I have childhood memories of visiting the Beale Memorial Library with my mom and brothers. I remember asking the librarians for assistance locating books, and look back fondly on the day I received my first library card, a yellow plastic card with my personal paper barcode pasted to the front.

I am fortunate to have parents that encouraged and supported their children’s literacy.

Literacy is a requisite component for engagement with ideas. It is through literature, biography and philosophy that we interact with the forces that shaped our past, understand the state of our current affairs and are able to direct ourselves towards brighter futures. Literacy is also critical to success in the workplace.

Author Tomie dePaola stated it well: “Reading is important, because if you can read, you can learn anything about everything and everything about anything.”

Sadly, literacy and reading in America are declining.

More than 36 million American adults, roughly 10 percent of our total population, cannot read, write or do basic math above a third-grade level. According to Pew Research Center, more than a quarter of American adults haven’t read a book in whole or part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form.

Locally, the numbers are even bleaker:

• From 2010 to 2014, Bakersfield was the No. 1 least literate city in the United States

• In 2016, Bakersfield was the No. 2 least literate city

• 15 percent of Kern County adults have less than a ninth-grade literacy level

• 13.9 percent of Kern County adults lack the basic literacy skills to perform daily job functions

• 26.6 percent of Kern County adults over the age of 25 haven’t completed high school

• 42 percent of Latinas over the age of 25 lack a high school diploma or its equivalency

What is perhaps most alarming about these numbers is that illiteracy and low educational achievement are multi-generational crises.

In 2014, the Foundation for Child Development reported that only 16 percent of students whose mothers had not graduated from high school were able to read proficiently in the eighth grade. Forty percent of these students did not graduate from high school.

Kern County’s widespread illiteracy must be overcome if we want to close the achievement gap and see our community flourish.

Fortunately, there are organizations and individuals invested in tackling these issues head-on.

The Kern Literacy Council has been serving our community for more than 50 years to “empower individuals to improve their quality of life through literacy education.” I recently spoke with Laura Lollar Wolfe, the Kern Literacy Council's executive director, regarding our community’s literacy challenge and the work of her organization.

This year, Council volunteers have provided more than 12,000 hours of free tutoring to 200 students. The Council offers programs in Adult Basic Education, General Education Development (GED), English as a Second Language, citizenship tests and family literacy.

Through their family literacy program, the Council is working to directly address multigenerational illiteracy. The family literacy program combines English as a Second Language and reading strategies to help parents learn to speak and read English, so that they can read to their children and feel more confident in school settings.

Volunteer tutors work with between 10 and 15 parents for 90 minutes per week, teaching from children’s books that participants are allowed to keep. The goal is for parents to share those books with their children for at least 20 minutes per day, four days per week.

Every minute counts.

Children in low-income households will hear approximately 30 million fewer words by the time they reach their fourth birthday than their non-low-income peers. A parent’s involvement in their child’s early education has consistently been found to have a positive correlation to a student’s academic performance.

By partnering with families to increase parental engagement in their students’ education, Kern Literacy Council and its volunteers are helping move our community forward.

However, it’s going to take far more than 12,000 volunteer hours to address our illiteracy issue.

As we continue to transition to a post-industrial, knowledge economy, it’s imperative that each of us be highly literate. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development suggests that tomorrow’s knowledge workers require competency in problem identification, problem solving and critical thinking. Skills that are all dependent on literacy.

If we want to see significant improvement in our county’s economic prospects and quality of life, we must overcome illiteracy. Further, it is paramount that we overcome illiteracy if we desire to repair the tears in our social fabric.

In addition to the resume virtues needed for the workplace, reading has been shown to cultivate empathy. If there has ever been a time when we collectively need more empathy, it is now.

The more we read, the more we understand one another. And the more we understand one another, the less likely we are to hate or assume the worst intentions of each other.

A community that reads together, stays together. Reading allows us to discover who we were, challenge our biases and consciously determine what type of people we wish to be.

We will neither expand economic opportunity nor elevate civil discourse if we cannot eradicate illiteracy.

For more information on the Kern Literacy Council, including volunteer opportunities, visit www.kernliteracy.org or call 661-324-3213.

Contributing columnist Justin Salters writes weekly on politics, culture and civic engagement; the views expressed are his own. Reach him at Facebook.com/thatjustinsalters, Twitter @justinsalters or justin@justinsalters.com.

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