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Democracy: Learners Add Their Voices

William & Mary’s Office of Community Engagement (OCE) promotes Literacy for Life’s mission and volunteer opportunities within the university community. In return, Literacy for Life not only provides meaningful volunteer experiences but also participates in OCE events, bringing to the table a diversity of voices along with intimate knowledge of issues related to education, immigration, and social justice.

OCE Director Melody Porter knew that members of the Literacy for Life community would enhance the OCE’s recent discussion of Democracy, part of its Daily Work of Justice community conversation series. The event gathered a diverse group of community members, invitedthem to “share their lived experience of democratic practices,” and tasked them to “engage with empathy, understanding, and action.” Learners Humaira Rasuli of Afghanistan and Tatyana Dytynyak of Ukraine attended the event, accompanied by their tutors Barbara Burnside and Bonnie Smith.

Unfortunately, in Afghanistan, I did not have the opportunity to talk about democracy and justice without fear,” reflects Humaira, a human rights attorney who co-founded Afghanistan’s first legal aid non-profit, Women for Justice Organisation. “I wanted to share my understanding and experience about justice and democracy. I enjoyed the diversity in the group and the action cultivated through conversations. You could see young students chatting with politicians, professors, and high-ranking staff of W&M, which itself was an efficient democratic tool.”

Humaira's tutor, Barbara, enjoyed watching her learner interact with others while telling her remarkable story. Barbara also appreciated the opportunity to meet like-minded people passionate about justice and democracy. "Since I have been tutoring Humaira, and since the 2020 election season, I have become more aware of how fragile our democracy is, how fortunate I am to live with so many freedoms, and how important it is for me, personally, to stand up for and defend such freedoms," she says. "There is so much power and encouragement in sharing a commitment to justice and democracy."

Tutor Bonnie Smith is matched with Tetyana Dytynyak of Ukraine, who is pursuing her diploma through the National External Diploma Program (NEDP). Through her NEDP assignments, Tetyana has recently studied civics, citizenship, and the Bill of Rights. Bonnie says, "As a Ukrainian, Tetyana was so interested in giving her voice to the issues of Democracy. She was able to show those at our table how important Democracy is to the Ukrainian people." Bonnie admired Tetyana's "articulate and confident" participation during the event. The diverse participants at Bonnie and Tetyana's table included a professor, an AmeriCorps volunteer, and a descendent of original members of First Baptist Church, a congregation which traces its roots to enslaved and free African-Americans who met in secret during the time of the Revolution. Bonnie shared her own stories of attending a sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr.; riding a school bus with the first African-Americans to attend her school following the Brown v. Board of Education decision; and participating in women's rights activism in the 1960s. "I continue to be very interested in the struggle for increased rights for all, including immigrants," says Bonnie. By all accounts, the conversation was lively and impactful. "Words can't fully capture the energy in the room," reflects OCE Director Melody Porter.

Literacy for Life is grateful to have been invited to participate in the "Daily Work of Social Justice: Democracy" community conversation. We are especially proud that our work gives individuals like Humaira and Tetyana the skills, connections, and confidence to share their stories and contribute to American Democracy.

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