Embracing a broader definition of literacy

November 9, 2023

As the U.S. is facing another literacy crisis, particularly with the Science of Reading, Lakeya Afolalu has a solution. It’s to challenge schools and society to redefine literacy. “If we solely define literacy as reading and writing, then we omit the diverse ways that people communicate through multiple modalities,” she says. “We need to think more broadly about literacy, which will help schools and spaces create anti-racist, equitable and socioemotional approaches to literacy education.

An assistant professor of language, literacy and culture in the UW College of Education’s Teaching, Learning & Curriculum program, Afolalu first became interested in the topic of literacy as a child. “I was born in the Bronx, New York and raised in Detroit, Michigan. My mother is African American, born and raised in Detroit. My father is Edo Nigerian, migrated from Edo State, Nigeria to the United States,” she explains. “So, as I spent my childhood and adolescent years between New York and Detroit, Nigerian and African American languages and literacies were always around me.”

Over time, and through her doctoral studies, she learned that narrow definitions of literacy that privilege reading and writing often cause tremendous harm to youth of color in the education system. “I always like to say that this current literacy crisis is not new,” says Afolalu. “Literacy has always been gatekept, especially for communities of color.”

I always like to say that this current literacy crisis is not new. Literacy has always been gatekept, especially for communities of color.

She describes the experience of visiting cousins in the suburbs of Detroit who were her age and realizing that they were reading the same books, only fuller chapter versions than she got at her school. “That got me thinking at a young age about how your zip code influences the type of education, and especially literacy education, you get. This all inspired me to become a teacher.”

Another formative part of Afolalu’s experience included making sense of her African American and Nigerian identities, which was especially prominent during her travels between Detroit and New York. In Detroit, which is predominantly African American she was “Lakeya” — the name given to her by her African American mother. “But when I would go to New York City, I crossed into my Nigerian identity and cultural world,” she says. “So much so that when I walked through my father’s door, I was now called by my Edo Nigerian name, “Iyore.”

Overtime, Afolalu began connecting literacy to the arts and humanities when she taught middle school students. “My 6th grade students in Newark, New Jersey and 7th grade students in Harlem loved to dance during recess and in the hallway from one class to another,” she says. “The administration saw their dancing and music as a conflict with the curricula, but it was actually helping them get through the school day, to bond with each other, and instead of reading in the library, they were recording dance videos and sharing them.” In her students, she saw that dance and music are also gestural and oral literacies and forms of communication.

Expressing identity

Now in a position to further impact the education system, Afolalu’s research and teaching continue to amplify this message — literacy is more than reading and writing. Her expanded definition of literacy speaks to the potential of education to evolve to meet the needs of all its students and the future. Digital literacies, visual literacies, dance literacies, fashion — these expanded concepts of literacy truly support students’ identities. She doesn’t believe that we should get rid of traditional literacy basics, such as phonics, word recognition, and comprehension but rather that we should couple it with forms of literacy that are inclusive of students’ racial, ethnic, linguistic and gender identities. This is needed for an equitable anti-racist, and just approach to literacy education.

Her research, which focuses on Nigerian immigrant youth, is concerned with two questions. “I ask myself what happens to Nigerian immigrant youth identities when they move to the United States, and I also ask how do they use language literacy and especially digital literacies in making sense of their new host country, the United States,” says Afolalu.

Lakeya Afolalu
Lakeya Afolalu

She describes how, in Nigeria, there are societal identity markers like ethnicity, gender and religion. “But when they come to the United States, it’s such a hyper-racialized place,” she says. “And so, for the first time, when many immigrant youths come here from the Caribbean and African nations, they must reckon with race, racial constructs and anti-blackness. So, I ask how U.S. racial identity constructs and racialization processes, in particular, influence how they make sense of their identities, languages, and literacies."

Her research highlights the many ways Nigerian immigrant youth navigate U.S. school and societal spaces. Some transition to natural hair, seek trendy fashion trends, visit symbolic U.S. stores like Starbucks and Target, and exchange soccer for American football. Literacy practices like these helped the youth racially, socially and culturally position themselves in the United States. Others hold onto their Nigerian languages and cultural values by using digital literacies to communicate with school friends in Nigerian on WhatsApp and Xbox chat.

On the other hand, some of the Nigerian youths’ parents told Afolalu that they didn’t bring their children to the U.S. to get into aspects of American popular culture but to pursue the best education. One 5th grade Nigerian girl, whose parents had lived in the U.S. the longest, allowed her to maintain a more hybrid identity, through her art literacies and visits home to Nigeria, that honored both Nigerian and American values. This approach more fluidly integrated the languages and literacies of where she’s come from and where she finds herself.

Digital spaces are also critical to Afolalu’s research. “Texting, Xbox chat, virtual drawing platforms, these spaces don’t often have the same racial, linguistic, and cultural hierarchies and boundaries that exist in the real world offline,” she says. “So, youth, especially African immigrant youth, are able to rise above identity expectations and showcase their preferred identities online.”

Becoming whole

As someone who understands educational inequities firsthand, Afolalu considers it her service to society to put her research into practice. She recently founded LitiARTS — a nonprofit organization that uses literacy, arts-education, and college and career preparation mentorship to enhance educational justice for youth of color around the globe while keeping their identities and well-being at the core. The organization aims to support the whole student in three ways, with mentorship on college applications, art-based workshops and meet-ups for students for community-building and resource-sharing. In their first year, LitiArts was selected as a finalist for NewSchools Racial Equity funding opportunity. They were also recently selected as a recipient of Common Impact’s Day of Service project where they worked with a team of volunteer staff from NVIDIA to strengthen LitiArts’ digital marketing.

This organization manifests one of Afolalu’s core beliefs — every student deserves access to a high-quality education no matter their zip code. LitiARTS partners with youth and communities to build students’ confidence, creativity, and self-expression through the arts; affirm their literacy skills and identities through expansive literacies; and create communities of healthy well-being and belonging through mentorship. This is all especially geared toward students of color and first-generation college students whose identities and well-being are often stripped during their schooling experiences.

With a new undergraduate course she’s teaching, called Postcolonial Identities in the Arts, Education and Society, Afolalu is also learning and exploring alongside UW students so that more future leaders, educators and people in general can continue to think in expansive ways about identity, literacy and the arts to impact change in schools and beyond.

Most importantly, I encourage my students to step into a position of agency to speak back to harmful colonial narratives and experiences that have negatively impacted their families, their communities and their schooling experiences.

“This multi-sited course takes a historical look at the role of colonization in identity constructions and narratives for communities of color,” she says. “We visit local Seattle art spaces, explore visual art collections by artists of color, and engage with the larger Seattle community to bring the course topics to life. Most importantly, I encourage my students to step into a position of agency to speak back to harmful colonial narratives and experiences that have negatively impacted their families, their communities and their schooling experiences. Seattle is truly a gem for understanding how communities of color have taken postcolonial approaches to re-author their identities and narratives.”

At the heart of Afolalu’s inquiry is how we see ourselves and others and how this perspective impacts our overall well-being, especially our joy individually and as a society, from the time we are in school and beyond. Afolalu tells a personal story from when she was 11 years old that encapsulates this idea about when her father brought her grandmother to the United States.

Although she was multilingual and spoke Edo and Nigerian Pidgin, at that time, Afolalu had characterized her grandmother as “unable to speak English.” This characterization stemmed from deficit depictions of Africans in popular media and in her school curricula. Later, through her lived experiences and graduate studies, she would come to see the rich linguistic repertoire that her grandmother brought with her. Though her grandmother is no longer here with us, Afolalu now describes her as multi-lingual, with a rich multitude of literacies to learn from, love and embrace.


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