Achieving Civic Fluency: A Literacy-Based Solution
Part 1

Annie Rezac
July 6, 2021

Literacy is not a quick win.

We know that literacy is a cornerstone to equity and social progress. When we talk about generational wealth gaps, job insecurity, barriers to health care, lack of housing, and community violence, literacy plays a role in both the problems and how to fix them – but it’s often overlooked as an essential part of the solution. 

We know that literacy is a big lift, but we recognize that it’s not just a part of the solution – it’s a blueprint for it. Working towards literacy gains is not a quick win, but it’s at the very root of systemic change. 

We’ve been working on proving it.


In the winter of 2019, just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we set out to investigate how literacy and social progress intersect, and to re-imagine how literacy closes the opportunity gap for Chicago’s communities. After months of research, we designed an evidence-based theory of change with equity and access as the guiding principles.

As we moved into summer of 2020, we saw firsthand how the pandemic began devastating education and programming for the communities the Alliance serves. We knew we needed to turn our new-found theory into action. The CLA worked in collaboration with member organizations, community members, and external experts to design the Literacy Equity Initiative (LEI).

The LEI brings literacy organizations and Chicago community members together to collaborate on discovering what communities need to increase literacy. It’s designed from the ground up to increase literacy access for historically disinvested communities. 

“The LEI has given me an opportunity to connect with community members and organizations as potential partners,” says Dr. Kimberly A. Chase, CEO of Reading Specialists of Illinois and LEI collaborator, “to hear their needs and determine how my organization can fill those needs or identify another organization that may be a better fit.”

Low literacy rates are scientifically correlated to the opportunity and resource barriers that communities face. Low literacy rates impede an individual’s ability to achieve “civic fluency”, a term coined by the CLA to capture one’s ability to navigate and participate fully in their community, whether it be accessing health care, voting, sustainable employment, education, or other opportunities. Literacy as a means to civic fluency can be limited by a number of factors, but most notably by racist systems of oppression and inequity.

LEI: Insights, a city-wide map and data dashboard that indicates levels of access to literacy per Chicago community, illustrates this point. Communities with the lowest access scores are predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods that have a history of institutional discriminatory practices and economic disinvestment.

“The LEI is using data to zero in on under-resourced communities where the CLA can make an impact,” says Dr. Susannah Levine, Director of Education and Early Childhood Learning at BPI and LEI collaborator. 

LEI: Insights provides a shared map and a common set of data to empower our member organizations to make strategic, data-informed decisions to address the opportunity and access gaps facing Chicago communities. Learn more about LEI: Insights, and if you have questions about membership, find out more here.

In part two, coming soon, we’ll walk through how the Literacy Equity Initiative can translate data and theory into action. Stay tuned!


Annie Rezac
Director of Strategic Initiatives, Chicago Literacy Alliance