Vermont Conversation: A literacy crusader fights poverty and prejudice with books

The Vermont Conversation with David Goodman is a VTDigger podcast that features in-depth interviews on local and national issues with politicians, activists, artists, changemakers and citizens who are making a difference. Listen below, and subscribe on Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts or Spotify to hear more.

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It’s a tough time for books. A wave of book banning is occurring throughout numerous states. Last school year, more than 2,500 books were banned, according to PEN America. The vast majority of the targeted books feature LGBTQ+ themes or characters of color. Meanwhile in Vermont, the state colleges announced in February a plan to close their libraries and sell off their books.

Against this backdrop, Duncan McDougall has quietly crusaded to expand literacy and give away books to underserved children and communities throughout Vermont and New Hampshire. Twenty five years ago, McDougall, a former management consultant and wilderness guide, founded the Children’s Literacy Foundation, or CLiF, and ran it out of his home in Waterbury Center. To date, CLiF has donated $10 million worth of books to more than 350,000 children in 85% of the towns in Vermont and New Hampshire. CLiF now runs more than 1,000 programs per year in schools, rural libraries, prisons, and other locations where children and parents are at risk of low literacy.

The literacy gap is wide. Nationally and in Vermont, more than two-thirds of fourth graders read below grade level, according to the Literacy Network.

For children with low literacy, “the probability of them getting through high school is much lower, the probability of them going beyond high school is lower,” McDougall said. “It's a vicious cycle. So what we do at the Children's Literacy foundation is we try to inspire those kids and give them experiences and resources that can help them change that cycle. … For a child who's never had that opportunity to choose a book that's really on a topic that they love, it’s life changing.”

This week marks a milestone in New England's literacy efforts. After a quarter century at its helm, McDougall is stepping down as executive director of CLiF and handing the reins of the organization to Laura Rice, a nonprofit leader and former CLiF board member. And the organization is moving from McDougall’s garage to a 3,000 square foot new headquarters on Route 100 in Waterbury Center.

“Books can be mirrors and windows,” McDougall said. “What we want to do is for those kids who don't see anyone like them in their world to see a book that reflects characters just like them. For people who have never had a chance to leave their town, or go more than three or four towns away, to see the tremendous variety and magical diversity of this world.” 

“Literacy is really a social justice issue,” he added. “We are opening books, opening minds, opening doors, and there are just a lot of folks who have doors closed to them. Helping young kids develop a love for reading and writing can open so many doors for them and for their kids and grandkids too.”

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David Goodman

About David

David Goodman is an award-winning journalist and the author of a dozen books, including four New York Times bestsellers that he co-authored with his sister, Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman. His work has appeared in Mother Jones, New York Times, Outside, Boston Globe and other publications. He is the host of The Vermont Conversation, a VTDigger podcast featuring in-depth interviews about local and national topics. The Vermont Conversation is also an hour-long weekly radio program that can be heard on Wednesday at 1 p.m. on WDEV/Radio Vermont.


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