Philanthropy, Literacy, Youth Development Explored

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Left to right: Carlton Highsmith and Lee Cruz (all photos by Palmer Piana)

On Thursday, May 4 the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund hosted a forum on “Philanthropy, Literacy, and Youth Development,” at its offices in Hamden. Sponsored by the NewAlliance Foundationand the Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven, the event featured a panel of the following speakers:

Moderating the panel was Lee Cruz, Community Outreach Director, CFGNH.

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Left to right: Jessica Sager, Laura McCargar, Lee Cruz (standing), and Carlton Highsmith

The audience included educators — from early childhood through K-8, high school, and adult learning — as well as foundation executives, nonprofit leaders, and volunteers.

Left to right: Executive director Kim Healey of NewAlliance Foundation and Kathy Townsend, Boys and Girls Club development director

After an “ice-breaker” exercise and welcoming remarks from moderator Lee Cruz, he introduced the panel and invited Carlton Highsmith to begin his presentation.

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Carlton Highsmith

Carlton Highsmith founded Specialized Packaging Group (SPG) in 1983 and led it until his retirement in 2009. He has been a member of numerous philanthropic, educational, and corporate boards of directors, including the CFGNH. For example, he has chaired New Haven’s I Have a Dream Foundation, which he helped to found, and has served as chair of Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology’s (ConnCAT) board since its founding in 2011. For such accomplishments and generosity, he received an award from the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy for leadership in promoting private action for the public good.

“Awesome teachers”; “hold systems accountable”

He began his remarks reflecting on his own education in segregated schools in Pitt County, North Carolina — and the importance, in overcoming segregation, of the instruction from which he benefited. He credited a “cadre” of “awesome teachers,” including one he was reminded of in watching the movie Hidden Figures. Such teachers prepared him for the demands of the University of Wisconsin. He recalled, “I was poor, but I was not culturally deprived.” At Wisconsin, he earned a degree in economics and was encouraged by a professor to pursue entrepreneurship, which he did after several years of experience in the packaging industry. His company grew to 600 employees and 11 plants before he sold the business and, soon afterward, worked with Bill Strickland of Pittsburgh and the CFGNH to launch ConnCAT based in part on Strickland’s model.

Carlton Highsmith explained that ConnCAT involves both “adult learners” — who come for “technical skills” (medical coding, phlebotomy, now culinary arts) and “life skills” — and youth who participate in after-school and summer arts programs, with the aim of keeping them “engaged.” The message, according to him: “Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you can’t achieve.” He believes we need to extend opportunities and “hold systems accountable.”

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Laura McCargar

Laura McCargar co-founded Youth Rights Media, a New Haven nonprofit dedicated to empowering youth to use media and organizing to create community change. She joined the Perrin Family Foundation in 2011 as a program officer before becoming its president in 2016. She is a recipient of a Soros Justice Fellowship from Open Society Foundations and has authored several publications about youth, education, and organizing in Connecticut, where she has been for two decades since growing up in Oakland, California. She recounted these experiences and how they have informed her in making the transition from a youth community organizer to a philanthropy professional who seeks to infuse more of a youth voice and youth orientation into grant-making.

“What do we mean … by literacy?”

At the Perrin Family Foundation as in her prior work, she recognizes the hazards of a “self-fulfilling prophecy” of low expectations for young people who have encountered academic, family, and/or juvenile justice problems. She asked, “What do we mean … by literacy?” Beyond the centrality of reading and writing skills, “How do we make meaning … how are we supporting young people to make sense of the world around them?” She continued, “how young people perceive their literacy” and potential is as significant as their “skills.” In exploring such issues, “validating” teens and helping them “to ask questions” about their “power and purpose and possibility” has proved essential. She has seen the benefits when young people, including those at particular risk, consider how “information” is created, how “stories” are “told” and who the “storytellers” are. More homework and academic rigor, a better understanding of employment options and the juvenile justice system — and advocacy for improvements — can result. She pointed to the “Learning to Lead” study (“…The Impact of Youth Organizing on the Educational and Civic Trajectories of Low-Income Youth”) in California, where increased enrollment in four-year colleges has been correlated with teens’ growing sense of empowerment and their perception, in her words, of “education as a political act.” (1)

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Jessica Sager

Jessica Sager (with Janna Wagner) co-founded All Our Kin and remains its CEO. In addition to her work at All Our Kin, Jessica co-teaches, with Janna, a college seminar on “Child Care, Society, and Public Policy” at Yale. Jessica Sager is a trustee of the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund, and is active in various local, state and national initiatives around the improvement and sustainability of child care in low-income communities. She is a Ms. Foundation Public Voices Fellow and a 2016 Pahara Aspen Fellow.

“Reframe” assumptions about children, child development, parents and caregivers

Calling herself “energized” and “inspired” by the prior panelists, she described the origin of All Our Kin, after outlining her background in theater and arts education before she enrolled at Yale Law School just as the implications of the 1996 welfare reform law were emerging. Recognizing the dilemma that many parents would face in having to seek work while needing child care that they could both trust and afford, All Our Kin sought to fuse multiple priorities: better child-care access, quality, and workforce opportunities. From a lab school at a local Brookside public housing site to what is now a network of providers across not only New Haven but also Bridgeport, Stamford, Norwalk, and soon New York City, All Our Kin is meeting a major need. Jessica Sager listed challenges that include a continuing under-appreciation for the importance of early childhood (despite an abundance of research, whether from child-development experts or economists), residual bigotry toward “black and brown children,” and “deficit-based assumptions” about their parents, too. She pointed to a need to “reframe” assumptions about the capacity of both children and their providers. Her appearance the prior week at a National Forum on K-12 Philanthropy reflects belated recognition at how the ages of zero-to-three as well as four and five (the pre-K stage) demand greater attention and “investments” from anyone concerned about K-12 learning.

“Any approach … needs to be multi-generational”; “Youth-led does not mean youth alone”

In the round of questions and discussion, moderator Lee Cruz briefly synthesized comments and directed audience questions to the panelists. All agreed with Carlton Highsmith when, in addressing “education” and a “lack of literacy,” he emphasized that “any approach … needs to be multi-generational.” He said this was part of what made Bill Strickland’s Manchester Bidwell Corporation program model (in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, most recently Chicago) “appealing” — that “kids” as well as parents and grandparents could be involved. Thus ConnCAT has offerings for youth and adults and provides a community hub combining arts, technology, career preparation, academic enrichment, and now food in an impressive facility. Laura McCargar, whose focus is on the voices and initiative of young people themselves, agreed: “Youth-led does not mean youth alone.” She said, “Intergenerational transfer of knowledge” is important, but there aren’t many structured places for this to happen in a “two-directional way.” (In New Haven, LEAP — uniting young people ages 7–23 — is one example of an organization crossing younger generations.)

Early language, arts, STEM, purposeful play, attention to emotional development

Jessica Sager noted that All Our Kin’s caregivers sometimes provide advice and emotional support (as well as paid child care) to young parents, who may come to see them as “partners.” She read from an All Our Kin staff educator’s observations about one of its network’s family child-care providers who clearly integrates nature, science, and art with exposure to print and hands-on play, in order to foster ample language, questions, and a responsively inquisitive setting for early learning. Jessica Sager spoke with sensitivity about a “tension”: the dual need more fully to address early childhood development without neglecting older youth as an allegedly “lost cause.” Responding to a question about how early “literacy disparities” can sometimes emerge, she distinguished “toxic stress” (see a study of “adverse childhood experiences” or “ACE”) from “healthy” or at least “tolerable” levels. Toxic stress from poverty, hunger, racism, substance abuse and/or violence “can permeate a child’s life,” raising cortisol levels, harming a child’s health and ability to focus despite “protective factors” that can include loving family, friends, teachers, and often remarkable resilience. (Some related concerns and information arose at Literacy Forum events in 2015, 2013, and 2010.)

Lee Cruz mentioned that his own children have benefited from an All Our Kin caregiver — from her application of art and verbal/mathematical curiosity, work and play, as “two sides of the same coin.” Carlton Highsmith remarked that art (as well as technology) can provide “a spark” of engagement to learners of various ages.

The New Haven Public Schools’ supervisor of literacy instruction, Lynn Brantley, observed that necessary “accountability” tools — however well-intentioned — could be a “stressor” if exaggerated or introduced excessively at a developmentally inappropriate stage of a child’s learning. She alluded to a mayoral desire to advance New Haven as a “city that reads” and cited an example of learning across grades: the participation by champion Hillhouse H.S. football team members in reading to younger students (at Quinnipiac School).

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Left to right: Executive director Stephanie Barnes of the Boys and Girls Club and Lynn Brantley, New Haven Public Schools’ supervisor of literacy

Fund-raising, reporting, and trying to measure the “immeasurable”

Reacting to a question about fund-raising pressures that are heightened by increasingly strained public budgets (for example, a State of Connecticut that could face projected annual deficits exceeding $2 billion), Carlton Highsmith cited “collaboration” as a key — both between public and private actors and among various nonprofits and public agencies. Raising money from philanthropic sources has parallels to “marketing” in the private sector, he asserted, pointing to “vision,” “a compelling story” and “integrity” — the ability to “do what you say you’re going to do” — as key. “Relationships” matter, too. Jessica Sager underscored, “We … need to focus on the level of investment, publicly and privately, for what should be real priorities.” Employment, health, mental health, and education are among the critical interrelated issues in the pursuit of broader societal change, she said. Laura McCargar argued that “advocacy” needs to go beyond one’s own organization or budget “line item,” and Carlton Highsmith added an “exclamation point” for “political action.” Questions from Boys and Girls Club and LEAP colleagues spoke to the challenges of raising much-needed funds, including when funders expect youth development institutions to try to measure what can sometimes seem “immeasurable things” — a young person’s greater self-confidence, health and happiness, or a crisis averted.

Laura McCargar, acknowledging that she now speaks from a position of “privilege” at an unusually flexible “family foundation,” perceives some progress from foundations in their understanding of grantees’ needs and constraints but said foundations must “evolve” further. (2)

Among the organizations represented at the forum: the Agency on Aging’s Experience Corps and AmeriCorps/PAVE New Haven, Boys and Girls Club, Community Health Network of CT, ConnCAT, Elm City Communities/Housing Authority, Junta for Progressive Action, LEAP, Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven, New Haven Reads, Telling Our Story, and the New Haven Public Library as well as Public Schools.

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Nelly Q. Marenholz (a Literacy Volunteer) and Curtis Hill, of Concepts for Adaptive Learning

This free event reflected a collaborative effort. In addition to the speakers, the NewAlliance Foundation (which is sponsoring a number of Literacy Forum discussions), and the host William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund, thanks go to Coalition board member Rob Coro and Marcum LLP for donating promotional design/printing services, and to fellow board colleagues Curtis Hill (founder of Concepts for Adaptive Learning), Donna Violante (of Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven), and Genevive Walker (of ConnCAT) for their leadership roles. Other board members thoughtfully assisted with the forum: Susan Holahan (a teacher of ESOL in the NHPS) and Mary Elizabeth Smith (of Junta).

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Left to right: Keri Humphries of New Haven Reads, Mary Elizabeth Smith of Junta, and Genevive Walker of ConnCAT


(1) This is an example of what is sometimes called “Action Civics” — see the work of Meira Levinson, author of No Citizen Left Behind, which addresses what she calls a “civic empowerment gap.”

(2) As one Chronicle of Philanthropy commentary argues, relevant resources include the Whitman Institute and Peery Foundation.

A version of this article appears at the New Haven Independent.

The Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization with a mission to promote, support, and advance literacy for people of all ages, was established in 2003 by a board led by the late Christine Alexander, who also founded New Haven Reads.

The Coalition — sponsor of the Literacy Forum series — has a LiteracyEveryday website with portals to Get Help, Volunteer, Donate, and Learn More, as well as a listing of News/Events, and a presence on Facebook and Twitter, @LiteracyGNH. Visit LiteracyEveryday to share or obtain information on free events, resources, and ways to get involved in pursuit of a region of readers. The Coalition invites inquiries and announcements at this email address.

There is a need for additional volunteer tutors and mentors at such organizations as the Boys and Girls Club, Jewish Coalition for Literacy, Junta for Progressive Action, LEAP, Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven, New Haven Public Schools, New Haven Reads, and Solar Youth.

Neighbors are invited to visit the Literacy Resource Center on Winchester Avenue, in space at 4 Science Park donated by Science Park Development Corporation. The Literacy Resource Center, or LRC, represents a partnership among Concepts for Adaptive Learning, the Coalition, New Haven Reads, Literacy Volunteers, and the Economic Development Corporation. In the same building at 4 Science Park are the offices, classrooms, kitchen, cafe, and art gallery of ConnCAT.

You can help by:

• Reading in the home, promoted by libraries such as the New Haven Public Library — and involving grandparents as well as parents, and free books from sources including Read to Grow and New Haven Reads;
• Encouraging friends, family, and others to seek literacy assistance whenever useful;
• Volunteering as a tutor or mentor;
• Bolstering literacy in other ways, such as through donations of money — whether directly, via the Community Foundation or the United Way — or of books and by advocating and voting.

For more information:

Articles on the Coalition and Its Events:

“Language, Bilingualism, and Literacy — in School and Beyond”

“Literacy Coalition Welcomes New Colleague, Previews Forum”

“Early Literacy Experiences, the Brain, and Child Development”

“Literacy Coalition Welcomes New Board Members; Forum Approaches”

“Why Is Math Important?”

“Libraries in the 21st Century”

“Literacy Coalition Welcomes New Board Colleagues”

“Why Read?”

“It’s about WORDS”

“Literacy Paths Plotted”

“Literacy, Every Day”

“Learning in the 21st Century, in Ways New and Old”

“Reading, Culture, and ‘Quality Time’ at Home”

“‘Empowering Teachers,’ Reading Research, Instruction, and Supports”

“Margie Gillis Discusses Using the Latest Research on Reading”

“Early Reading, Community Action, and Catalytic Philanthropy”

“Literacy Coalition Forum: State Legislative Update and the Big Read”

“A Day for Literacy”

“Commissioner Ted Sergi: Their ‘Second Chance’ Starts with Reading”

Dad, husband, nonprofit professional, volunteer youth coach, eclectic reader and writer, #citizen…. @JosiahBrownCT

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