Don Cunningham: Literacy Center Provides Pathway to Citizenship and the Workforce

By Colin McEvoy on October 24, 2018

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on October 17, 2018. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

I’d only ever seen him with his face behind a camera.

For a long while, I didn’t know his name.

He and his camera were a quiet, regular presence in the reception rooms and event centers where my job and my hobby as a musician took me.

Intrigued by his work and his kind, gentle way, I eventually came to know him. But, like most people we encounter in our lives, I didn’t really know him at all.

That changed recently.

I attended The Literacy Center of the Lehigh Valley’s annual Faces of Literacy event at Muhlenberg College, where I’d been asked to speak.

Marco Calderon and his camera were there — along with his wife, Eveily, and their young sons, Luka and Kana.

But, this time, Marco wasn’t there to take pictures. He was being honored by The Literacy Center — along with two others — as successful graduates of a program that changes lives and communities, one person at time.

That evening Marco’s role was to speak, to tell his story — in the language he learned at the center. He read his prepared remarks in slow, deliberate, perfect English with a charming Spanish accent.

Out from behind the camera, he was naturally a bit nervous but flawless.

Marco is from Mexico. He came to the U.S. in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree. But with very limited English, he had difficulty finding and sustaining a job that matched his education.

He wanted more and was determined to do the work.

He enrolled in the English as a Second Language program at the Literacy Center in Allentown.

Today, Marco owns and operates a very successful photography and videography business in Allentown, where he and his family live. His corporate clients are a list of the largest and top employers in the Lehigh Valley. His work is seen in annual reports, advertisements, and materials promoting the Lehigh Valley and its assets.

This summer Marco became a U.S. citizen.

He announced that while choking back tears to the crowd of graduates, teachers and supporters that evening at the Literacy Center dinner.

“I want people to know that we [Mexicans] are not the people they portray in Washington or talk about on the news,” he said. “It hurts and angers me to hear that.”

Marco’s story is that of America.

With the exception of the Native Americans, we all came here from somewhere else. Despite the poetry of America, for most people and groups, no one was rolling out welcome mats for newcomers. Typically, the last group to arrive rolled it up.

Yet the entrepreneurial and sky-is-the-limit spirit of America was born of the millions of people willing to leave home and often language behind, seeking the unknown and trying to conquer it. The strong backs and minds of immigrants fueled each new economic explosion of the country’s history.

This economic era is no different. Today, we have more work than workers.

The No. 1 issue employers face in the U.S. and here in the Lehigh Valley is finding skilled workers.

At nearly full employment and with a U.S. labor participation rate of only 63 percent of those of working age, the economy needs not only skilled workers but also those just willing to work.

The Literacy Center has never been more important. Ironically, government support for it continues to be reduced.

This year, the center graduated 83 students, the largest in its history: 41 of them learned English as a second language, 42 achieved their high school equivalency diplomas. Six students of the center this year became U.S. citizens.

The numbers are not large. The work is hard. It takes hundreds of hours with dedicated teachers — many of them volunteers — along with self-study to learn a new language or the basic skills and information to survive, and hopefully to thrive.

There are 500 students enrolled in the program. About 60 percent of those are in the workforce with about 100 different Lehigh Valley employers.

They are a critical part of the workforce pipeline. And the private sector knows it. Employers have stepped in where government has stepped back. Lehigh Valley employers are funders, sponsors and supporters of The Literacy Center. Several of them offer classes in the workplace.

The formula is working. The Literacy Center in the Lehigh Valley is ranked first in student academic gains out of the 53 programs funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Far from a handout, The Literacy Center gives a helping hand to those willing to help themselves, many of those immigrants. Oddly, at a time when our economy needs the talent and drive of those willing to come here to seek opportunity, America is reducing the numbers of legal immigrants allowed to enter.

At the same time, only a very limited number of working-class Americans are willing or able to migrate to where the jobs are today. Industrial and manufacturing jobs go unfilled in the growth markets of America like the Lehigh Valley while the unemployed or underemployed wait for long-gone coal mines and steel mills to return to towns and villages far off the beaten path.

Immigration is not a workforce problem in America.

The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation recently gave the multiple-choice test required for immigrants applying to become citizens to working age American adults. Only 1 in 3 Americans was able to pass the test. Only 13 percent knew when the Constitution was ratified. Sixty percent didn’t know which countries the U.S. fought in World War II. The majority couldn’t identify the original 13 colonies.

People like Marco Calderon want to be here. They’ve left home and family behind. Learned a new language and a way of life. They’ve studied our country’s history and culture to become citizens.

The Literacy Center helps them develop the skills to support themselves, raise a family and become productive parts of our economy.

After Marco spoke at the dinner, I asked if I could use his camera to take a picture of him and his family. We reversed our typical roles. A sign of progress.

For, it’s Marco, and those like him, who represent the best images and assets of the Lehigh Valley — and America.

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