Paula Lucie-Smith is a down-to-earth Trini who is making a difference in the field of adult literacy. Having identified the big social problem of illiteracy in Trinidad and Tobago and the West Indies, she decided to take steps to deal with it. She is the founder and chief executive officer of the Adult Literacy Tutors Association (Alta), the organisation which she formed in 1992 as an NGO. The organisation has trained 2,000 tutors in an effort to bring relief to people with reading and writing problems. Lucie-Smith attended St Joseph’s Convent, Port-of-Spain, Warwick University and the University of Leicester in England where she obtained a first degree in history, and a Post Graduate Certificate in Education. She started her career as a secondary school teacher in Trinidad, but in 1990 began teaching an adult literacy class of about 20 people as a volunteer. Two years later she formed Alta to offer free literacy instruction to adults and to train adult literacy tutors. Alta’s programmes have since spread across the country and region. Classes are offered at 50 venues throughout Trinidad and Tobago and 59 tutor-training courses have been run. Alta has partnered with Servol, the Ministry of Education, the National Library of Trinidad & Tobago and the prisons. The organisation has also been invited to conduct literacy training in Grenada, St Vincent and Antigua. Since 1996, Lucie-Smith has been producing books for teaching reading, writing and spelling using local content and incorporating key life skills. To date, she has written or edited more than 60 Alta publications. In 2001 she was awarded the Hummingbird Gold Medal. In 2008 Alta was selected as a “model for replication worldwide” by Unesco and recently she was selected by The Anthony N Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence 2012.
What inspires you to do what you do, teaching adults to read?
I have always loved to teach and teaching adults to read has the power to truly transform. Not only does reading bring knowledge and access to new skills, but changes your place in the world—from exclusion to inclusion; from acted upon to actor; from fear to security.
Who were the people who have influenced you the most in your career and how did they?
My career in Alta was shaped initially by negative influences that pushed me out of mainstream education. So I became a volunteer tutor in the Unesco/Government adult literacy programme in International Literacy Year 1990. As a new field, adult literacy created a fantastic opportunity to respond to the needs of the learner and to implement everything new in education. In 1992 I did the Dyslexia Association of T&T training course which provided the structure and explicit teaching of reading skills missing from adult literacy materials and approaches. It also forged a lasting partnership with the Dyslexia Association and in particular with its founder, Cathryn Kelshall, who is a true teacher—keen to understand how her students learn, to make learning fun and to herself continue learning—and I continue to learn from her. She has been the best of mentors, ready to share or discuss new ideas and unfailingly positive and supportive.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Born in London, England, during my parents’ visit there. I returned with them at six weeks old and grew up in Valsayn when it was ‘deep bush’ with coconut trees, sandflies for so, and the odd scorpion.
When through your work or otherwise you experience the fallout of social issues happening in our country what are your thoughts…solutions?
Respect is the key. Particularly important is for those in positions of power to respect those without—parent to respect child, immigration officer to respect the passport applicant, government ministers in their anonymous vehicles to respect other users of the roads. The Alta classroom is founded on respect for each other and cooperation (rather than competition)—tutor/student, tutor/tutor and student/student.
Who was your hero or “idol” growing up (fictional or real or both) and why? And who do you admire most today?
My mother, who continues to live her life for others and drummed into me from young that “a selfish person is the worst thing in the world.” My student, Yvonne, who proves you can rise above your circumstances, can be full of goodness, kindness and love even when these were denied you.
What daily motto/credo do you live by…your recipe for success?
For every action and inaction there is a consequence. Have a Plan B.
What advice would you give to the young people of Trinidad and Tobago?
First, work is liberating. Second, the world is full of good people—people who want to help you to succeed. The world is also full of people who are happy to help you fail. Choose carefully who you spend your time with and always work—even if you don’t get paid for it.
If you could dine with anyone in history who would it be and why?
Toussaint L’Ouverture, who led Haiti to independence. Since so much today is blamed on ‘slavery’, one who was born a slave and rose high above it could give a fascinating insight into the psyche and effects of slavery. While we were eating, I could warn him not to get on the ship to negotiate with the French as it was a trap. Just think what Haiti could be today if Toussaint had had the chance to lead in peace as well as in war.
What are your most prized possessions: one tangible, one intangible?
My family and my ability to think.
Which social worker(s)/activist(s) do you admire the most?
Clive Pantin, Diana Mahabir and those at Rebirth House—to beat drugs you have to be strong. All environmentalists in T&T, like Julian Kenny.
What keeps you going in spite of all the frustrations you must encounter or is it all smooth sailing?
Smooth sailing—no way. The water real rough! What keeps me going: Alta students, whom I do not know and am meeting for the first time, saying to me “thank you,” speaking with confidence and walking tall. The tutors who say that Alta has made them see people differently and developed talents they didn’t know they had. The Alta team of coordinators, trainers, staff and board, who weather every storm with me.
Of all your accolades and awards which do you rate as extremely special?
The Anthony N Sabga Caribbean Award for Excellence as this has brought the field of adult literacy into the public consciousness as never before. A prestigious award like this could begin to chip away at the stigma attached to poor reading. Being inducted into the St Joseph’s Convent Hall of Excellence also remains close to my heart as maybe I can inspire just one or two of the schoolgirls as they daily walk by the hall, years after my energy is long gone.
What advice would you give to the country’s leaders to create a better society?
Time to start setting a good example—stay here to deal with issues instead of more foreign trips. Award jobs and contracts on the basis of merit and competence. Take care how you spend the public purse.
Are ads full of self praise legitimate spending of public funds? Just because a past government did wrong, does not entitle any present government to do the same.
What is your greatest fear in life?
I don’t think much about fear, but if you want one definite fear: big, big roach!
What was the most difficult decision you ever had to make?
None comes to mind, maybe because once a decision is made the process is no longer relevant. Decision takes you forward, never backward.
What goals and or ambitions do you still have?
A comprehensive plan is urgently needed to address adult literacy needs, especially in the many government skills training programmes. Millions of dollars and countless hours are wasted on training that cannot be fully utilised when the recipient cannot read. It seems obvious that the numerous training programmes should work together so that applicants to any programme are first screened and if needed referred to intensive (eg daily four-hour) Alta literacy classes. These could be offered at key locations nationwide perhaps partnering with the Workforce Assessment Centres. Within two-to-six months most applicants should be able to complete Alta Level 2—functional reading and writing—and move on to their chosen field of training. Alta’s free literacy services are most needed in rural areas where literacy levels are lowest, but Alta suffers from a shortage of volunteer tutors and the community links to mobilise people in rural communities. Alta can only extend its literacy programme to these new areas through corporate sponsorship or government partnership. A natural partner would be the Ministry of Community Development which could contract experienced Alta tutors to teach at community centres where Alta does not have a nearby class. In 2013 I plan to start developing Alta online and we are seeking expert guidance and funding for this. Alta online will bypass the shame factor and bring Alta to persons who cannot or will not come to Alta’s free community classes.
What else about you would you like our readers to know?
Reading is a skill, and like all skills—music, language, sports, plumbing—some of us have natural talent and acquire it easily; some have great difficulty and need specialised instruction; most fall at the various points between these two poles of ease and difficulty. So some brains come wired for reading and writing, others do not. Equally important, this wiring does not say anything about your ability to think. When we all understand this, those with reading difficulties will be able to seek help openly without fear of ridicule. When going to an adult literacy class is no more emotionally challenging that going to a music or computer class, then we will be on the road to literacy.