The impact of immigrant influx is often either negligible on wages or leads to a wage increase because even at the lowest level, immigrants increase labor supply and demand, and boost job creation.

Much of the thinking and discussion around the impact of immigrant workers on our workforce is based on stereotype. The belief that immigrant workers are here to leech off of our existing systems and take jobs from American workers just isn’t true. Immigrant workers make our workforce, and our economy stronger. They don’t contribute overmuch to crime rates. They pay taxes for services that they might not receive. They become productive members of society, and are essential to its functioning. And they make things better for everyone in the long run.

Literacy Mid-South is now offering the training these workers will need to succeed in the workplace. Learn more at

Summer Reading With Literacy Mid-South


In a few short weeks, students will leave their classrooms and schools and begin enjoying their summer vacations. During this time, many students will be enrolled in summer camps, community programs, or on vacation with their families. Others will struggle to access meaningful summer opportunities, educational or otherwise. Summer vacation plans notwithstanding, it is important for students (and, some would argue, the entire community–including adults) to read during summer vacation. Students who don’t engage in educational opportunities risk losing some of the academic gains that they made during the school year. This phenomenon is called “Summer Slide” or “summer learning loss.”

Summer learning loss has an adverse effect  on student performance at the beginning of the following school year. In addition to this negative outcome, it can also widen the academic performance gap between low performing students and their peers. This chasm in performance between groups students from different backgrounds is known as the achievement gap. In fact, some research suggests that summer learning loss, especially in the case of students from low income households, can make students already affected by the achievement gap less likely to finish high school or enter college.  


Students in the Mid-South are not immune to the Summer Slide, and Literacy Mid-South is attempting to mitigate its effects. We’ve developed a summer reading program in collaboration with a network of partners to measure the effectiveness of summer learning loss prevention efforts and hopefully curb the learning loss associated with summer vacation. Our partners include organizations that are already doing meaningful work in the community: Memphis Athletic Ministries, Streets Ministries, and Agape Child and Family Services, among others. We hope not only to mitigate summer reading loss, but also build a community of students and organizations dedicated to summer reading.

This summer we will be rolling out the Literacy Mid-South Summer Reading pilot program that will attack summer reading loss by providing students with rich, complex, and culturally competent books to work with over the summer vacation. Throughout the summer, we will focus on increasing oral language and vocabulary. Our hope is to serve 2000 students through the pilot program, and have around 3,800 students enrolled in the summer reading community. Additionally, every student that participates will receive three books free of charge.

The mission of Literacy Mid-South is to provide literacy resources to learners of all ages and backgrounds. Our summer reading program will work to make good on that mission by providing thousands of underserved children with the literacy support that they need to stay abreast of their peers when school resumes in August. The work that we’re doing now will lead to a stronger Mid-South in the long run.

Want to help us achieve our goal of a 100% literate Mid-South? Consider donating to Literacy Mid-South, or spread the word. And follow our blog for more updates.

The fifth annual Literatini, our book and martini focused event that is “straight up fun for a good cause”, is June 10th at 6pm! Click here to buy tickets.