Karen Boatman’s Speech for The 2008 Walk for Literacy

When I was asked to speak I realized I took these kinds of events for granted and hadn’t thought much about what it all really means. So I decided to actually study the title of this event.


What do we mean by walk? Well it’s certainly a form of movement. But there are many forms of movement. We can climb trees and fences and mountains. We bike and we hike and some trek. Some run and some swim. And many of these are done to raise awareness about or funds for something. But walking is a form of movement, even a form of transportation, that is common to most people in the world. It is perhaps the form that is the most participatory; something that many of us can do.

Then I asked myself what did I know about famous walking events. I remembered from my childhood bible studies that prophets would walk in the desert and meditate and that Moses walked out of Egypt. In art history class I saw images of the walking Buddha.

I thought about Walk also as a form of political behavior protesting against or demonstrating for something. The images of the suffragettes in the early days of the 19th century came to mind. We had just used some of their pictures to motivate BU students to register to vote. They walked for over 25 years for the right to vote and, like Gandhi, were beaten and jailed.

Gandhi’s famous 240-mile walk to the sea in wooden sandals was a protest against the British control of salt but was also a demonstration that Indians could harvest their own and thereby weaken one aspect of the British economy.

Martin Luther King and his supporters took 5 days to walk from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 protesting continued discrimination and demonstrating solidarity across racial lines.

It seems when there is more of a demand involved the word MARCH is often used instead of walk. So suffragettes, Gandhi and King are said to have marched. But we’re not marching today.

We’re walking as a way to create support and to show support to fill a need. When I googled “walk to support a cause” there were almost 59 million sites and I learned that the Walk for Hunger is nearly 40 years old. That brings me to the next word FOR.

Clearly history is full of events where people have come together to protest. It seems that it is often easier to bring folks together to be against something then it is to motivate them to take action for something. But, as my google search showed me, we may have moved to a time where we are understanding more clearly what causes the problems we would protest and gives us hopes and ideas of what to support to decrease those problems.

Today we are FOR LITERACY as a way to solve many individual and community problems related to poverty, ignorance and disease-three of the main goals when the UN was created.

So then I looked up some definitions of literacy:

First was being able to read and write. Second was "versed in literature or creative writing”. One dictionary includes an entry for visual literacy as "the ability to recognize and understand ideas conveyed through visible actions or images". The Uppsala Foundation in Sweden would call this Symbolic literacy.

The Literacy Development Council of Newfoundland and Labrador says "Literacy not only involves competency in reading and writing, but goes beyond this to include the critical and effective use of these in peoples' lives, and the use of language (oral and written) for all purposes." This definition also encompasses oral forms of literacy.

Some of us may remember the musical My Fair Lady where Professor Henry Higgins decides to teach Eliza Doolittle, a poor flower seller, how to speak correctly and how to act. Some may call this a form of cultural literacy.

And, of course, there has been a lot of talk these days about the need for all of us to become financially literate. Thus the term literacy is coming to mean a specific competence. Hence the terms "civic literacy", "computer literacy", etc.

The programs that Barakat is creating and supporting are beginning with the basics, the foundation for more knowledge, READING and thus creating more sources of knowledge to increase the quality of life. Recently I asked my undergraduates what was the most important thing they had ever learned. This is Vanessa’s response:

“The most important thing I have learned is to read…because reading has opened a door to a whole world of knowledge for me. Access to an unlimited amount of facts, concepts, philosophies…reading has also allowed me to learn about others’ countries, cultures. Through books and other reading materials, people learn to realize that there are other beliefs and types of people; through reading, people can learn to tolerate other religions, cultures and ideas (author’s note-this is one reason some do not want the poor to become literate). We can learn from the past in hopes of changing the present and the future.”

On one hand I’d like to see there be many future successful walks by Barakat for literacy. But part of me hopes that there will be a time when we won’t need them anymore. Today, though, that time has not yet come so let’s WALK FOR LITERACY!