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Wanted: Volunteers

June 17, 1999 | 8:00 pm

This is by way of being an advance notice, a leg up, if you will.

At the start of the upcoming school year, the Jewish Federation will embark on a new venture, Koreh L.A., the Los Angeles Jewish Coalition for Literacy. Its staff is busy (today) setting in place a cadre of volunteers who will work with third-graders in Los Angeles' public schools. The goal is simple: try to help improve reading ability -- literacy is the formal phrase -- by concentrating one-on-one with individual schoolchildren. That's one volunteer assigned to work with one specific child one hour each week for the duration of the school year. Its virtue to me is that this is direct, purposive and personal; and, not to be underestimated, it is also modest in scope.

Not surprisingly, students have been the first to volunteer. For obvious reasons. Time is available; their teachers are encouraging; and there is the clear link to fellow students, even though the volunteers are several rungs up the ladder in high school and/or college. I would hope that adults volunteer here as well: lawyers and graphic designers, journalists and entertainers, corporate executives and salespeople, men and women whose time is neither bought nor given lightly.

As long as no one has solicited my opinion, I would suggest, too, that families have something to gain by volunteering; that is, parents and teen-age children and perhaps grandparents. To be sure, they might be dispersed within different schools, but, for a brief moment in their lives, they will have an opportunity to share a common set of experiences. It is by no means certain that the family's easy and assumed patterns of authority and expertise will govern here.

While everything about the Federation's prospective plan seems appealing and positive to me, I would like to add a cautionary note. There is always the danger that such programs take on an aura of paternalism. In blunt terms, they can be viewed by some as white Jews teaching blacks and Latinos, the haves shaping the agenda of the have-nots. Thirty-five years ago in Mississippi, in connection with the drive to push voter registration, white students fanned out in different parts of the state, working hard with children and adults in an effort to improve literacy. The situation was dangerous; the work, hard and filled with long hours; the work, ennobling.

But young black leaders turned resentful. They saw the whites' intervention as just another turn in a long history of colonialism -- well-intentioned but still controlled by whites, and young ones at that.

Perhaps the most dramatic incident that they pointed to was the sight of two sisters, 10 and 11, working in Jackson, Miss., with their mother, teaching adults the rudiments of reading and writing.

Much has changed in America in the intervening years, but I suspect that the feelings of blacks, young and old, have not altered that much on the sensitive issue of "white colonialism." The fact that Jews are the volunteers will not matter one whit, nor, for that matter, the fact that the tutors will always be much older than the students. But it will be helpful that, along with Jewish volunteers, a larger citywide literacy campaign sponsored by the Los Angeles Times will seek volunteers from the black and Latino populations, among others.

I should acknowledge my bias here, though I suspect it is apparent in the comments above. I am heartily in favor of programs like the one the Federation is preparing. But I believe that they are most effective when the volunteers understand that it is a two-way street, that they have as much to gain and to learn from the transaction as the people they are assisting.

Without that approach, the tutoring, if not conversation, tends to be, at best, a form of amateurism. And what is at stake here is too important to leave to amateurs.

Those who are interested in volunteering should contact Dan Rosenfeld at Koreh L.A., the Los Angeles Jewish Coalition for Literacy, at (323) 761-8153. -- Gene Lichtenstein

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