With an illiteracy rate of 95 percent, Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood suffers more than most. Hough Reads aims to combat this deficit. The project involves a collection of community leaders and members who dedicate time to remodeling approaches to increase interest in reading.
To date, Hough Reads has donated more than 1,200 books and dedicated countless hours to read aloud events. The organization’s mission is to unite the Hough community around the common goal of improving literacy.
Margaret Bernstein, director of advocacy and community initiatives for WKYC Studios, began a crusade for literacy. Word spread, and Little Free Library, a literacy campaign headquartered in Wisconsin, asked Bernstein to become a board member.
“I knew I wanted to start it, but I didn’t know who I wanted to lead it,” Bernstein says. She, in turn, asked Rhonda Crowder, director at Rhonda Crowder and Associates LLC and a Hough native, to coordinate.
“She took the idea and ran with it,” Bernstein says. “She even had her mom go into a school in the Hough area and do storytelling.”
Crowder, a storied freelancer, writes for many local publications, including Community Leader.
Without a budget in place to pay her, Crowder agreed to work with Bernstein to create Hough Reads.
“I grew up in Hough; it has a special place in my heart,” she says. “Reading guides my life, so I said that I would do it.”
Crowder committed to hosting one literacy event per month in the neighborhood and collaborates with local establishments to promote reading.
Hough Reads launched in 2018 through a partnership with WKYC Studios and the Baseball Heritage Museum. Community members, grateful for leaders that plan local reading functions, embraced the initiative.
“We show up to events with 100 books, we leave with zero,” she says. “Just like there are food deserts, there are book deserts. We give away books and find that the community is very receptive.”
There also was a partnership between Little Free Library and Marvel Comics. Themed “Infinity Wars,” the 2018 Little Free Library unveiling in the Hough neighborhood was one of nine Marvel Comic-themed Little Free Library events in the country. Disney supplied the Little Free Library with two years of books. Ward 7 Councilman Basheer Jones attended the event to talk about the importance of reading and show his support for the initiative. Jones says he loves to interact with the community, especially to promote literacy. He admits to his admiration of Marvel Comics and excitement at the unveiling.
“Ever since I was a young boy, there were two places that my mother made sure I spent time,” he says. “One was the library and the other was the mosque.”
Jones says the community trusts how he remains there for them at their most fragile moments.
“Sometimes, they will pull me aside and say, ‘Hey Basheer, I can’t read,’” he says. Jones funds Hough Reads, provides resources and helps promote events.
The Cleveland Public Library Hough Branch fully supports the initiative. It hosts guest readers every Thursday during the summer for read aloud events. Past guest readers include Felton Thomas Jr., director of the library, Jones and past police commissioners, to name a few. After each read aloud event, Jones provides a hot meal for the participants.
“The branch is glad to assist in any way,” says Lexy Kmiecik, Hough branch manager. The library offers assistance and provides books for patrons that encourage literacy.
“Our main way of assisting with Hough Reads is to host the literacy nights at our library branch,” Kmiecik says. “We love having our space used to promote literacy.”
Kmiecik notices an increase in people who come to use the library’s services, collections and computers. She also notices more families visiting the library.
“To know that adults are struggling is staggering, and that is why one of our strategic priorities at the library is to fight community deficits,” she says.
Kmiecik says she believes in the importance of the program because it brings awareness to adult illiteracy, making it an everyday topic. The partnership with Hough Branch Library supports its summer reading program, Summer Lit League, which operates from June to July.
“The illiteracy rate in Cleveland is in a state of emergency,” says Wayne Dailey, assistant coordinator of Hough Reads. He highlights the importance of the village that raises the children.
“That village has to encourage literacy, and it takes the parents to be the cheerleaders,” he says. “It has to be important to the parents for it to be important to the kids.”
Dailey, a Cleveland native, returned from Los Angeles and developed an “obsession,” as he mentions, to literacy. While in Los Angeles, Dailey obtained certification from a program sponsored by the Los Angeles Times to teach children with mental disabilities how to read. Much of his motivation to promote literacy came when he found out that he was going to be a father, and with his skill set, he began to read to his unborn child. After his return to Cleveland in 2016, he met Crowder.
“[Crowder] helped me further discover that passion to share with kids what I did as a profession and the importance of reading,” Dailey says. He wants his role with Hough Reads to influence men and drive the importance of reading. “Man to man, I let them know why it is important, as African American men, to take charge of our children’s intellect.”
Dailey speaks to adult men as often as possible. “I am familiar with the drawbacks that can inhibit men from being a father in tune with educating their children,” he says. “I find that there is no excuse. I try to convey that to men, and I want to energize them to be involved.”