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"The Right to Read": At SBIFF, a Powerful New Doc on What We Can Do about the Scandal of IIliteracy

By Cheri Rae and Monie de Wit

At our Resource Center, where we provide free literacy information, support, and resources for parents, students, and community members of all ages, there’s one item we purchase more than any other: Kleenex.

There are a lot of tears shed when reading is a struggle; they appear when addressing classroom difficulties, expressing humiliation and the sense of shame, and when recounting the frustration of dealing with the educational bureaucracy that too often seems as unresponsive as the IRS. These feelings last a lifetime and diminish potential and quality of life.

Parents weeping over their child’s lack of reading skills need far more than a tissue and a shoulder to cry on; they need an educational community that more clearly understands the impacts and lasting consequences of ineffective instructional practices used in the classroom.

Every child deserves the right to read. But with 50 percent literacy levels—at best—in far too many of our schools, there’s a big difference between rights and reality.

Now comes “The Right to Read,” a new documentary that aims to inform the minds, open the eyes, and touch the hearts of educators, parents, and community members.

This powerful film, to be screened this weekend at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, offers far more than fine proclamations about equity delivered from the dais or in a fund-raising speech. It examines the facts of reading life in our schools.

Lights dimmed, dreams denied. “The Right to Read” features Oakland-based educator and activist Kareem Weaver and his determined journey to address the ever-present “achievement gap” in public education, the reasons why it continues, and what can be done to ensure that every child actually has the right to read.

“It’s a national problem that cuts across demographics, but it’s painted as a minority issue," Weaver says. "If it was a minority issue, then all these soccer moms wouldn’t be spending twenty, thirty-thousand dollars sending their kids to private tutoring because they didn’t learn how to read in school.”

It is a perfect description of the issue in Santa Barbara, where lucky students who don’t grasp reading in school have access to pricey supplemental instruction, learning to read from highly trained educational therapists and reading instructors. Many reading specialists in private practice in this area keep waiting lists for their costly services.

Those students whose parents cannot pay for expensive private tutoring, however, find their lights dimmed, their dreams denied. Some get stuck in Special Education classes, other just grow more hopeless by the year until they can finally escape the requirement to attend school, where they too often feel they don’t belong. Because they can’t read.

Actual Facts. “The Right to Read” also includes the insights of journalist Emily Hanford, who has thoroughly investigated and reported on the national literacy crisis.

“We have a lot of people who struggle to read. Why aren’t we screaming and yelling about this?” she asks.

Those of us who experience those tearful moments and try to console those dealing with the impacts of low literacy feel like screaming and yelling.

Instead we have, for years, tried a different approach; we offer scientific evidence, share poignant anecdotes, and represent the issue so frequently that we elicit faux admiration in those who say how much they respect our “passion.”

It’s not passion, it’s reality. A reality where nothing changes.

Our hope is that change is near. And that in the darkness of the theatre, in the reality of the stories shared, and in witnessing the deep commitment of the filmmakers who have made this important movie, decision-makers will be moved to action in a way that nothing else has.

Because every child deserves the right to read. And it’s about time it happens.

Go and see it. “The Right to Read” will screen at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Saturday Feb 11 at 2:40 p.m. and on Sunday, February 12 at 11:40 a.m., at the Metro 4 Theatre. Director Jenny Mackenzie, Executive Producer LeVar Burton, activist Kareem Weaver, and teacher Sabrina Causey are scheduled to appear at the Saturday showing.

Literacy advocates Cheri Rae and Monie de Wit write frequently about the right to read. They do community outreach through The Dyslexia Project and their initiative, Literacy is For Everyone. Contact them at

Image: Oakland teacher and literacy activist Kareem Weaver.

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