Jane Addams was an unlikely champion of literacy. She was born into a wealthy family in Cedarville, Illinois. She was raised in a wealthy area of the city of Rockford, Illinois, near Chicago. Jane attended the Rockford Seminary where she studied the humanities. Most of her wealthy female friends would go on to marry wealthy men and be involved with charities. However, this path was not for Jane Addams. Instead, her work for social justice won her a place in world history and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.
Jane Addams studied the social problems she saw and then took action. Jane believed she could help get rid of poverty, not just be kind to the poor (Davis 1973, p. 74).
Jane became aware of social inequality when she travelled across Europe. She was shocked to see some living in great wealth and others living in great poverty. She came home to Rockford and moved to an area in Chicago that needed help.
With her lifelong friend, Brenda Starr Gates, Addams moved on September 18, 1889, into a house that used to belong to the Hull family. This was in the heart of the worst slums of Chicago. There was no garbage pickup. Sewage systems did not work well. Children played with rats as pets. Alcoholism, unemployment, disease, death and domestic filth surrounded Hull House.
Jane Addams and her friends looked out on a sea of immigrants who had come for the American Dream, but were in a nightmare of poverty. The women of Hull House started with what they knew best, providing a “liberal education” (Quigley, 2006).
Jane and Brenda began a discussion and reading group for young women. They
· started a lending library of books and of framed photographs of great paintings
· delivered books and art to the poor people in their tenement houses
· held art shows and encouraged people to lend their art work
· offered courses on poets like Dante and Browning to the immigrant working women in the area
· started a Working People’s Social Science Club
· invited speakers such as John Dewey and Susan B. Anthony to visit and speak at Hull House
- kindergarten classes in the morning
- club meetings for older children in the afternoon
- clubs or courses for adults, especially English as a Second Language (ESL) and basic reading and writing classes in the evenings
The response was amazing. About 50,000 people came to Hull House in the first year and then that number grew to 2,000 per week. The Hull House buildings grew to cover several city blocks.
The mission of Hull House was to
- make education possible for the marginalized
- educate the wealthy about the conditions of immigrants
- inform the wealthy about the work of Hull House and other Settlement Houses in other cities
However, they soon saw that their approach had problems. Health problems, unemployment, and disease faced the people in the area every day. Poetry and philosophy were not enough.
Jane and her friends turned to projects that might help people make money. They began
- craft-making courses
- a book bindery workshop
- dressmaking courses
- a Boy’s Club to teach everything from how to work with wood, to how to work with metal, to photography, printing and electrical work
- an unemployment bureau to help people find jobs
- a public kitchen to teach cooking (many of the immigrants did not like this idea though since they would not cook or eat Americn food)
- to teach how to deliver babies and how to wash and prepare the dead for funerals
The movement went from poetry discussions to direct involvement in people’s struggles. But even this was not enough.
At this time, those men, women and children who could find work were working very long hours in poor conditions. If the people in this area ever worked for only eight hours a day at the jobs, they would be called “lazy” and be fired. Young children worked long hours just like adults. As the Hull House team saw it, something had to be done to change the laws. The Hull House women in the 1920s and ‘30s fought to change those laws so young children were not working and adults could have
eight-hour days. Today’s fair labour laws in the United States have roots in the work of these brave women. Some believe this was the beginning of social work in America.
Jane also saw the inequalities women faced. She fought for women’s rights. She became the first woman president of the National Conference on Social Work. She was the
- Founder and first president of the National Federation of Settlements
- National Chair of the Women’s Peace Party
- President and co-founder of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom
Jane’s work for the poor and her work for peace throughout World War One earned her the Nobel Peace Prize.
Jane began her work with trying to make people’s lives better but she ended her life fighting the laws that kept people poor and made them suffer. The Hull House story shows the movement towards social justice in literacy.
Today literacy teaching is pulled in so many directions. These directions have grown out of the history of adult literacy. Today, some people want literacy courses to focus on jobs and employment, others want it to focus on community improvement and development, some want a liberal arts education and still others want learners to decide what they need to learn. All programs and funders focus on at least one of these literacy goals. They all come out of our history.
Like Jane Addams, none of us can grow without experiencing, learning, reflecting, and acting–and then starting all over again. When we stop growing, so does the field of adult literacy.