Intersections | The American Dream Initiative: Forging Connections with New Americans in Paterson

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By Andrew Luck | When the Paterson Free Public Library applied for the ALA/Dollar General American Dream grant, we had few ESL resources when compared to the needs of the community. The city of Paterson is over 50% Hispanic with burgeoning Turkish, Arab, Bengali, and African communities as well. Additionally, with almost 50% of the city’s population “not in the labor force”, over a quarter of the population living below the poverty line, and the high school graduation rate at 70%, it was clear that the residents of Paterson would benefit from more ESL offerings at the public library.

But “where to start” was the question. Caught between a large and needy population and a relatively low municipal property tax base, the Paterson Free Public Library had many of its own hurdles. With restrictive staffing and funding levels, it was difficult to imagine launching new ESL services. The challenges – instructors, materials, facilities, promotion – were too many and too varied to take on alone.

Being awarded the American Dream Grant changed that situation by giving us the breathing room to start working through all of these obstacles. The library was able to establish a partnership with Literacy Volunteers American of Essex and Passaic Counties, a local non-profit whose mission is ESL instruction. Together we able to initiate a 10-week ESL class that provided 80 hours of instruction to almost 30 students.

With the grant helping to fund the instruction and accompanying materials, it freed the library up to work on other issues that were holding us back. One exciting outcome was the library “taking over” a ground floor space underneath our Southside Branch. This space had languished as no one in city government had an immediate use for it or the resources to make the space into something permanent. The importance of ESL resources being available in the city provided the energy to create this classroom space in a neighborhood that is a nexus of Turkish, Arab, and Hispanic communities.

This new ESL program allowed us to forge connections with the various groups of new Americans in Paterson and established fresh outreach possibilities for promoting the library’s services. These “new friends” presented additional resources for the library such as having promotional materials translated into additional languages.

The ultimate success of the program, however, was the opportunity for the students to improve their English language skills and opening increased potential in their lives for education, and employment. The celebration at the end of the class session, when the students “graduated” was a truly moving experience.

Even in the following year, American Dream Grant would continue to bear fruit for the library. In 2015, the New Jersey Department of Labor announced a grant program to expand pre-existing ESL programs. By enabling the Paterson Free Public Library to get an ESL program off the ground, the American Dream Grant not only qualified us for this new funding, but also gave us the experience and confidence to apply for this new funding stream. The state of New Jersey approved the library’s proposal for a greatly expanded ESL program of four classes and three conversation groups annually as well online ESL resource that can be accessed remotely through the library’s website.

Truly, the American Dream Grant acted as a stepladder, helping the Paterson Free Public Library reach new goals in meeting the needs of our community. What more could we have asked for?

Andrew Luck works with the Paterson Free Public Library in Paterson, N.J.