Nonprofit leader builds career on passion for literacy and volunteerism
Nonprofit leader builds career on passion for literacy and volunteerism
Primo Lasana has built a career working with school kids and teens, all the time with a passion for literature and literacy. The native New Yorker’s background also includes serving as an AmeriCorps volunteer, and working with New York nonprofit iMentor, a program that specializes in providing high school students in participating schools with university-educated mentors to help them on their path to college.
Now a recent graduate of New York University’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, Lasana serves as executive director for Reading Partners New York City, part of a nationwide non-profit organization dedicated to advancing youth literacy through tutoring and and specifically focused on low-income elementary school students. Founded in 1999 by Mary Wright Shaw, Molly McCroy, and Jean Bacigalupi, Reading Partners works closely with school administrators and districts across the country, pairing young students who are anywhere between six months to 2 1/2 years behind grade level reading with locally-sourced and vetted tutors that may include anyone, from high school students to retirees. Today, the organization serves communities in New York City, Washington, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Seattle, the San Francisco Bay Area, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Missouri, as well as in South Carolina, Texas, and Colorado. In 2020, Reading Partners had total revenues of over $25 million with nearly 900 employees.
Lasana sat with NYN Media to discuss his experience working with public school children, literature and literacy, volunteerism and the career track that led him to Reading Partners.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me how your story started. Where are you from? What schools did you go to? And what are some common themes that occurred in your life that influenced your career today?
I'd say that my journey starts in New York. I was born and raised here. I’m a very proud son of the city. I went to public schools in Lower Manhattan – art schools in the 80s and 90s. And then for high school, I went to Brooklyn Tech, which was one of the science high schools or selective high schools, if you will. And after high school, I went off to Hunter College. So I really stayed in New York for all of my education. What I'll say is that, it was also the beginning of my journey with books and literacy. I grew up in a single parent household and so I read a lot by myself and it was a great way for me to explore history and identity and just kind of have this escapism. I continued that journey through college. I was a literacy major at Hunter with a focus on African-American literature. I think there was a particular point where I was able to dig into identity in a way that hadn't been available to me before in my journey of reading. I really focused on Black writers, Black stories from both the American perspective as well as the global perspective. When I left college, I wanted to do something in the world of literacy and I also wanted to do something meaningful for the country's president. Obama had just been elected and I was excited about serving the country and serving communities. So, I went to Chicago and I did a year of national service. I was an AmeriCorps member right after college and I actually wound up staying in Chicago for two years. I worked in a reading and writing classroom on the south side of Chicago in my first year and I loved the experience of working with middle school students and helping them increase their reading scores. For my second year, I went to the west side of Chicago and again, just loved working with students across the city. I think that it was also an enlightening period both to my own leadership capacities, as well as the literacy crisis that we're facing, not only across the United States but specifically, in Black and Brown communities. We can see the impact of racism and segregation in schools across the United States and really tangible ways to serve through AmeriCorps or working in schools as young adults. It became a problem that I knew that I couldn't turn away from. And so I wanted to dedicate the rest of my career to continuing to work in public service and that has remained true. And so, I'm really excited to be here at Reading Partners continuing to drive forward literacy efforts for young people in the United States and specifically in my hometown of New York City.
Can you speak more to how you’ve seen racism and segregation impact schools across the United States?
The legacy of white supremacy in this country has driven schools to be highly segregated across the United States. I think that both Chicago and New York City stand out as some of the most segregated school systems in the country and the impact of that ongoing history and legacy of racism in the United States has removed opportunity and resources from certain communities. We say that broadly, but it impacts you differently when you're working with kids who are exposed to the realities of these under-resourced communities. Young people often don't have a choice in terms of where they are or the resources that are available to them and the opportunities that they have. I think that when you arrive in a community that has been stripped intentionally of resources, it becomes aware to you the moment that you arrive in it. We can go through the laundry list of things. There is housing insecurity; there's food insecurity; there's a lack of medical resources in any part of the fabric of society that you name. Resources are often missing from communities of color and communities that are experiencing poverty. What I'll say is that those communities also just have a tremendous amount of joy, brilliance, and culture that we don't speak about often enough. When you see young people who are brilliant, but do not have the same opportunities that other people do, that can just be frustrating and it could be hurtful, especially when you see your own identity reflected in the young students and understanding that you have had different opportunities and different resources made available to you that they may not have had. It becomes clear that there is a necessity for our society and for individuals in our society to close the opportunity gap so that we can bring more resources, more opportunity, more people, more awareness into communities that simply could use more of those resources and people power so that we can name the reality that there is not a gap in talent. There's a gap in resources. Working with kids and just seeing how far they are behind at a young age compared to their peers who may grow up in more affluent neighborhoods – it's frustrating. Once you have access to that reality, it becomes a challenge that you want to devote more time and energy and commitment to. You just kind of want to show up, that's what's driven a lot of the choices in my own career.
You mentioned seeing yourself and your identity in the youth that you worked with. Why do you think representation in education is important?
If I look back at my own education, I did not have a black male teacher until I got to college. I had one black male professor in college who taught astronomy randomly. So it was really hard for me to see myself in academia. When I think about the books that our students read, they should be having a greater level of representation and so that's one piece. Do you see yourself as a kid in the books that you read? I grew up reading a lot of things like Jack London and Roald Dahl and books that had white protagonists and it was hard for me to see myself in these adventures and doing these things. And that remained true for a long time until I got to high school or college, where we finally started reading books that had Black authors or had Black protagonists in them. One of my favorite books written in college was “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison and just being able to see yourself in the completion of the fabric of a novel is kind of incredible. For young readers, being able to see themselves represented in the pages is going to be so important. But then, if we take it back to this idea of educators and who's in the classroom, you associate teachers with success in a lot of ways as a child. These are knowledge holders. They're people who are instructing you, and for me, I wasn't able to see myself in that academic space until I got to college and until I had black teachers, black professors, many of whom were black women professors, but were putting in front of me texts that were meaningful, who understood my identity and how it connected to the work. We could have conversations in those classrooms that were led by people who understood the connectivity between the Black experience and the works that we were reading and I just think it's so important that kids see themselves both in text and in the people who are leading the conversation around those texts and around those ideas. Diversity and representation in the world of education is something that we're always striving to push. Whether it be at Reading Partners or in the publishing industry, it's something that we need to continue to dig into, so that young people across this country can really see themselves represented both in text and in the classroom from an academic leadership perspective.
What drew you to reading partners, and what excited you about working for the organization as executive director?
Reading Partners was a really exciting idea to me because it brings together so many different aspects of both my passion and my experience. As we've just spoken about, I'm very passionate about literature and about literacy. Another piece for me was that Reading Partners worked with students in grades kindergarten through fourth grade and I had spent my career working with middle school students as an AmeriCorps member and then working with high school students at IMentor. What I noticed when working at both organizations was that many of our students needed an earlier intervention, so they needed to have greater support at a younger age. So if we think about kindergarten through fourth grade, there's a great study that shows that students who are reading on grade level by the third grade are four times more likely to graduate from high school. We know that early intervention can oftentimes be far more impactful than things that you can do later down the pipeline. And I think the other piece is the literacy crisis that we're all managing in the United States, which is that only 35% of students across the United States, whether in public school or in private school, are reading on grade level by the fourth grade. Those numbers become even more sparse when you look at cities like New York, where it's closer to 22% of students who are reading on grade level by the fourth grade. The mission was very close to my heart. I thought it was very important work and then I'd say from an experiential perspective Reading Partners employ AmeriCorps members, having been an AmeriCorps member myself, and I knew how important that was to my own leadership. I really believe in deploying young people in schools across the United States, and specifically here in New York City, our AmeriCorps members are incredible. They bring passion, they bring youth, they're oftentimes the nearer peers to our students and they dedicate themselves to giving a year of service to the city which I think is amazing. And then the last piece I'll say is that I have always believed in the power of volunteerism. And so reading partners, iMentor, AmeriCorps, all of these utilize volunteerism to get results. At Reading Partners, every single student gets matched in a one-to-one tutoring relationship where they receive support from a community-based volunteer. If I look at the trajectory of my entire career, it's bringing together volunteerism, AmeriCorps, New York City public schools, and a passion for representation. Reading partners allows me to drive towards all of those different realities in one central passion point. I really believe in the model that we have here at the organization and I have experience in each one of the different buckets of work that we do. So it's been nothing but a pleasure. I'll say that we have a really incredible product and that our curriculum for our tutors drives towards student success in one year. Outcomes are important. You want to spend your time working on something that is meaningful for students' progress in academics. What we see is that about 75% of our students in any given year are moving towards their grade level by achieving their foundational literacy skills, just in one year of tutoring from our program.
How has COVID-19 affected programming and how has Reading Partners overcome the challenges brought about by the pandemic?
It is an outlier of a year in public education because of the pandemic. Schools, teachers, staff members, students, families and communities have experienced some of the most challenging circumstances to try and move education forward. It has also been a challenging year for many of the nonprofits that partner in schools. What I will say is that Reading Partners was able to transition our program to the virtual space so that we could provide literacy tutoring services both last year and this year. What that looks like is that volunteers don't have to physically enter schools. They can utilize our online platform to connect with students. Whether they be in school or at home, that has created a tremendous opportunity for us to deliver services during frankly, one of the most challenging years to be working in education and one of the most important years to be working in education because of the learning loss that has been experienced by so many of our students. Calls for educators and those providing high dosage tutoring like Reading Partners, needed to step up and supplement education so that students can get back on track.
What do you envision for the future of Reading Partners? What are you excited about moving forward and what legacy do you want to leave behind?
The future is really bright for Reading Partners of New York City. The need has never been greater coming out of this pandemic. Being in this pandemic, I probably get an email about once a week from a principal who would like to bring the program to their school. We know that the need is there. The next step is simply meeting that need. We have this wonderful virtual platform that can stay flexible in a pandemic that we are not out of yet. We're still very much in it. Our ability to deliver services both for volunteers and for students is tremendous and so we hope to expand to more schools over the coming three years. We also hope to expand our services to environments that are outside of the school setting. One thing that COVID-19 has taught us is that we need to reach students where they are, and there are more environments to reach students than simply the school setting. We're looking at partnerships with libraries, hoping to do partnerships with after school programs, or summer programs, so we can continue to support students, especially in those times when they're not in schools, and also potentially reach students at home. We're thinking about what it would look like for us to partner with an organization like the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), really reaching students in the communities where they are and the communities and spaces that exist outside of schools. So we've been in conversations with a few different organizations and we're hopeful that we're going to pilot some programs both this summer and in the coming year. That's a few of the big pieces of the vision for the future of the organization. I think we need to continue to drive representation in our text, that's something that we're very serious about as a national organization. Making sure that racial equity, diversity and inclusion lies at the core of what we do. I've spoken a lot about why we find ourselves historically in this scenario, where 99% of the students in our program are students of color. We can increase the levels of representation in our volunteer base and then I think that we can also make sure that we are speaking truth to our students, to our families, to our volunteers, and to our staff about the realities of racial equity, diversity and inclusion that have driven inequitable distribution of resources in the world of education over the course of several hundred years in this country. That's another big piece of what we're hoping to do, effectively. We really seek to build a stronger relationship with the central office of the New York City Department of Education (DOE). Many of our relationships are kind of with principles at this point, but I think that in order for reading partners to expand its imprint and its impact across New York City, having a centralized relationship with the DOE would be incredibly fruitful to our ability to reach more schools, reach more students and and basically just do more work. So we're excited to build and raise the funds that are necessary for us to expand across the city and to deliver services during a time when they're needed.
The legacy that I want to leave behind is that I want Reading Partners to be a premiere opportunity for AmeriCorps members who are looking to give a year of service. I want to make sure that when I depart this organization Reading Partners is recognized as being a super tremendous opportunity for young people to get out into communities to help schools, students and families achieve everything that they want to. I hope that this organization is more focused on racial equity, diversity and inclusion by the time that I leave it. More than anything I just want students to be joyful around reading. I just want kids to be happy, to feel empowered, And to see reading as something that is a pathway to greatness. That’s at the core of what we do: making sure that kids feel empowered through literacy. If we are delivering on that mission, then I will be very happy with what has happened at this organization. That may be oversimplified, but I think the real legacy is having more kids reading on grade level by the fourth grade, more principals who are excited about partnering with Reading Partners and expanding our services to areas outside of schools. So I hope that we're bigger, I hope that we're better and I hope that we're able to excite more kids about reading and about their education and about their futures.