Knowledge Is Power 

Memphis Gun Down program turns attention to literacy.

A joint initiative from Mayor A C Wharton's office and International Paper is aimed at convincing kids to pick up books rather than guns.

When youth in South Memphis and Frayser go to a neighborhood community center to play basketball or shoot pool, they'll now also have the opportunity to learn how to get jobs and improve their reading levels through the Literacy Is Free Expression (L.I.F.E.) initiative.

A collaborative effort between Wharton's Memphis Gun Down project, a plan that seeks to reduce youth gun violence by 20 percent in selected areas of South Memphis and Frayser and 10 percent citywide by September 2014, and manufacturing company International Paper, the L.I.F.E. program was launched last week at Pine Hill Community Center in South Memphis.

The other community centers that will implement the L.I.F.E. initiative are Riverview, Ed Rice, and Hollywood. The program is targeting young men between the ages of 13 and 24 years old who read between fourth and eighth grade levels.

"We're not expecting anybody to save the world alone. We want collective impact," said Memphis Gun Down director Bishop Mays. "Over time, [one of the L.I.F.E. participants] could become the next Barack Obama. Who knows? But he may not be on his path yet. This might put him on his path."

International Paper is providing funding to furnish the four community centers with computers, desks, software, and teaching materials. Trained volunteers will teach participants literacy and job readiness skills.

"Once we saw that there was a direct correlation or indirect link between low literacy levels and high crime levels and we saw that we could have an impact and a role in being a part of the solution, then that's what we decided to do," said Deano Orr, executive director of the International Paper Foundation.

The program is aimed at deterring students from dropping out of school and assisting those already out of school with obtaining employment. L.I.F.E. program participants will also receive additional support from designated mentors.

"There are a lot of different areas in Memphis where literacy is a problem, because we don't get the right education," said Hamilton High School senior Michael Smith. "[Some] teachers don't know how to teach. They're too used to just passing people."

According to Literacy Mid-South, a 2006 survey revealed Memphis was ranked number seven in a list of 10 least literate U.S. cities. Illiteracy has been directly linked to issues such as crime, unemployment, incarceration, and low voter registration.

"Roughly 25 percent of the adults in Memphis operate at a low literacy rate, which prevents them from completing job applications, job readiness programs, and things of that nature," Orr said. "We're all concerned about the future of our children here in Memphis, and literacy is one of the approaches that could help leverage the decrease in crime."

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