Why First Literacy

Non-profit organizations are formed for many reasons:

  • To answer a societal need
  • To provide a community service
  • To support a specific constituency

In some cases, non-profits are created to fill a gap in what a society, government, or community can provide.

In 1988, it was recognized by then Mayor of Boston, Ray Flynn, that there was little or no money available, public or private, to provide literacy classes or services for adults – neither native English speakers nor immigrants to the city.

With thousands of people needing such services, a public and private sector partnership was established to fill the gap. First Literacy (formerly known as Boston Adult Literacy Fund) was founded to raise money for adult literacy education programs in the City of Boston.

For almost 30 years, First Literacy has been providing grants and professional development to Adult Basic Education (ABE) and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teachers and scholarships for adult learners in the greater Boston area.

Today, the need for English literacy services is even greater than in 1988. Over 16,000 adults – native English speakers, immigrants, and refugees – are waiting for literacy services in Massachusetts.

Lack of literacy skills is a personal strain, as well as a societal problem. An adult who cannot speak, read, or write proficiently in English will struggle to provide for themselves and their families; they are often isolated due to embarrassment, and are less able to contribute to their community. According to ProLiteracy, low literacy costs the U.S. $225 billion or more each year in non-productivity in the workforce, crime, and loss of tax revenue due to unemployment.

As a society, lack of literacy skills creates additional costs to health and human services due to people not being able to access appropriate health care and understand the need for preventative care. Low-literate adults struggle to advocate for their families, participate in their children’s schooling, and attain higher paying jobs.

We need adult literacy education. Unfortunately, government funding is contracting and becoming more difficult to access. Seeking private funding is a full-time job for many non-profits and community-based small organizations, thus detracting from their ability to provide services.

First Literacy, with its expertise in ABE and ESOL for adults, provides small innovation grants and free professional development for the literacy programs that are such an important player in the health and welfare of our society.

First Literacy’s mission is to ensure that adults with low-literacy or limited English proficiency have high-quality educational opportunities that enable them to thrive as individuals and as family members, in their workplaces, and in their communities.

It should be our personal mandate and obligation as well.


By Karen Morrissey, First Literacy Board Member