Reading Writing Hotline 25th Anniversary speech

June 9, 2019

I spoke at 25th Anniversary celebration of the Reading Writing Hotline in Sydney on 15 April 2019. Other speakers included Vanessa Iles, Hotline Manager; Lyn Wilson, TAFE NSW; and David Riordan, Director of City Operations for the City of Sydney (see photo at end of this post).

The speech

I am greatly honoured to be here today and have been asked to speak. Because in many ways the Reading Writing Hotline embodies some of the best moments of my professional life, from 1994 to the present in 2019.

Let me go back and give you some history. I first developed my commitment and concern for disadvantaged and vulnerable communities while studying one summer as an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley. I took a course by a young – older than me, but still young – lecturer in politics from Carleton College in Minnesota. He was built like a wrestler – indeed he was a former American college wrestler – and stood only five feet six inches tall. He shared with us, his students, his passion for social and economic justice. I was moved, in a way I had not been during my then tender 19 years of life.

That man was Paul Wellstone, later to become a Democratic Senator from the State of Minnesota and a major force in US progressive politics. He died tragically in a plane crash in 2002.

In parts of the USA, his name still invokes awe. Last month, a Minnesota newspaper wrote that “the legacy of Senator Paul Wellstone is palpable in the 2020 presidential campaign”, with at least three presidential candidates citing him as an inspiration, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar.

I too count the late Senator Wellstone, my former teacher, as an inspiration. So when I found myself working as an educational policy manager in ABC Television in the late 1980s under a different inspirational leader – that was David Hill – one who was eager to make a difference, I was given the job of spearheading the ABC’s activities in adult literacy. It’s not like there was any competition for the role. The journalists had no interest, but I knew from my years of work as a social planner in Western Sydney and northern New South Wales of the potential power of mass education and what ABC TV and ABC Radio could do to assist International Literacy Year in 1990.

The time was ripe to convince the ABC Board and Managing Director that the ABC had a role in promoting and teaching adult literacy. We based our activities on the BBC, which had completed a successful TV series and campaign in the mid-1970s called “On the Move”. We considered the questions: were we trying to teach via TV and radio, or just motivate students to seek assistance? We tried both.

We worked closely with the Adult Literacy Information Office – known as ALIO – the predecessor organisation to the Reading Writing Hotline, whose 25th anniversary we are celebrating today. In 1993 and 1994 we produced our major adult literacy TV series: “The Reading Writing Roadshow”, a 20-part drama and teaching series that remains one of my proudest achievements.

I didn’t produce the series, but I found the money from the Commonwealth Government and from inside the ABC, and I played the role of liaison between TAFE and the ABC. Imagine getting two big behemoth organisations to work together – both of them, by the way, much larger than they are now.

It was a challenge, but the result, I believe, was worthwhile – one, dare I say, worthwhile repeating. Yes, that’s right, harnessing the efforts of the national broadcaster and Australia’s largest VET provider to produce and disseminate high-quality reading writing teaching materials, and then encouraging people to seek help.

So if any national politicians are listening: here’s my call to the next Government of Australia. Please start a national educational campaign, and not just awareness, but genuine educational delivery, using our national broadcasters, the structure of the Reading Writing Hotline and the network of adult literacy providers – including the valuable not-for-profit community sector – to tackle Australia’s literacy challenges head-on.

I don’t want to take undue credit for the ABC’s activities in that period of the early 1990s, as a number of ABC and TAFE NSW staff were instrumental, in the two major co-productions undertaken with TAFE.

After my time in the ABC, my professional life toured through other literacies – digital literacy and later financial literacy with ASIC’s MoneySmart program.

And now I find myself back in the same space, some 25 years later – the same 25 years that this august organisation, the Reading Writing Hotline, has been in existence.

As the CEO of Community Colleges Australia, I represent, I advocate for and I look after Australia’s not-for-profit adult and community education providers. Most of the people in this room know what our sector’s areas of expertise are – reaching Australia’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged learners – especially through what is now called “foundation skills”, but which I still call adult literacy and numeracy.

Australia’s not-for-profit community providers over-perform when it comes to reaching the most disadvantaged through Australians vocational education and training: people from lower incomes, Indigenous Australians, people with disabilities, people from non-English speaking backgrounds, and learners over age 45.

But there’s one area where the not-for-profit sector towers over all other providers, and that is in reaching regional and rural Australians.

While only one third of New South Wales population lives outside of metropolitan Sydney, the not-for-profit community sector delivers two thirds of its government-funded VET outside of Sydney – much of it lower level VET, including foundation skills.

Why does this matter?

  • Because the further you travel from Australia’s capital cities like Sydney – to inner regional, outer regional, remote and very remote communities – the rates of literacy, of all sorts of literacy, decrease.
  • Because the further you travel from Sydney, the lower the formal educational attainment rates are.
  • Because the further you travel from Sydney, the fewer people study at university and the more people study VET. And when they study VET, it is in the lower level certificates and packages.

This is one of the most powerful reasons for the existence of the Reading Writing Hotline, because regional and rural Australians simply don’t have the same access to education as their city cousins do. And a national, quality-controlled, hotline is an essential part of ensuring that access.

For these reasons Community Colleges Australia proposed last year to the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) that they commence a study on adult literacy and community providers in regional and rural Australia. The NCVER has resourced and commenced this study, which starts reporting results at its July national conference in Adelaide.

So I have come full circle in my professional life. The social planner, policy analyst and adult educator inside me have all merged in my advocacy for adult literacy.

It is with a great deal of pride that I participate in the management advisory committee of the Reading Writing Hotline, and in this celebration.

With a great deal of hope I put it to the next Government of Australia that there has never been a better time to resurrect a national adult literacy education program, using broadcast TV, radio, podcasts, the Internet, actual paper-based books, our diverse literacy providers and our valuable Reading Writing Hotline.

May the Hotline live for another 25 years.

With a bit of luck and a lot of hard work, may Australia have no need for the Hotline after that.

It’s in our hands.

Thank you.

(Photo below from left to right: Vanessa Iles, Lyn Wilson, David Riordan & Don Perlgut)

(Photo below: Don Perlgut speaks)


Emma Gonzalez’ Speech and the Future of America

March 31, 2018

Even from my distance in suburban Sydney, Australia, thousands of kilometres away, the turmoil of American politics feels all too real in the digital age of instant news. As commentators have noted, Australia does not have a gun problem, so unlike the USA. So the Never Again MSD (standing for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School) student-led gun control movement wouldn’t happen here.

The medium and long-term impacts of the social, cultural and political vectors of the current moment of American gun control debate are almost impossible to predict. But some things are clear already: there is a generation of previously unknown young American student leaders who are passionate and articulate, wielding an unexpected political and moral power that does not appear to be dissipating.

At the “March for Our Lives” Washington DC rally on 24 March, we witnessed one of the more powerfully affecting – and astonishingly short – political speeches of modern times. Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and one of the movement’s leaders, spoke for about 7 minutes. Rebecca Mead (The New Yorker) describes the impact, and makes some astonishing historical and cultural comparisons:

But it was Emma González, a Stoneman Douglas senior, who provided the afternoon’s most memorable moment….. González, who is small and compact, and who wears her dark hair cropped close to her skull, spoke for just a couple of minutes, offering an emotional name-check of the students who had died. Then, lifting her eyes and staring into the distance before her, González stood in silence. Inhaling and exhaling deeply—the microphone caught the susurration, like waves lapping a shoreline—González’s face was stoic, tragic. Her expression shifted only minutely, but each shift—her nostrils flaring, or her eyelids batting tightly closed—registered vast emotion. Tears rolled down her cheeks; she did not wipe them away. Mostly, the crowd was silent, too, though waves of cheering support—“Go, Emma!” “We all love you!”—arose momentarily, then faded away. She stood in this articulate silence for more than twice as long as she had spoken, until a timer beeped. Six minutes and twenty seconds were over, she told her audience: the period of time it took Nikolas Cruz to commit the massacre.

The best speeches, we now know, are mostly short, serving to respond to the moment and to inspire future action. Gonzalez’s speech may soon join the panoply of these greats.

Never have I seen someone wield silence so effectively. In hearing – or rather not hearing – her speak, you were forced to meditate on what happened and what had delivered this unlikely group of young people to the force of what had previously been one of the most intractable issues of American politics.  (Jelani Cobb, interviewed by Dorothy Wickenden, New Yorker Politics and More, WNYC radio and podcast, 31 March 2018.)


Teaching Feature Writing – Ahladeff’s Martin Luther King Article

August 27, 2013

Feature writing is not like news writing. The structures and styles are both different, with rules of their own.

What writing students often don’t realise is that in the feature article the most important parts are the opener and the closer – unlike the classic news article with its inverted triangle structure.  You need a strong hook at beginning and a “pot of gold” ending.  And short sentences help. A lot.

Yesterday’s The Sydney Morning Herald (26 August 2013, p. 19 of the paper edition) included a good example of classic feature writing by Vic Ahladeff, the CEO of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.  In an article entitled “Kings dream just a sleeper but for Mahalia Jackson”, he writes about the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  Others have noted this:  it’s on the cover of this week’s Time magazine.

But Ahladeff’s article takes one angle:  that of African-American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s role in encouraging King to use the “dream” theme.

So after teaching feature writing to university public relations and journalism students twice in the last 18 months (University of NSW and APM College, North Sydney), I find this article to be an excellent example for students.  Here’s why.

Ahladeff’s opener:

If anyone warrants a footnote in history, it’s Mahalia Jackson. (10 WORDS, CATCHY) If anyone deserves a modicum of recognition for what transpired before 250,000 people crammed at the foot of Washington’s Lincoln Memorial on a sweltering afternoon 50 years ago, it’s surely Mahalia Jackson.

Comment:  First sentence, catchy.  Ten words.  Second sentence 31 words, really too long, however he gets away with it because the sentence is evocative and he uses the repetition technique – mirroring the first sentence – at both the beginning (“If anyone deserves …”) and the end of the sentence – “it’s surely Mahalia Jackson”.

His second paragraph:

Yet her story remains unsung, her involvement in one of the greatest speeches of all time unheralded.

Comment:  One sentence, which runs 17 words, and it is the “real catch”, placed just where the article most needs it.  He throws the reader’s attention to the rest of the article.  Wow, the reader thinks.  Really?  Tell me more.  What was her involvement, they ask?

There’s lots of good stuff in the middle.  His quotations are nicely chosen.  I particularly the following part, because it develops its own pace, leading towards the final payoff of the “dream”:

Mahalia Jackson, one of the supporters clustered near him, spontaneously shouted: ”Tell them about the dream, Martin!”

King droned on. ”Go back to the slums and ghettoes of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”

Jackson again, more urgently: ”Tell them about the dream!”

He paused …”

And then the closer, the “pay-off”:

King was assassinated in 1968. Jackson sang Take My Hand, Precious Lord at the funeral. She died four years later, 50,000 people filing past her coffin to honour the queen of gospel whose unforeseen outburst paved the way for an oratorical masterpiece whose eloquence reverberates 50 years later.

Comment:   First sentence of the paragraph is only five words long.  Shocking.  Assassinated.  Yes, we knew.  But still.  This is the first mention of King’s untimely death.  Second sentence – nine words, the connection is made again – she actually sang at the funeral.  Third sentence – she died four years later – oh goodness, she died too.  “The queen of gospel” is a nice phrase.  The final sentence is a little long but it reads very well.  It contains only two real adjectives – “unforeseen” and “oratorical” – both of which work well and do not duplicate their nouns, as so many adjectives and adverbs tend to do.  The “50,000” and “50” numbers also create a parallelism.  The words “eloquence reverberates 50 years later” give us a sense of history.  Overall, the sentence makes us feel good about ourselves in that we are, somehow, a part of that “reverberation” and a part of that “history”.

Convinced?  Read the full article, especially since it is available online free in its entirety (at least as of Tuesday 27 August, morning in Sydney).  It may not be freely accessible for long, given the recent massive changes in newspaper business models.

Here is a copy of the “South Pacific edition of this week’s Time magazine, Volume 128, number 9:

Time magazine cover MLKing 26Aug2013

Want to read the full speech:  go to the US National Archives (note PDF document):

*****

(Declaration:  I know Vic Ahladeff, and he was the editor of The Australian Jewish News for many years while I wrote film reviews for that paper.)