April 2012

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live in a man's world Jeff Burkhart Teaching life-changing skills in the most simple way By Angie Davies and Sarah DeRoo Jeff Burkhart glances at his watch before heading into the Literacy Network's humble library—a tidy little office overlooking South Park Street that serves as a home for course books, a classroom, and a playroom of sorts. It's 3 p.m., and for his small army of vol- unteers, the day will just be getting started as adult learners come through the door after their workdays end. 'Tis the nature of a volunteer-driven, community-based nonprofit, and in this daily flow, Burkhart feels right at home. As executive director of Madison's Literacy Network, Burkhart is charged with bringing a tight-knit staff, volunteers and adult learners together to teach reading, writing and speaking skills. Whether tutoring Bhutanese refugees in the English alphabet or helping a native-Madisonian better his or her abilities to read and write on the job Burkhart says it's all about a simple goal: to help area adults guide their families to financial independence, better health and greater quality of life. And with his work, Burkhart con- tinues to show many that where there is literacy, there is a way. Why is this program so critical to the community it reaches? I think of literacy as a tool you need to navigate society. If you're not able to read and write in English, or if you don't speak the language well, there are so many things you're unable to do—not only in a job, but to navigate the bus system, to read a label at the grocery store or on a prescription. Improving adult literacy is a powerful way to impact the community because you're not only working with that person, you're impacting their families. Do you have to approach adult learners in a different way? Absolutely. Adults have a wealth of experience in their lives, and you have to reflect that. If I were to open up a Dr. Seuss book with an adult learner, it would be ridiculous. So we find things they're interested in. That's why I think our health literacy class is so pop- ular because it gives them something they really need, and they're also learning English at the same time. Your health literacy programming has been held up as an example in both literacy and health care networks. Why is health literacy a key issue for you right now? We know that 36 percent of Americans have basic or below-ba- sic health literacy, meaning that most of them can't understand prescription labels or instructions; in many cases they don't un- derstand verbal directions from a doctor or a nurse. Here in Dane County alone, it costs $455 million each year when people don't understand medical directions. So we're offering a program— including a mock clinic where students go through an appointment from scheduling it to prescription follow-up—to help people learn English better in the context of understanding their health. Quick Questions with Burkhart What is a phrase you use too often? Tuvan-throat singing. [laughs] I'm always saying it. All the time. I can't shut up about it. What is your favorite beer? Hopalicious. As a musician yourself, what instrument do you play? Guitar mostly. 28 BRAVA Magazine April 2012 What is a favorite place for live music in Madison? Can I give you two? High Noon Saloon and Kiki's House of Righteous Music. It's in her basement. It's the most awesome thing ever! What was your favorite book growing up? It had to have been a Judy Blume book. Did she do "Ramona"? What's your favorite book now? I just read a really fascinating book, "Let the Great World Spin" by Colum McCann. What kind of barriers are many of your students facing? One of the difficulties is that our learners seem to have so many life challenges not just around reading and writing skills. There are issues of homelessness. There are often undiagnosed learning dis- abilities, cognitive disabilities. But our tutors work really hard to help improve people's lives. How do partnerships with other organizations support your work? We work with about 30 different organizations in a variety of ways to both host our programs and get referrals. We're working on our relationships with community organizations that are doing job de- velopment to make sure that we are included in that pathway. My long-term goal is to make sure we're a part of initiatives like that. You have an exciting event coming up in April called Busking for Books. What are you most excited about with this event? It will be on April 21, the same weekend as the start of the Farmers' Market and during the Wisconsin Film Festival. We're confirm- ing bands right now, but I can say that the most popular acts from previous years are coming back, including the Black Star Drum Line—it's 18 kids with drums and it's totally awesome. And then, last year's highest revenue-generator, a guy named DB Pedersen— he does Tuvan throat-singing. You have to see it. Find more about Busking for Books and the Literacy Network at ••• Photo by Phil Ejercito

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