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An Avocation to Read
Erin Hobey

An Interview with Benita Somerfield, Executive Director at The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy

"I have always really loved books and to read, and somehow I always believed I###d be able to have a career in a related field."

While growing up, my parents emphasized the import of reading and writing. The books they read opened up new worlds for me, including Hundred Acre Wood and Whoville. I actively partook in reading treasure hunts sponsored by the local library, and I still use the dictionary I won one summer more than twenty years ago. "Reading is Fundamental": How could I ever forget that literacy advertising campaign because of its blunt truth? Similarly, I will never forget the core mission statement of The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy: "The home is the child###s first school, the parent is the child###s first teacher, and reading is the child###s first subject."

As the Executive Director of The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, Ms. Benita Somerfield contributes her copious experience from the private and public sectors. In addition to her role at the Foundation, she recently was appointed an International Literacy Resource person and this July participated in meetings focusing on literacy at the UNESCO Paris offices.

Following her "avocation, rather than a career path," Somerfield majored in English and after college graduation left for to Paris where she taught at the Berlitz School. In the late 1960s, she moved to New York where she became involved in anti-poverty programs, where she taught "low literate" adults to read. After working nine years in a variety of anti-poverty programs, she pursued book publishing and eventually became president of the Cambridge Book Company, an operating unit of Simon & Schuster. In 1986 she returned to the public sector as a Special Advisor in Adult Literacy at the Department of Education, where she met Barbara Bush.

Somerfield offers keen insight on literacy especially regarding parent involvement: "Reading to your child early and often is the single most important thing that you can do to help a child start school ready to learn. Read to your child every night." In addition, she recommends ways in which people can become more involved in their community literacy organizations. As statistics from the International Adult Literacy Survey on the National Institute for Family Literacy website indicate, the United States significantly lags behind most high-income countries. Clearly, improving American family literacy should not only be the mission of The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy; improved family literacy must be a chief concern for all Americans.

On Her Life Story:

What led you back to the public sector? During the Reagan Administration, an outreach to private sector folks to bring their skills to government was initiated. They approached me to come work with them, so I left my job and became a special advisor in adult literacy at the Department of Education from 1986-88. During my time there, I met Barbara Bush, who was then the wife of the Vice-President. She had already chosen literacy as her focus. When I returned to New York as the president of another publishing company, she asked me to be executive director of her foundation. I did that as a volunteer, as well as my job at Simon & Schuster for five years, when I decided to leave Simon & Schuster and do the Foundation full time. It###s now a paid position.

How have mentors helped you along the way? I really can###t think of anyone I###d identify as a mentor. I###ve had colleagues, but not mentors. It###s always been important for me to have smart people with whom I could discuss work issues. Actually, they weren###t even necessarily in the same field or business as I. For example, my best friend is a corporate lawyer. And the questions she poses about my work have always helped me to look at things in ways I might not ordinarily. And a man with whom I had a relationship for many years taught me how to read a balance sheet when I was president of the Cambridge Book Company and had to make board presentations. He went to the Harvard Business School; I didn###t.

What difficult situations or experiences have helped shape and still shape your own philosophy about literacy? I have never met an adult student who was not able to read and did not desperately want to learn. And, based on our experiences with the programs we###ve funded, I believe that everyone can learn. Without literacy, functioning in our increasingly complex world is very, very hard.

Which particular books or articles about family literacy have you found helpful? What other books from your bookshelf do you recommend others reading? I don###t know that I###d necessarily recommend any family literacy texts per se. Certainly the Foundation###s book First Teachers is a good introduction to the field, as well as our pamphlet "Barbara Bush###s Family Reading Tips" [which can be ordered from the website]. The National Center for Family Literacy also has fine materials available. They have an excellent website.

There was a movie years ago called Stanley and Iris with Robert DeNiro and Jane Fonda, which was a good illustration of how it feels not being able to read, and then how the world opens up once you learn.

One of the most dramatic stories about someone unable to read was a novel called The Reader authored by Bernhard Schlink that was published a couple of years ago. It was actually an Oprah###s Book Club pick.

How have Oprah###s Book Club selections and other mass media book lists affected advocacy for literacy? Oprah###s done a tremendous amount for book publishing, and there are many more people reading books as a result of her focus. And that###s great! It helps on the literacy issue. But, as far as I can tell, there###s been no link to advocacy for issue, although Oprah herself has been an advocate. I actually was once on her show she did focusing on literacy, along with others.

Please describe Mrs. Barbara Bush###s role at the Foundation. What experiences with her have proven invaluable? Barbara Bush set the mission for her Foundation and guides our work, however she does not choose grantees. Winners of our grants are chosen by peer panel review.

Mrs. Bush believes that if more people could read, write, and comprehend we would be much closer to solving so many of the other social problems we face. She is also an avid reader. She is never NOT reading a book. Her commitment to this cause has been unswerving and continues to be stronger than ever.

She is one of the fastest emailers in the world! And that###s how we stay in touch for the most part.

On Literacy and Women###s Issues:

Which literacy issues do you see most significantly affecting today###s American women and their families? With what solutions have you sought to address such issues? The issues for women are no different than those for men. Literacy is the key to realizing one###s potential and accomplishing one###s goals, getting a good job, and participating fully as a citizen. However, women are also usually the primary caregivers for their children, and because we know that reading to one###s child is the single most important thing one can do to stimulate brain development and help a child start school ready to learn, mothers must read to their children early and often. A print-rich environment is also an important piece in developing pre-literacy skills.

And then once children are in school, mothers need to be involved in their education, e.g. checking homework, joining the PTA, and participating in other school activities. Barbara Bush gets this message out in the speeches she gives all over the country, also suggesting that parents turn off the TV set and read with their children. Our pamphlet "Barbara Bush###s Family Reading Tips" gives guidance on the best techniques for parent/child reading.

What role do women and women###s issues play in "what works" within The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy? I###m not sure that women###s issues do play a part. However, as we say in our mission statement: The home is the child###s first school, the parent is the child###s first teacher, and reading is the child###s first subject. The majority of our family literacy programs are filled with mothers and their children, although we have funded a few for fathers. Family literacy programs are easier for mothers to attend than adult literacy programs because their children come with them to class.

In what ways can w