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Awards & Honors: 1998 National Humanities Medalist

Nancye Brown Gaj

Nancye Brown Gaj remembers the first time she entered the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women. It was a cold January night in 1987, and she was accompanied by only one other volunteer. Gaj had never been behind the gates of a prison before, and hadn’t spent time with anyone who lived inside, let alone taught her to read.

“As we approached the prison, the volunteer said to me, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ I said, ‘I don’t know if I can either, but anyway, we’re doing it.’ So we went in. In a matter of minutes, we found a profound connection with these women. We realized that we did hope for the same things, had lost a lot of the same dreams, and held on to similar ones.”

That night, using Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, Gaj and her colleague began to teach inmates skills that would enable them to read not only to themselves, but to their children. For the next eight weeks, Gaj helped women who had rarely picked up a book begin to use classic and multicultural stories to reconnect with their children, and to tell or write their own stories that the kids could take home in remembrance of their visit. She did it using the most fundamental of teaching tools: a good story.

In this way, Nancye Gaj founded Motheread, a national, nonprofit organization devoted to teaching literacy skills to women and men across the country in community settings, prisons, and schools. Since that night in 1987, Motheread has expanded beyond everyone’s expectations. Last year, for instance, it taught nearly one thousand new readers and trained five hundred new instructors. In conjunction with federal, state, commercial affiliates, and partners around the country, Motheread provides training and technical assistance to educators and family service agencies — as well as prisons — in thirteen states and the Virgin Islands. Through its partnership with the North Carolina Humanities Council, Motheread teaches its curriculum in fifty-four of North Carolina’s one hundred counties. The organization is fast becoming known as Motheread/Fatheread because it is offering its group-centered instruction in men’s correctional institutions and community organizations as well.

It seems like an idea that anyone would support. What could be more salutary, or more useful, than to teach someone to read? Indeed, after two months, Gaj and Motheread were featured on CBS’s “Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt,” in a segment called “The Reading Room.”

Nevertheless, Gaj’s idea almost didn’t make it. When she presented her proposal to the North Carolina Department of Corrections, “they all thought it was a horrible idea,” says Gaj. Then they asked the opinion of one prison superintendent, who was, incidentally, the only woman in the group. “She took much longer to answer — in fact, she took forever,” says Gaj. “Then she said it would absolutely appeal to the inmates because of their desire to be good parents. She said, ‘I think it would be perfect.’

“After this, we started with great fanfare — the governor announced the program in a state speech. The proposal was written for a one-year pilot program. What we started with was very clinical, and ended up being transformational.”

Before founding Motheread, Gaj had been involved in adult literacy training for fifteen years, and was training literacy instructors for the North Carolina community college system. One of her tasks was to collect information on why adults participate in such programs. The reasons were remarkably consistent: most answered that they wanted to learn to read so that they could earn their high school diploma, read the Bible, and read to their children — often in that order. Gaj realized that current programs were not taking those reasons into account. She believed that teachers had to begin with the traditions and skills of the particular student, to give the student a solid path to follow, like “stepping stones across a stream.”

“We start with children’s literature for a couple of reasons,” says Gaj. “A parent and child can read the entire piece together in one sitting, and the books are full of tremendous lessons that help them to be better parents.”
Gaj graduated magna cum laude from Duke University, and has a master’s degree in education from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. As Motheread continues to grow and send off new shoots, she finds she spends less time teaching people to read and more time teaching others to teach Motheread’s curriculum. But she always stays close to the story.

In her latest Motheread newsletter, Gaj included a photograph of the grandfather she barely knew but whose life, from a distance, affected her deeply. She wrote, “As we find ourselves searching for new ways to connect and find meaning, let’s be reminded that we are who we are because of those who came before us. The telling of our family and community stories is a fitting tribute to their memory and a reaffirmation of who we are.”

By Robin Herbst