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How literacy is changing lives and building community in Kent

by School's Out Washington |

“If we don’t change these systems, we’re all going to just be responding to the rules and constraints. Advocacy is so crucial because we are responsible to teach people to self-advocate, otherwise they are constantly dependent on us.”

- Mona Han, Executive Director

Coalition for Refugees from Burma (CRB), based in Kent, knows that literacy is a vehicle that changes lives. Their programs provide support for immigrant and refugee communities across the age spectrum, always with an eye trained towards self-advocacy. Executive Director, Mona Han wants to work herself out of a job—a philosophy that influences all aspects of the organization. While some social service organizations utilize a case management strategy and aim to be a one-stop-shop to access a wide range of supports from rental assistance to counselling sessions to bus passes, CRB has stayed focused on their specialty: literacy as a means to school and career success. 

“I want to empower people with the resources and information so that their families can make their own choices. When they don’t need us anymore, that’s how we know we’re successful,” said Han.

Their services began with their early learning work, which started as a site-based family literacy program and soon evolved into Play and Learn, a home visit model to eliminate barriers to access. Six community leaders were trained in early learning curriculum and the Kent School District IRLA, while also bringing their cultural and linguistic expertise into the design of the sessions. They know all the nursery rhymes in their own language, know the role of education in their home country, and are able to meaningfully connect with the families they serve by incorporating rigorous literacy strategies into culturally relevant play. 

“We’re benefitting from their cultural know-how and adapting into our curriculum,” said Han. “We try and design our learning strategies that are relevant to families, and can then infuse information on small and large muscle development, or neurons and brain development.”

CRB is also there for youth in their K-12 years, primarily working with the Kent School District as their constituents are increasingly being pushed out of Seattle due to gentrification. They serve a number of elementary and high schools with after school academic and enrichment programs, and are part of a Place-Based Collaborative with Best Starts Out-of-School Time partners Kent Youth & Family Services, Seattle YMCA, and Somali Youth and Family Club. 

Their work at the Birch Creek housing community is a K-12 direct service reading program, which primarily shifted to virtual programming due to COVID-19, but does still include home visits as well as book giveaways. While data collection has been impacted by the program changes, during the 2018–2019 school year, Birch Creek elementary school students in CRB’s program made strong gains and grew their reading skills by 41% based on pre and post IRLA testing. They are currently working on developing an additional upper-elementary reading intensive program to help 4th - 6th graders develop vocabulary, text analysis skills, and decoding to increase fluency and comprehension.

Beyond supporting youth through literacy, CRB also has a strong civic engagement through the Refugee Immigrant Youth Advisory Council (RIYAC). Run by young people 16–24, many of whom have gone through other CRB programming, the RIYAC leads local advocacy efforts that reflect priorities of their communities. Youth are paid for their work and frequent city council meetings, in addition to helping steer what the organization’s youth programming should be. They’ve worked to promote community safety through enforcing building regulations like adequate lighting in stairwells, pedestrian-safe road signage, and educating immigrant families about rental laws. The youth who graduate from this leadership cohort are primed to join councils and task forces throughout the region, and ultimately, influence change.

Han made it clear, “If we don’t change these systems, we’re all going to just be responding to the rules and constraints. Advocacy is so crucial because we are responsible to teach people to self-advocate, otherwise they are constantly dependent on us.” 

This is the core of CRB’s work: promoting literacy and skill development so that people feel politically and economically empowered--within the program, and beyond.

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