Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Literacy Partners with Arnold and Parker

Arnold and Parker on Literacy Partners

‘I already told that story,’ says Parker Ladd, a tad snappishly. ‘Oh,’ says his partner, famed fashion designer Arnold Scaasi, who has just joined us, and looks somewhat crestfallen that he didn’t get to tell it.

Arnold Scaasi and Parker Ladd
It’s a good story, an anecdote that they use to sum up why they are both involved in Literacy Partners, a charity that offers free literacy programs to adults and families. It’s about a man who thought he was about to woo a woman, sitting in her apartment close together on the sofa, only to discover that his biggest secret in life was about to be revealed when she suggests they play Scrabble (presumably a bit of a disappointment played into his anguish too). He has to tell her that he can neither read nor write and she loses interest in him. It spurs him on to joins classes run by Literacy Partners and he turns his life around.    

Both Ladd (Vice President of Literacy Partners) and Scaasi (who sits on the Executive Committee) have a fund of these true stories: the UPS worker who took the mail home at night so that his brother could help him sort it, the man who always wore bandages on his hands, pretending that he had burned them so that he never had to fill out forms in public, the bike messenger who couldn’t read street signs and memorized the city visually, even the CEO of a large company who could not read menus and only ever ordered the spoken specials – the ingenuity of illiterate adults speaks volumes about their resourcefulness, and their daily shame. ‘What touches me is that they are usually very intelligent, intelligent enough to think up these excuses,’ says Scaasi.

Then there is the sheer fact that they can only ever work the most menial jobs, if work at all, nor can they read the dosage instructions on medication, decipher bus schedules or product labels – and no bedtime stories are read to their children.
Michael Cunningham, Wallace Murray, Joel Klein, Nicole Seligman, Parker Ladd, Nora Ephron, Liz Smith, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Arnold Scaasi, Augusten Burroughs, and Sherrie and David Westin, and Rich Prestia at Literacy Partners' 22nd annual Evenings of Readings (2006).
Steve and Christine Schwarzman, Edward P. Jones, Renee Fleming, Arnold Scaasi, Lauren Bacall, Liz Smith, Sue Monk Kidd, Emma Davis, Parker Ladd, and Sarah and Lachlan Murdoch, and Omar Diaz at Literacy Partners' 21st annual Evenings of Readings (2005).
Tim Russert, Jack Welch, George Buckner, Hillary Clinton, Simon Winchester, Liz Smith, Margaret Inniss, Parker Ladd, and Arnold Scaasi at Literacy Partners' 20th annual Evenings of Readings (2004).
We live in a world that assumes literacy but incredibly there is an estimated 40 million adults in the U.S. who cannot read at fifth grade level – that’s 20% of the population with the rate climbing to 25% in New York City. All population groups are included, with 41% of that figure being illiterate English-speaking whites and the remainder divided among other sectors of the population.

It is almost as if the relatively lucky few that get a place on the literacy programs are being offered a second chance at life itself. Ladd, who is very tall and precise in his phrasing, the former director of the Association of American Publishers, lauds a ‘fine, fine group of educators and a strong, exciting board.
Arnold with Judy Miller and Barbara Goldsmith and Parker with Jane Friedman at Literacy Partners' at Literacy Partners' 23rd annual Evenings of Readings (2007).
'Sometimes I think we’re almost unworthy of this board,’ he confesses, but they are both determined to do what they can to eventually realize the charity’s dream which is a permanent learning center that can offer both day and evening classes, expanding the enrolment numbers from the current tally of around 2000 people a year.

Arnold and Parker with Anna Mann
It’s a noble and necessary goal – but it has to be said, this is the three ‘Rs’, well, certainly two of them, whichever way you look at it. It’s school. Both Ladd and Scaasi agree with something that the Honorary Chairman of Literacy Partners, columnist Liz Smith has pointed out: this is not one of the glamour charities.  

But Ladd and Scaasi do move in glamorous circles and to that end work it as best they can. It can be a tricky balancing act. In the world of philanthropy there is the vexing problem of give and take. ‘We’ve had a couple of people who have said that I’m not coming to our benefits anymore because you didn’t come to mine. It’s absolutely true and you just have to say you’re sorry.’ Leaning forward on the sofa in the slightly faded flamboyance of their sitting room, Arnold Scaasi, who must tire of being described as puckish, does make sure he has the last word: ‘All that matters is the final outcome,’ he says crisply. ‘I’ll ask anyone for money. I’ll ask you before you leave.’

To learn more about Literacy Partners, click here.

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