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Co-Working Space for Non-Profits Aims to Stamp Out City's Reading Problem

By Stephanie Lulay | June 12, 2015 8:19am

WEST LOOP —  A new co-working space aimed at bringing non-profits together to tackle Chicago's reading problem opened in the West Loop this week.

Borrowing from 1871's startup playbook, the Chicago Literacy Alliance has launched Literacenter, a non-profit co-working space that counts literacy-focused groups as its target members. More than 30 literacy non-profits will now call the center home, allowing them to better collaborate to tackle their shared mission.

Literacenter takes over a space at 641 W. Lake St. previously occupied by Catholic Charities. The 38,000-square-foot non-profit hub provides offices, meeting rooms, event spaces, back office services and educational programming for member organizations at a minimal cost.

"The dream is 100 percent literate Chicago," Literacenter founder Stacy Ratner said at the center this week. "It's not that Chicago doesn't know that there is a literacy issue or that a lot of fantastic people weren't working on [the problem] before. A lot of people were working in isolation, and that's a wasted opportunity."

Literacenter, a non-profit co-working space, opened this week at 641 W. Lake St. in the West Loop. [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]

Building a bridge between organizations that were previously spread across the city helps the non-profits dedicate more resources toward serving readers in need while facilitating collaboration between groups, Ratner said. Simply sharing a workspace with other like-minded non-profits has led the groups to brainstorm new projects and funding opportunities.

"We are already beginning to see that collaboration happen," said Michael Ban, executive director of the Chicago Literacy Alliance. Ban previously served as executive director of non-profit Book Worm Angels.

Founder Stacy Ratner (left) and Executive Director Michael Ban (right) worked to open Literacenter, a new co-working space for literacy non-profits. [Stephanie Lulay]

To understand why so many groups are focused on improving literacy in Chicago, one must first understand the depth of the problem, Ratner said. Despite Chicago's world-class cultural and educational institutions, the city's literacy rates lag behind many other major cities, she said.

Nearly 20 percent of Cook County adults lack basic literacy skills, according to the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, the federal government's most recent study on the local issue. Less than half (46 percent) of Chicago Public School students met the state reading standard in the 2013-2014 school year, according to Illinois State Board of Education figures.

Those who lack basic reading skills experience problems in many aspects of life, said Ratner, who mentored at 1871 and founded non-profit Open Books. Reading a bus schedule, applying for a job or helping kids with homework can seem like a monumental tasks for those who can't read, she said.

"The greater literacy level that you have, the more opportunities you are going to have for yourself and all of the people who are going to come after you," Ratner said.

The stairs in the Literacenter mimic the spines of famous books. [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]

Having a big group of literacy-based non-profits all in one place also helps potential volunteers navigate their options to find the right opportunity for them, too. Literacenter will begin hosting volunteer orientation sessions soon.

Anchoring the project at street level is member organization Open Books, an award-winning bookstore and literacy services group.

The Open Books used bookstore is an anchor tenant in the Literacenter building. [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]

Groups working out of the Literacenter include Working in the Schools (WITS), Hooray Learning, Infiniteach, Literacy Works, Chicago Citywide Literacy Coalition, Tutoring Chicago, Kids Like Us, and Chicago HOPES for Kids.

Sit Stay Read, a non-profit that brings trained dogs to Chicago Public Schools and inner-city programs to help facilitate reading, is a Literacenter member organization. [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]

Literacenter is the physical manifestation of the Chicago Literacy Alliance, a group founded in 2009 as a coalition of local agencies that work to help meet the literacy needs for people of all ages and backgrounds.

Literacenter was made possible with help from private grants and a $350,000 long-term loan from mission-driven lender IFF.

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