Neighborhood Women Fight To Restore Community Adult Literacy Courses

Neighborhood women organizing at BRICK to find funding for Adult Literacy courses. (Photo by Shannon Geis/Ditmas Park Corner)
Neighborhood women organizing at BRICK to find funding for Adult Literacy courses. (Photo by Shannon Geis/Ditmas Park Corner)

On a recent Sunday morning a group of roughly 20 women meet at the BRICK office at 920 Foster Avenue to discuss their next steps in working to reinstate their adult literacy classes, which were terminated at the end of May after funding from the city was cut.

The women used to meet at the Council of Jewish Organizations Flatbush on Avenue L for classes 15 hours a week. Adult literacy courses have been offered in the area for roughly 20 years and originally included five different skill levels, but that number was cut down to two a couple of years ago. Now there are no classes being offered.

The literacy courses were funded through the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) and administered by Region 6 of the Office of Adult and Continuing Education, NYC Department of Education. However, the city did not renew funding for the program and the classes ended in June. We reached out to DYCD but did not get a response.

English literacy courses have been essential to these immigrant women in this community — most of whom are from Pakistan — who often spend their days inside the home while their husbands work and their children go to school.

This also often leads to communication problems between the women and their children, who know English much better than Urdu or Pashto, the two most commonly spoken languages in the group.

Photo by Shannon Geis/Ditmas Park Corner
Photo by Shannon Geis/Ditmas Park Corner

For these women, the classes provide not just an opportunity to gain communication skills, but a place to connect to others like them.

“Everyone was angry and crying. What are we supposed to do?” a woman named Maqsooda Begum describes how they felt when they found out their classes were being canceled. “This is a place to come together, to get out of the house. Because of the class several [women] have citizenship. More English learning is important for us.”

Many of the women in the group have children in PS 217 on Newkirk Avenue. They say they want to be able to participate in their children’s education, including becoming members of the PTA, but without English skills they are unable to actively participate.

The group has reached out to PS 217 to provide space for classes, but the school can’t spare any rooms during the day when classes are in session, which is when most of the women are able to attend.

“I feel blind in this county. I want to at least do my daily tasks, so at least I want to be able to have daily conversations. But even street signs are hard to read,” says a woman named Iqball.

One woman in the class has a heart condition and used to have to take her daughter with her to doctor’s appointments to translate. Now, she says, thanks to the English classes, she can go out by herself.

Shahid Khan discusses things the women can do to try to reinstate funding. (Photo by Shannon Geis/Ditmas Park Corner)
The women listen intently as one speaks about her experience. (Photo by Shannon Geis/Ditmas Park Corner)

An unintended benefit of their situation is that the women have had to learn how to advocate for themselves. Since classes ended, the women have spoken out about the need for funding on multiple occasions. Some attended a rally at City Hall organized by the NYC Coalition for Adult Literacy in June.

Eighteen of the women went to City Council Member David Greenfield‘s office to ask for help in getting funding for the class.

According to Greenfield, COJO received less money than in previous years, but he says, “it is a priority and we are going to try to make up the gap.” He says they hope to have things worked out by the end of the year.

In the meantime, Shahid Khan, leader of Brooklyn Rebuild Immigrant Community and Knowledge (BRICK), has offered to donate space for classes at the BRICK Community Center on Foster Avenue, and has said that he has requested services from OACE Region 6.

The women plan to continue to look for ways to fund the classes that have been lifeline for many of them, though they are unsure where to turn next.

“We are embarrassed because we can’t speak, we feel powerless,” says a woman named Nasima.

Updated 5:51pm: This post was updated to include a response from Council member David Greenfield.

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  1. Thanks for covering this. You often hear complaints about immigrants who refuse to learn English, but from what I can tell it’s far more often the case that adult immigrants who want to learn the language have very limited opportunities to do so.

  2. Agreed. If they want to learn English, they need merely walk out their doors and interact with native speakers of the language. A formal language class would have been a fine idea when they were in Pakistan, but at this point it will only hinder their progress.

  3. As I understand it, learning a language through immersion simply means that all the instruction is done in the target language, rather than using the student’s native language to teach the language they want to learn. You can use the immersion method in a formal class.

    You don’t have to choose between immersion and formal classes; you can have both In fact, my understanding is that a formal class taught using the immersion method in an environment where the students use the target language exclusively outside of class as well is the best method for learning a new language.

    Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote some interesting posts about this on the Atlantic blog, discussing his experience with learning French, both in formal classes and in immersion experiences.

  4. Yeah, I did that first and it was by no means clear that immersion is “the best” way to learn a language “regardless of age.”

  5. Yeah, because for a foreign woman to walk out her door in Brooklyn and just start talking to whoever she sees is totally A) safe, and B) permissible according her religion.

  6. Yes, my guess was that a combination of formal instruction in the target language plus surrounding oneself with the target language would be the quickest way to learn a language. It’s not the easiest, though, since it tends to be very stressful in a situation where you *cannot* communicate to the people around you. So there’s fast, and then there’s comfortable, and I don’t see any reason to criticize immigrants for wanting to take a more comfortable approach even if it is a little slower.

  7. I agree, and I didn’t intend to imply a criticism. These women are obviously demonstrating initiative and a desire to master the language, only to discover the resources to help them do that have, for the large part, vanished. And I expect they find themselves “immersed” in the English language pretty often regardless of whether they choose to be or not–as several of them commented, there is a high price to pay when someone is not fluent in the dominant language.

  8. i think I detect a note of sarcasm Judith 🙂
    what chris wrote is right on point, i lived in germany for a bit, and knew only a little of the language when I first arrived. getting out and interacting with people was helpful, but frankly also intimidating (and that without nearly as much of a cultural gap). having formal classes on top of that was super helpful and helped gel some of the stuff that was kicking around in my head from less formal interactions with people–seeing words in print vs. hearing it mumbled by someone…etc. it didnt hinder my progress with the language at all, it was really synergistic.

  9. Where did I imply that they should show no discretion about whom they talk to? I have no idea where that idea came from or why we’re even talking about it now, but I assure you there are many native English speakers in Brooklyn who are lovely people and who would be happy, and very interested, to speak with these women.

    And with that I’ll leave you to wrestle with the very large chip on your shoulder.

  10. No sarcasm was intended. One of the chief advantages of interacting with native speakers is precisely that it requires you to take risks and helps you build the courage that you need to master another language. But however these women choose to approach the learning of English, I wish them every success.

  11. I was not “criticizing immigrants”. I have an opinion about the best way to learn a new language. So sue me. These women are free to take any approach they like, and I hope they’re successful regardless of which approach they choose.

  12. And did you find anything to demonstrate that immersion is not the best way? If so, you’d better share it with Middlebury College so they can shut down their widely hailed summer immersion program for learning Arabic.

  13. You are very rude. She did not say anything objectionable. Your interpretation of her words was incorrect and extremely uncharitable. That’s all.

  14. I was lucky enough to spend my senior year in college in France. Prior to that I’d had years of classroom instruction in French, with the accompanying “language labs”, but it was only when I forced myself to speak with native French speakers in real world situations that I acquired anything close to fluency, or even real competence with the language. For me, at least, that was definitely the way to go, but that may not be true for others.

  15. Actually, even high schools (usually private) that take their language courses seriously do immersion. Sometimes students go on exchange programs in the summer or during spring break so that they are plopped into a family and school somewhere in Europe and forced to listen to and to speak that language exclusively. It works. You need some grammar and vocabulary, but for the most part, getting out and making an effort to understand and speak a language is the only way to learn it.

  16. Because internet comments section, really.

    And frankly, this one has been mostly respectful and informative anyway!

  17. If anyone’s interested in exploring other free ESL options, CAMBA has an Adult Literacy Center at the corner of Church Ave. and Flatbush Ave. It’s a bit farther away but could be an option for some.

  18. Fair enough. Guess I disagree based on my experience, and these ladies seem to find the class valuable, I wouldn’t personally presume to judge what would or wouldn’t hinder their progress.

  19. It’s not much of a “presumption”, in my opinion. If you want to acquire real proficiency with a language, let alone true fluency, you’re only going to get it from native speakers in real world contexts. So much of language is contextual, after all, and subtly so….it’s just not possible to replicate that in even the best classroom.

  20. Sorry you’re just wrong. You’re a native speaker ( I presume?), you’ve never had an English class? It’s a ridiculous notion that someone’s language skills can’t be improved with classroom instruction, even if they are also being immersed at the same time.

  21. I wasn’t talking about just any improvement. Simply memorizing a single vocabulary word is an improvement–and you can do that without even taking classes. I’m talking about becoming proficient in a second language. You need practice to do that, and lots of it, with native speakers.

  22. Of course all native speakers have attended English classes, but how many of them mastered the English language in those classes? Don’t know about you, but I was 6 years old and already had an excellent command of English by the time I attended my first class. The rest is icing on the cake.

  23. No question. The original post I was responding to way back was saying the classes would “hinder” their progress. I noted that I disagree with that personally I found classes helped me when I was learning a language, in supplement to interactions w native speakers etc. But, reasonable people can disagree on that i suppose. i also find it silly that posters seem to be implying these women shouldn’t be in the class– if they want the class and find it helpful to their English skills, why are people second guessing them? Anyhoo that was it.

  24. You probably had pre-k, k and 1st grade by that point where you would have learned letters, words, grammar in a classroom.

  25. If a child is not speaking before s/he is receiving formal education in kindergarten or first grade, there is a developmental issue that needs to be addressed.

  26. It’s rude to disagree with someone? Are you nuts? I simply agreed with Chris Farrell that a combination of immersion and instruction would be best, and noted that there’s nothing wrong with someone wanted to take a more comfortable approach to learning a language rather than a more stressful one. Judith’s comment was insensitive and xenophobic, but until just now I hadn’t even called her *those* names. The only rude person here is you, going around calling people rude for not agreeing with someone.

  27. Except for when you don’t. I became proficient in Spanish solely through language classes. Lots of practice speaking, of course, and classes conducted solely in Spanish at the end, but it was not necessary to move to another country and speak only with native speakers.

    Most immigrants don’t need to be bilingual, after all – just proficient.

  28. You are an idiot. How exactly is an immigrant woman who spends most of her time at home and speaks very little English supposed to find these gentle and willing native speakers? If they step outside their door (as you implied the solution to their problem is) exactly who do you picture them running into? Your privilege is blinding you, Judith.

  29. That chip on your shoulder is blinding you. You can go to a cafe, a bookstore, all sorts of places and meet nice people in Brooklyn. I’m wasn’t suggesting that they try to engage the young men who hang out on street corners with handguns tucked in their wastbands.

  30. They can’t backtrack on what they never said to begin with. You just get your rocks off playing “the self-righteous accuser”.

  31. On the contrary, what’s racist is your suggestion that, for some mysterious reason, these women should somehow be isolated from the larger community, talking to no one but themselves. That really is racist.

  32. Not sure why this seems to hard to you. Presumably these women shop from time to time. They can interact with store employees, with waiters, bus drivers, etc. That’s what I did when I spent six month in France a few years ago. Nailing the dialogue of those common, everyday situations is extremely useful. It ain’t rocket science.

  33. Or because people start their comments with “you are an idiot” and casually use words like racist.

  34. Good grief, Guest. Go on to any private school or college website and take a look at their language departments, requirements, and offerings. Classroom stuff is all very well and good, and necessary for that matter, but we learn language through speaking and hearing it.

  35. Does anyone know whether there are any petitions going around to request the reinstatement of these classes? Aside from the link to David Greenfield’s office/email, there doesn’t seem to be much action we can take to support these women (besides monetary donations).

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