Adam Scholtes: Welcome back to another episode of the Skill Up Build Up podcast powered by the Morales Group. Today we have Jennifer Malins, vice president of Indy Reads. This will be part one of a two-part series on our look into Indy Reads.
Kofi Darku: Welcome to another episode of the Skill Up Build Up podcast. I am Kofi Darku with cohost Adam Scholtes.
Adam Scholtes: Good afternoon -- or morning.
Kofi Darku: Yes. I mean, there's times zones wherever you are. Let's celebrate with that time of day. But we're here with Jennifer Malins, vice president of Indy Reads, and we're going to talk about literacy and, the clients that she works with and why it's important to advocate for them. Good day, Jennifer.
Jennifer Malins: Good morning and thank you all for having me.
Kofi Darku: Awesome. So though my name sounds very foreign -- Kofi Darku -- I was in fact born in West Indiana in Terre Haute. And Jennifer, if I recall correctly, you were born in Indiana as well. What part of Indiana were you born in?
Jennifer Malins: Southern Indiana, so near Corydon -- that would be the closest town. Where I was born, it was really just, I mean if you blink you'll miss, it is a corn field. Yeah, Corydon was the nearest town. It was about nine miles away, nine to 11 miles away depending on which way you went. And that's our first state capitol. Corydon is not very big though. It's pretty small.
Kofi Darku: I love that you dropped in that Corydon and was the first state capital, a lot of people need to know that. This story is going to be riveting, but before we dive in there, I want our audience to know a little bit more about Indy Reads. Can you share what Indy Reads does and what your role is there?
Jennifer Malins: Sure. So, when people think of Indy Reads, 'cause we've been around for over 30 years, they think of us as a literacy organization, which I would say that is true. We've always worked with those low level learners reading under the sixth grade level. But, we do so much more than that now. We really provide the full spectrum of literacy services. So, we also work with people who read above that level and maybe want a certification or want to get their HSE. We also work with ELL students, which used to be called ESL. Those are English language learners who've come from various countries, often as refugees, to start over here and live here permanently.
Adam Scholtes: Sure. What's an HSE?
Jennifer Malins: High school equivalency. So, people use to think of it as a GED. So now it's called HSE.
Kofi Darku: Just to confuse you, Adam, just to confuse you. So, that's a great summary of you, your work and Indy Reads' work. And, I just want the audience to understand that at the Skill Up Build Up podcast, we're trying to lead talent to thrive. Literacy can often be a barrier to thriving. So, it's great that you not only help the city of Indianapolis and our capital overcome some of those literacy barriers, you are also dealing with our foreign population, our refugees as well, and equipping them with those skills that help them overcome those barriers as well. But, let's take it back to what we were talking about when you were mentioning living near the first capital in Indiana, Corydon. Can you share more about your upbringing and your life down in southern Indiana?
Jennifer Malins: Well, it was a pretty quiet low-key life for the most part, as you can imagine. You know, our nearest neighbors were not so near, like here in Indianapolis, where everyone sort of lives very close together.
Kofi Darku: So, like a couple of miles or a mile, half a mile?
Jennifer Malins: Could be. So, my nearest neighbor was my dad's brother, my uncle, and that was just a little trail through the woods. But, the nearest neighbor my age was about a half a mile away.
Adam Scholtes: A trail through the woods?
Jennifer Malins: Yup. We used, I used to run this little trail through the woods to get to their house to babysit their kids. Yeah.
Adam Scholtes: Interesting.
Jennifer Malins: So, that wasn't very far away, but a lot of people did. You know, if you lived on a farm, you may live pretty far from your nearest neighbor.
Kofi Darku: So, as you say, the closest person to your age was about half a mile away. What did you do for fun when you were living down there in those rural parts?
Jennifer Malins: We did not go cow tipping, I will tell you that! I did not even know what that was until I moved to Chicago. I was like, what is that? So, yeah. Mythbuster!
Adam Scholtes: You learned about it in Chicago?
Jennifer Malins: People were like, "you're from Indiana, did you go cow tipping?" "What is that?" And, they told me, I was like, "that's really mean. They're just trying to sleep, and you tip them over. That's really mean. I've never heard of that." We did like to go toilet papering at Halloween. That was really fun. But just, yeah, just, you know, kind of going to each other's houses, playing out in the woods, climbing trees, going to the pool during the summer. So there was a bus that picked us all up and take us to the public pool and that was really fun. I remember that's what I did pretty much every other day when I was in the fifth grade.
Adam Scholtes: Yeah. Did you have your little crew at all?
Jennifer Malins: Yeah. We rode our bikes, you know, just things that you can do out in the country. So, a lot of outdoor activities.
Kofi Darku: How diverse was your community when you lived down there?
Jennifer Malins: I was the diversity in our community. And so, you know, for people who've never met me, who should be most of the people on the podcast, I am mostly white, but more Mediterranean in color. And that should tell you something. It was not diverse at all. We didn't have people from other countries living there. There was one African American kid in our entire school, K through 12, and everyone knew who he was. He was famous because he was the only one.
Kofi Darku: Oh, ha, I relate.
Jennifer Malins: I'm sure you do. And so it's, yeah, I mean, I got teased because I looked different than a lot of the other kids. And looking back on it, I don't think I look that different, and we've become so much more diverse as a country even, and even in rural areas now. But back then, you know, there, there wasn't diversity in rural areas. And so, you know, kids called me racial slurs and, I still hate, there's one particular word that I was called and I hate it and I don't like to hear it. And it turns my stomach every time I do. And, it was just out of ignorance. They heard it from their parents who were uneducated and uninformed, but it still hurt, you know. The energy behind it was very hurtful.
Adam Scholtes: I think what's fascinating about your response to Kofi's question, you said you were the diversity, and I don't know you, I'm sitting here looking at you. You're white, right? Like when you said that, I'm like, okay, the diversity was African American or that's what I'm thinking in my mind, but--
Kofi Darku: You pass as white, but I can see the olive hue in your skin, you know? I can see.
Adam Scholtes: Correct. Yeah. Yeah. So that's, man!
Jennifer Malins: As a kid playing outside... I mean, I'm never outdoors. This is like from 20 minutes, like I tan so fast. I will have a tan line in five minutes.
Kofi Darku: Wow.
Jennifer Malins: And a really visible tan line within 10, so I would turn completely opposite color in the summer or when we went to Florida on spring break. That was the worst, because we go to Florida on spring break, and I'd come back really dark, and everyone else is really pale, they're already really pale to begin with. And that's when, you know, people said some things that weren't quite so nice.
Kofi Darku: So did this type of teasing and jeering, did that happen through all of your time down there, or?
Jennifer Malins: No, because it became cooler as I got older. You know, you had really famous singers like Whitney Houston who was absolutely beautiful. And then everyone started to see people with darker skin as being more attractive and cool. And you had Mariah Carey, and you had all these other singers that, you know, you had some singers like Gloria Estefan from Cuba, who sort of brought the coolness factor to being something other than blonde hair, blue eyed, fair skinned. But that was-- the blonde hair-blue eyed-fair skin was the popular thing in the '70s, which was when I was born, I was born in '73, so you know, and then that changed and all of a sudden I was exotic. And you know, they looked at, people looked at me differently and it became a good thing. And then people wanted my tan. I'd be out, you know, we'd all be lying out in the sun at the pool as teenagers, and I'd be like, "well see it's been 20 minutes. I'm done. I can go back inside, it's hot as hell out here." And you know, the rest of them were rubbing on all kinds of like oil. They're just frying to a crisp, and me -- no.
Adam Scholtes: So, so do you think that is, so is that a --was that like a kid "age thing" where they, like, did the teasing happen more?
Kofi Darku: Probably elementary, up until junior high. And then people started to realize, "you know what, it's all right to be different. In fact, I like different people."
Jennifer Malins: Right. And especially high school, it became, you know, it was totally different in high school. But I think it was an age thing, so elementary kids, they just don't know any better. They repeat what their parents say. And it was also the, you know, the decade. And then as things changed over time, then people started to become more open-minded through exposure. I mean, that's how it happens -- through exposure. So in a rural area, you're not exposed to much, but you can be through TV, radio, etcetera.
Adam Scholtes: Sorry, did the teasing happen from adults too, when you were a kid?
Jennifer Malins: No. Only kids.
Adam Scholtes: Only kids?
Jennifer Malins: Yeah, I mean it, my mom will tell you just like, "oh yeah, I remember you used to go and try to scrub the tan off." Or, I would lie on the beach in Florida, so we went there every other year for spring break, and I would cover myself in a towel, like from head to toe, so that sun wouldn't hit me. But then I'd want to go out and play in the ocean, so bam! Over. You know, and then I remember seeing these kids, playing when we, you know, went to Florida one year and they looked like, more like me and I wanted to go play with them and I was, you know, sort of standing on the periphery and watching them play and listening, and it's like, "I don't know what language that is. I don't understand anything they're saying."
Kofi Darku: This is really fascinating.
Jennifer Malins: My mom's like, "well, they're speaking Spanish." And I was like, "oh, okay. I don't know what to say to them 'cause they don't understand me and I don't understand them." And as you know, really young kids wouldn't care. Language wouldn't matter. But I was old enough to know, well, I can't, you can't play. And I was probably seven.
Kofi Darku: Do you think that planted a seed?
Jennifer Malins: Oh, absolutely. I don't, you know, I don't like walls. And so, I grew up being fascinated with people from other countries and I wanted to live abroad. I knew I wanted to do that from an early age and I wanted to speak other languages. My mom actually spoke French on a proficient level. She was a French major in college. She taught me the ABCs in French before I even learned the ABCs in English, but didn't think to speak to me in French all the time because she was afraid to confuse me, 'cause back then we didn't know as much about language acquisition. It's like "Mom, I could've been fluent in French if you would have just spoken to me in French!" And then I couldn't take a foreign language until high school, which was Spanish, and it wasn't well taught, didn't really learn a lot, taught myself, you know, most of what I learned in high school. And then I went off to college and took a couple of years of Spanish there. Took a year of French. I studied Bosnian on my own and know a lot of slang in Bosnian, and I don't speak properly in that language. I've taken a semester of Vietnamese. So I love languages, and yeah.
Kofi Darku: Vietnamese!
Adam Scholtes: And you tie all this back to this moment on the beach, seeing these kids speaking Spanish playing and you just want, you just want to be part because they looked like you.
Jennifer Malins: I thought, well, they're not gonna tease me, you know?
Adam Scholtes: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
Kofi Darku: And then it seems like maybe you realized there are other communities you can be a part of, you know, as you see children that look similar to you, though you don't speak their language, you're like, "hm, maybe I could somehow, interact with them, play with them, be part of their life and vice versa and them part of mine." I'm saying all this because now I'm curious about once that seed was planted and now you're learning all these languages, did you ever go abroad to test how well your language was, or, to try and have more diverse experiences?
Jennifer Malins: I did, not so much to test the language skills because I never felt that my language skills were good enough and they weren't, you know, I couldn't have been on a foreign exchange, you know, program in high school or college because my Spanish wasn't good enough. So, it was never good enough. I didn't take enough classes to, to really do something like that. But I did live abroad in England for two years. So, I did my master's at the University of Durham in northern England.
Kofi Darku: Wow.
Jennifer Malins: And I did live in Poland for about a semester to teach English.
Kofi Darku: Wow. So you had some good European experiences, the kind of west Europe, central, almost east Europe, that's pretty cool. Wow. So obviously now you're vice president at Indy Reads. I love how you're like, "I didn't feel like my language was proficient enough" in these other languages, but you're helping other people now gain proficiency in English, similar to what you did in Poland. I'm sure you have some awesome stories about some individuals that you've helped or stories of people that crossed your path that, either something that has to deal with how they were acquiring language or something about their struggle that resonated with you. Could-- do you have any story you can share with us that sort of helps the audience see some of the things that you have been a part of, either at Indy Reads or while you were abroad and just other parts of your life?
Jennifer Malins: The first thing that comes to mind -- because at Indy Reads, we work on, you know, workforce development as well, job readiness -- is when I was in staffing, actually I used to work for a staffing firm out in California, wasn't nearly as nice of a company as Morales, well you guys are amazing. But we started out-- when I, when I joined that team, they were doing a little bit of light industrial placements as well as admin.
Kofi Darku: A lot of alignment here.
Jennifer Malins: Uh huh. And, one of the things-- so I had been an ELL teacher off and on, so I'd already had that experience. And living in San Jose, of course you're going to, it's one of the most diverse places you could live in the United States. And so, a large percentage of our, not students, but our temps were from other countries. And so I remember there were a bunch of assemblers that got laid off and we were trying to place them with other companies, similar kinds of companies, and yeah. And so I would interview them and get to know them, that's like, well, I need to know who you are and something about your skills and your background so I can place you, and I remember, I had to try really hard not to cry when I interviewed this older Vietnamese man who had been working assembly for years, maybe 20 years. And his background in Vietnam, he had been a professor.
Kofi Darku: Oh wow.
Jennifer Malins: So he had a PhD, but because he was older, when he came to the United States, during the war, he couldn't, I mean he didn't, he couldn't learn English quickly enough and proficiently enough to get back into what he'd been doing.
Kofi Darku: Yeah.
Jennifer Malins: So, you have a PhD doing a very, very, very repetitive job, which I think would be very difficult because it's night-and-day to what he'd been doing. I knew a Bosnian music professor who worked in a dish room. And so, you get these really highly educated people coming in as refugees. They didn't plan to come here. They didn't know their country was going to be at war and they had to leave or die or be tortured or put in some kind of concentration camp. So they come here, but if they're older, like in their 30s, 40s, 50s and up, I mean it's really, really hard to start over and learn a new language, because your brain isn't as neuroplastic -- now you can learn anything at any age, as we know -- but it takes a lot longer. Probably my most memorable experience as an ELL teacher was working with a woman named Lucia and this was at a refugee resettlement organization. I was low on the totem pole there. I was just, I was an ESL coordinator. 9/11 had happened. People were being laid off or not even being able to be placed into jobs because things were shutting down. And the first people to go, all the Cubans came back and like, "no job." I'm like, "what happened?" "No English." So I started a class for anyone who wanted to come. It was on a drop-in basis. It was just conversation. I did it in the afternoons and I think I did one in the evenings as well, just for people who wanted to come and practice their English until they could get placed again. And I had a woman named Lucia who was 60, so she wasn't old enough to collect retirement. She had been in our low-level ELL class for months, and the teacher was, you know, "there's no improvement there. She doesn't talk, she doesn't, you know, participate. I don't know what to do with her." And it was, you know, a big class. That was our biggest class. You'd have, you know, 30 students. 'Cause most of the time when people were coming into the country, as you know, as refugees, they didn't know English. They hadn't prepared to come here. They never thought they were going to come to the United States. So it was the biggest class, like 30 to 40 students sometimes. And she was just lost in the shuffle. So I took her aside and I worked with her one-to-one. And I remember everything was fine, and she could repeat after me, and her accent sounded pretty clear. She was from the Congo, originally from Rwanda. And so she was, you know, I guess what you'd call her a secondary migrant 'cause she had fled to the Congo as a refugee and then to the United States. And, she, she was fine and when things were in context and it was using body language and props and keeping it really simple, she got it. So I was like, "okay, I'm going to take it to the next level and I'm going to write one of the words that she learned on the board." And I said, "what is this?" And I thought, "well, she'll know how to sound out a word because she's been in this ELL class all this time." Well, she didn't know. She had no idea. And so I said, "what is this letter? What is the sound?" And showed her how to sound it out. And it was really frustrating for her because she didn't know how to read it all in English, hadn't learned the alphabet fully, knew some letters I think, and sounds, but didn't, didn't even understand the concept of sounding out a word -- and hello English, only 50 percent of the words are phonetic anyway, so you can't sound out a lot of words and be accurate. And she kind of just threw her hands up and muttered to herself in Swahili, you know? "Well, you know, women, women in my village, we weren't educated. We were expected to raise kids and cook and take care of the home. They didn't send us to school," and she was just kind of muttering to herself and you could tell she was frustrated and I don't know how I knew, but I knew, I knew that's what she was saying. Clear as day, as if she were speaking English, but it was Swahili. And so I repeated to her, "yes, I know Lucia." And I repeated everything she just said. And then all of a sudden she kind of looks at me like--
Adam Scholtes: Did you repeat her in Swahili?
Jennifer Malins: No, no, no, in English, because I didn't know any Swahili. She understood a lot of English. She just couldn't speak it and she couldn't read it at all. So I repeated it to her and she looked at me, "you know, Swahili?" And she said that again in Swahili. And I said "No." And then in Swahili she said, "but how do you know what I'm saying?" And by this time she was looking at me like, what kind of, you know, black magic is this? Like what, what is she...? I'm like, oh, you know.
Kofi Darku: Are you connected to some spirits, because I can't figure this out? You're speaking a different language to me and I'm using my language and we're communicating.
Jennifer Malins: Yes, yes.
Adam Scholtes: It's like Kofi and I talking to each other.
Jennifer Malins: And I could tell she was, she was a little frightened like, how does this white woman know Swahili? And she says she doesn't know Swahili, but she understands every word I'm saying. And I just kind of put my hand over my heart and shrugged my shoulders. And then she kind of nodded and put her hand over her heart. It's like, "okay, I feel you." I mean, that's what it is. I could, I could feel what she was saying.
Adam Scholtes: She has somebody on her team.
Kofi Darku: That story is very rich. First of all, it seems like another seed was planted there because now you're at Indy Reads, and this is a moment where you're describing how, "hey, how can I help them just overcome this English barrier? What can I do?" Because as the Cubans return, "no job," "why," "no English," and now you're talking about these different cultures that you're making these connections with. Just fascinating. That's how you lead talent to thrive.
Jennifer Malins: Exactly. And what people don't realize is that education here is a right. Public education, a free public education here is a right of all citizens, of anyone.
Kofi Darku: Amen.
Jennifer Malins: Anyone in the United States. It's not that way in other countries. It's not that way in the Congo, for example, in Rwanda, you know, especially if you're a woman, you may not go to school at all, depending, and especially if you are in a village versus a city. There's a big difference there, and in a lot of countries.
Kofi Darku: Just to jump in, as my parents immigrated to the U.S. and I'm the only one in my family born here, that's one of the things they really emphasized with me. Like "Kofi, you will not mess up, because in Ghana, school is not free. Here it is. So you better do everything right." And there was some corporal punishment and encouragement there. But I am grateful to them because that focus did make me a very studious person. And as a result, I got good grades, able to go to college and be on this podcast today talking to you. So you better do everything right. And there was some corporate punishment, punishment and encouragement there. But I am grateful to them because that focus, it make me a very studious person. And as a result, I got good grades able to go to college and be on this podcast today and talking to you.
Jennifer Malins: Right. You know, and it's interesting, you know, you talk about your parents and you may or may not agree with all of their forms of motivation, but I've found that our immigrant students and the kids of our immigrant students, just really see the opportunity and they take it.
Kofi Darku: Quite right though.
Jennifer Malins: They really, really do. And I think about, you know, a group of students that I had, they were all from Mexico. And this is, I taught in Lawrence.
Kofi Darku: Lawrence Township.
Jennifer Malins: Mmhmm, Lawrence Township. I taught at the elementary school, all their kids went to schools. It was a night class and the highest level of education in that class was ninth grade. I had a student who dropped out in kindergarten. Others who dropped out of school. Yeah. In kindergarten, dropped out of school. That's legal. Yeah.
Adam Scholtes: Wow.
Jennifer Malins: Um, first grade, second grade, third grade, and up.
Adam Scholtes: The child is not making that choice at that point, right?
Jennifer Malins: No.
Adam Scholtes: The parents are, the family is.
Kofi Darku: And, the school sometimes.
Adam Scholtes: Yeah. Yeah.
Jennifer Malins: And so, from the get go, you don't have the opportunity. And so then they come here to the United States. They don't even know how to read in Spanish. And I had one of those students who, not only didn't know how to read in Spanish, but I could, I could tell she has something like dyslexia, and just her phonemic awareness wasn't there for English or Spanish. It was really hard for her to even say the words properly in Spanish. And, so she needed a different type of instruction than even sort of your mainstream ELL. So these, these students, you know, didn't read well necessarily in their primary language and then trying to learn to read in English. I mean, you really need to learn-- research shows you need to learn in your L1 or your primary language first.
Kofi Darku: Yeah.
Jennifer Malins: And then learn to read in English. It was just like with Lucia, it didn't make any sense, you know, to put a word on the board when she hadn't even learned-- she didn't even understand the concept of reading because she hadn't learned to read yet.
Kofi Darku: You're right. She had only been speaking, it was only a verbal thing for her. And I, and I do think your story about her is very illuminating. When she gives you the reason why she can't recognize written words, she's pretty much stating that there was a barrier for women and "they did not expose us to this."
Adam Scholtes: Yes.
Jennifer Malins: Right. Exactly. And so then I have this group of students, in not the same situation, but a similar situation, where they were deprived of their education, of their experience going to school like the rest of us did, who were raised in the United States. You go to school every day. It doesn't matter how poor your families are, you can get school breakfast and school lunch and you're not allowed to drop out and go work to help support the family. That's not, it's, that's not an option. Yeah. And it's just, it's sad. And so when I was asking them, you know, trying to motivate them to study English and to make it to class, you know, every day that we had class -- because that's the only way that you're going to move forward -- I asked them to talk about their dreams and their dreams all revolved around their kids. "I want my child to go to college. I want a better life for my child, my child, my child." They didn't have their own dreams. They came to the United States and are still risking their lives to come here for a better opportunity for their kids. You know, and if you come from Mexico, you don't, you don't have refugee status, you don't get the housing and food stamps and clothing and all the other things that refugees get. And that's what a lot of people don't realize.
Kofi Darku: Oh yeah.
Jennifer Malins: And you're working two jobs, with everyone else who speaks Spanish so you don't have the opportunity to even practice your English, let alone try to make it to English class after work, and then you get mandatory overtime and it's like, "well, hell yeah, I'm going to take mandatory overtime. I've got to send money home. I've got a family to feed back in Mexico. I've got my mom and dad and you know, brothers and sisters who didn't make it over, and my family here to support, and it's super expensive in the United States, and I don't have, I don't make a lot of money because I don't speak speak English very well, so I'm sure I'm going to take that mandatory overtime and no, I'm not going to ELL class." So it's a huge, it's a huge challenge.
Adam Scholtes: I'm going to shift gears for a second. You mentioned, you know, your students have to work because they have to get money, and I think this plays into like from a crime, like a crime prevention aspect. Could you talk on what you see in that, from a crime perspective with some, maybe some of your students?
Kofi Darku: How lack of understanding and understanding English or speaking English can lead to something that may result in someone being taken advantage of or just not realizing what they're involved with?
Adam Scholtes: This is almost like desperation. Sorry, not to interrupt, but there's like a sense of desperation I'm hearing amongst these, these folks, right? We don't know language, you don't know literacy. Like I just gotta, I gotta do what I have to do. So.
Jennifer Malins: You know, we, we do work with students who have a record, and I would say most of those students are in our literacy classes rather than our ELL classes, if not all of those students. And, now not all of our literacy students have a record, but we specifically partner with organizations such as Brookside Community Church. They specialize in folks who are in the reentry process. We have class there so that we can also help them, you know.
Kofi Darku: Innovative. I love it.
Jennifer Malins: Exactly. It's a great, it's a great partnership. So we go where the students are. We don't make them come to us. We go into different communities where there's a need and we provide classes. So I have a literacy class there. Another one at Central Library in the evenings, for example. And we-- it's interesting, so I work with every literacy student before they start because I want to make sure that the reason they can't read isn't due to something like, "oh I just had a stroke," or you know, something that's going to require other therapy before coming to us.
Kofi Darku: So like a little informal screening, just to make sure.
Jennifer Malins: An informal screening. You know, I'm not the expert in dyslexia, I'm not, you know, I'm not a neuropsychologist, so I'm not doing neuropsychological testing, but I devised my own test just to tell me where they are when they read.
Kofi Darku: And real quickly, is there, do you ever turn people away or what happens from that informal screening in terms of how you advise them or guide them afterwards?
Jennifer Malins: Sure. It's rare that I would turn someone away. I did have to, I usually say "not now, not yet." And give them something else that they can go to. So where there's a no, there always needs to be a yes. That's just good customer service, right? You don't just say "No. Sorry." So I had one woman who was still in stroke recovery and I could tell by working with her, I worked with her as if it were her first day of class, I can tell when a student is going to just take a long time versus they're not going to respond to instruction at all right now, cause I've done this long enough, and she wasn't going, she wasn't ready. And so I referred -- she came with her mom -- and I referred them, to, you know, another place where she could get some help in terms of the stroke recovery, and you know, maybe work on finding a job that she could do at the moment and then come back. So again, it was a "not yet." I had another student who had brain damage due to so many traumatic brain injuries, and so we're working with him in a different way, but he, he wouldn't respond, he wouldn't be able to respond to our reading instruction. And then I have other students who, you know, have a diagnosis of like, let's say a lower IQ, they called it MMR back in the day, right? And they are responding, and I could tell they were going to. Just by working with them, I knew it would be slow, it would be slow progress, but they would get there. And then I have other students who, it's pretty obvious by talking to them, they have that above average IQ, and maybe you have dyslexia or something similar, and they progress really quickly if they're motivated -- quickly compared to maybe some of the other adults. Compared to kids? No. So we adults, we progress more slowly than kids do. It just takes a lot more repetition and a lot more time. But some of our students do, and back to your question, Adam, have a criminal record, and when I work with those students, I ask for their story first before I start poking and prodding and looking at, you know, where the deficiencies are in terms of their reading. I want to see the whole person. And so I just say, "tell me your story. Tell me what it was like growing up. Tell me what your education was like. Tell me about your job history. Just tell me about you. Anything you think we need to know," and I had a student who had just been released from prison after 18 years. And when I heard that I was going to have student who'd been in prison for 18 years, I was expecting this sort of hardened person, and he was as soft as they come. I mean, he was just really sweet and he, he cried during, you know, my interview with him and was just, I thought, "how did you survive in prison?" Because he was just so, he's such a sweet man.
Kofi Darku: 18 years!
Jennifer Malins: 18 years. And so when I asked, "well, what, how, how did you end up in prison?" And he said, "well, you know, I didn't have, I had a family to support, couldn't read. Drove a narcotics track, got caught." So it wasn't a violent crime. And that's another thing. People who serve even a lot of time in prison aren't necessarily there for violent crimes. It could be a crime of economic desperation, which his was. It's like, "well, if I can, if I can't feed my family and there's a very risky job, I'm going to take the risks." People take the risks still, crossing the border from Mexico into the U.S. and it's really, really risky now and it's like, "wow, how, how desperate you must feel to take those types of risks."
Adam Scholtes: Did this student know he was driving a narcotics truck or? Yeah? Okay. All right.
Jennifer Malins: Definitely get taken advantage of because they can't read. I had a student whose car was impounded and then they got rid of her car and not even allowing her to pay for, and I said, "you can't, you can't do this," this is one of our literacy students, "they can't do that." "It's fine." I mean, she was so used to it. She just kinda threw her hands up and she's like, "it's fine. I just, you know, it is what it is." I'm like, "no, it isn't what it is!" And I gave her the number to Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic and I said, we can help you, you know, Chris, our student navigator, where you're going to be interviewing next, he, you know, worked with her and I said, "you know, we'll, we'll have Chris sit down with you and call this place. You cannot. No, you, you need to advocate for yourself." They, they don't, they're so used to getting taken advantage of. They just say, "oh, it's fine. It's, you know, it is what it is. This is life."
Adam Scholtes: So they're coming here to look for a better opportunity and they're getting taken advantage of. And, their mindset is, this is, this is how it is here in America.
Jennifer Malins: You know, the, the literacy students, our literacy students are, I think this year, they were 100 percent native born speakers in English, right? They get taken advantage of because of the reading difficulty and the low education levels. Our ELL students get taken advantage of, because they can, people can tell right away you're not from here because of the accent. And they get taken advantage of, you know, from everything from their apartment leases to employment, not getting paid for the work that they did because they're afraid, you know, they're, they're afraid to speak up and they don't even know their rights. And even if they do, they're afraid to do anything.
Adam Scholtes: They don't want to rock the boat.
Jennifer Malins: They don't want to rock the boat. They just want to keep their heads down, work, make money, be able to survive, have a better life for their kids.
Kofi Darku: You have been a treasure chest of stories that are really illuminating in terms of what a lot of people are up against when they're here trying to improve their lives and just work. Is there, are there any stats you can share with us from Indy Reads in terms of how many people you serve in a year? The different ability levels that you work with as well? Just to give people a sense of, well, what's the need here in Indianapolis? Because, even recently there's been a study just released from Ball State where they're talking about the only growing population in Indiana is our immigrant and refugee populations. And we know, because we talk about it often, we have a lot of jobs to fill in Indiana. And if we don't help people get ready to be able to fill some of those jobs, well maybe those companies don't stay here. What type of stats, what types of, what's the need in terms of the people that you're working with and how many of them, how many of them are there and what are their different levels of ability, please?
Jennifer Malins: So I'll start with how many we served last year. So it was around 160 students in our community classrooms. Okay. So when I say that we "served a student," we do a lot. We're doing a lot with that student. So some organizations, if someone just calls and they want information and you give them information, they count that as serving a student. We don't count that until really they've been enrolled in our class and they're not enrolled until you've gone through orientation, you've done testing and you've put 12 hours of instruction -- that's "enrolled."
Adam Scholtes: Oh wow.
Jennifer Malins: So we had about 160 -- and again I'm talking off the top of my head here, I don't have everything in front of me --about 160 students last year in our community classrooms. Now, that does not cover all the people we served. But those are the people that did at least 12 hours or more in our community classrooms.
Kofi Darku: Could you ballpark the figure of people that possibly crossed your paths or received some type of-- Okay. Okay.
Jennifer Malins: 'Cause we also have our bookstore, we're serving the community there. We've done some enrichment classes that we opened up, you know, to the public. So it would be, it would be really hard for me to ballpark that off the top of my head.
Kofi Darku: Can you give a sense in terms of how do you work remotely or throughout the city? I feel like you have a network of services. Like you mentioned Brookside. Can you give us a sense in terms of how many places throughout the city you are working in and providing these services through?
Jennifer Malins: So, last year we had seven community classrooms, and this year it'll probably be about the same number. The only thing that's stopping us from growing is funding. We need more.
Kofi Darku: And I was going to ask about funding. So hey, tell us how do you receive funding to provide these services?
Jennifer Malins: So currently our biggest source of funding for our program is through a Department of Workforce Development Grant.
Kofi Darku: It's all connected. It is all connected.
Jennifer Malins: But you know, that sort of provides the meat and potatoes of the program. But to grow, we really need private donations and sponsorships. So, I mean there are different ways that-- I mean, some people just contribute monthly. Some people make really large donations, you know, one-time donations. Other people sponsor us-- like our Alphabet Affair is coming up on September 21st. So any big companies out there listening? And you want to help our students and help us serve more students? That would be a great thing to do is, you know, you can contact our office and say, "Hey, I want, our company wants to sponsor Alphabet Affair." It's our, it's our big fundraiser that we have every year. So, and, and there is a huge need out there, because there are so many students who want our services and aren't being served. So, there was a study done recently, conducted by the Immigrant Welcome Center and they were funded, through a Lilly grant to survey students, ELL students in Indianapolis. And they surveyed, I think -- and again, I'm really talking off the top of my head -- but over a thousand students, and I think 64 percent of those students had never gone to an ELL class. And there are ELL classes all over the city. I mean, we're not the only providers! I mean, all the townships, the adult ed programs provide ELL classes, I mean, they're all over the city. Yes. They're everywhere, but it's still not enough. And a lot of those students, were lower level students, to my understanding, and then the ones who had been to ELL classes but dropped out before they really got anywhere, were low level students and they said it was too hard. Or they were students who had the mandatory overtime, their work schedule and family conflicts, and they just couldn't make it. So there's a huge, huge need even if we're just talking about ELL, and we are struggling, all of us, to meet those needs because the funding is, is a big part of it. And then just awareness, getting the word out of where you are. So an organization contacts us and says, "Hey, I have a lot of ELL adult students that I want to serve. Can we start a class?" Or, "Oh, I have a lot of employees who don't read very well. Can we open up a class on site?" Or it could be a church like Brookside saying, "we've got students who can't read, who are native speakers of English, but they can't, they don't know how to read. Can you come and help us?" So we go, you know, the organization that we're partnering with, has the students and we go and we provide the teacher, a trained teacher, and we train the volunteers, provide the materials and all of that. But there are only so many classes we can open with the funding that we have. So that is, that is our biggest challenge. It's not that there aren't people out there needing our help. Then with literacy students, the challenge is getting them to come forward and admit they can't read. And what happens a lot of times, they'll go to one of these programs that provide HSEs -- which is why we're providing that this year -- they go to a program that provides HSEs and they, that's how they say they want help: "I want to get an HSE." And then they get into the program and they, they can't hack it because their reading level isn't high enough, and that's when they need to be referring to Indy Reads. So, cause we can work with those really low-level readers. Even those students who don't know ABC. And we have a lot of those students, they don't know the letters of the alphabet, the sounds they make, they don't help know how to blend sounds together, and we have the ability to work with those students because of the type of instruction that we do. It's process-based instruction versus content. So really rerouting the neural pathways through various sensory cognitive exercises that we have the students do.
Adam Scholtes: What would you say the percentage is, of your ELL versus your literacy students?
Jennifer Malins: 70 percent ELL. That's why I'm talking a lot about ELL and the reason the literacy is so low, I mean, you know, we have a high percentage of people in Indianapolis who read below the sixth grade level, to one in five. That's a pretty high percentage, but it's, there's the shame factor. And so when students come to us, they're not coming forward.
Kofi Darku: No one wants to admit that they can't read. I love your story about the woman from Rwanda who then went to the Congo. It's like, I mean that's different, but once it gets to, "wow, I have to perform this," I think her defensiveness was kind of cloaked in the shame that she felt about it.
Jennifer Malins: You know, you come to the United States and while all the other adults can read, but I can't, and then it just makes you feel even more different. And then if you were born here... And you and you were, I mean some of a lot of our students were called stupid by their teachers and they just dropped out because they thought, "oh, I'm not getting helped." They're in special ed their whole lives. And it's like, if this isn't helping me, they were in class with students with very different needs all in one class. You know, there's a huge difference between someone who has an intellectual disability versus someone with dyslexia. I mean, night and day in terms of what they need... All in one class. So they just, they dropped out and they felt like it was a waste of their time. I don't blame them. I would have, as well, if I wasn't getting the right help. And so there's that shame. And as so many of the students that I interview for the literacy classes tell me, "well I actually came to Indy Reads years ago when I was in my twenties, but my kids were young and I had to worry about my kids and I was really embarrassed about not being able to read, but now I don't care. My kids are grown. I don't really care. I mean, I, I'm still embarrassed that I can't read, but I feel like, you know, I don't want to die not being able to read."
Kofi Darku: I like when there's that internal driver, that motivation. And I had the pleasure of attending your 2019 student and volunteer recognition event and I got to hear Pedro's story. And, as much as you just shared, there are some adults that realize there's some shame, "I'm embarrassed. I need to get over this." I love that. In Pedro's story, he was very explicit about, you know, "if I don't try, no one's going to do this for me. And I realized that if I don't improve my English, I'm not going to advance in my job career. I have a decent job now, but for my kids and for my family, I want a better job. So I'm going to push myself to become a better English speaker," and then probably also improve his literacy. And I'm, I think it's phenomenal that Indy Reads is part of people's stories like that in Indiana, Indianapolis and wherever you work. So I just wanted to say that.
Jennifer Malins: Well, I mean it's an honor to be part of their stories and, and to, you know, to gain their trust. That feels really special when you realize a student has... You've earned a student's trust and they will open up to you about all sorts of things. That's one of the things I have to train my volunteers on. You come consistently, which is what we require for our volunteers, has to be at least once a week, because that's what's best for the student. And it's about the student's needs. Yeah, right. Not about ours. And you will gain their trust and they will start opening up to you. And you may find some things out that are going on still, that we need to help them with, and that's what Chris does. I mean Chris, if the student has issues with, could be domestic violence. I've had that occur with some of my ELL students, where I had a literacy student who hadn't eaten in a week, 'cause he was getting all hypoglycemic and I said, "hmm, what's going on?" He was like, "I don't know. I just, I haven't eaten in a week." "Why haven't you eaten in a week?" "Well I, I don't have any food." And so I called Chris, said "Chris, you got to get over here. I've got a student who, he doesn't know, he doesn't know about the resources." If you can't read. And he was one of those students didn't know ABC. How are you supposed to know? Everything's in writing. It's all on the Internet. "Oh, go to the internet!" "Well I can't, because I can't read." "Look at the signs." "I can't read the signs." How are you supposed to know? Unless it's on TV or the radio or someone else tells you. How are you supposed to find out about services?
Kofi Darku: I have a colleague, a workforce development colleague who focuses on diversity, inclusion and bias. And what you just said helps me remember this really quick synopsis of how we receive progress or how we make progress through stories. She said, stories, "when people share their stories, stories lead to trust. Trust leads to relationships, relationships lead to careers." And as we have had a very rich conversation about what's at stake here and the service that Indy Reads provides, it just rang in my head, "oh my gosh, her synopsis is applicable here." The stories that you hear that allows you to gain their trust, finally evolves into relationships that, similar to the story of Pedro, once those relationships really congeal, you can help someone advance their career. And oftentimes, the immigrant population is so willing to settle, so willing to just put up with, improper options or treatment, that if they don't have those relationships to help them understand, "no, you don't have to," then they, they stay capped. And they don't get to that next level. So again, just another testament to Indy Reads and wow, what a great episode. If our audience wants to get in touch with you and learn more about Indy Reads, how do they do so?
Jennifer Malins: If they want to get in touch with me directly, the best way is via email because I'm not at my desk very often. I'm out and about at the different sites. So again, my name is Jennifer Malins, and my email address is J for Jennifer, M as in Mary, A, L, I, N like Nancy, S like Sam. So jmalins@indyreads. So there's an s at the end of that -- indyreads.org. You can also call our office. Our main line is 317-275-4048. And the person who answers the phone, if you're not sure who to talk to, we'll be able to direct you. But if it's about, you know, if you have program questions, I would be, you know, the right person to talk to. If it's about, donations, the person who answers the phone can direct you to the correct person.
Kofi Darku: That's excellent. Thank you so much Jennifer. You've been a wonderful guest.
Jennifer Malins: Thank you all. Thank you all. Thank you so much and thank you for all that you're doing here at Morales. You guys are rocking.
Adam Scholtes: I mean we, you know, Kofi, when I think of Indy Reads, I, I always thought, you know, Indy Reads was just for folks who didn't know how to read, here natively, right? I had no idea how much of an ELL presence they had. When she said that 70 percent of her students are ELL students versus the 30 for native-born, that that shocked me. And that one in five of those students can't read over a fifth grade level. Shocking. Right. And, I think she painted a picture. I think we all know how important, you know, the ability to read is, 'cause if you can't, you can't get online to read directions... We all just Google stuff, right? We live in the day and age where we just Google and you can get any information you need. Well, if you Google something on your phone or your computer, you've got to be able to read, right? If you're trying to get somewhere, you gotta read signs, but if you can't read, how are you going to get there? And, I think it just, it was able to kind of reset my mindset in how important this, this is in our community and what they're doing at Indy Reads is super important.
Kofi Darku: Yeah. I was struck with this humble leader who has taken -- she'd gone to great lengths to learn ways to connect with people and how she was able to share so many stories in a very easy way. I'm, I'm struck with Lucia's story and all the things that these individuals are overcoming -- just to be here to work. And, oftentimes we have a society that that is critical or judgmental, yet people just want to work and, and there's some basic things that we can help them overcome that we take for granted, that I'm grateful that Indy Reads is there, trying to address those basic things. So another thing I'm struck with, is that the majority of their funding comes from the Department of Workforce Development and how they get grants to extend their work and how they still need significant funding for them to not only maintain, but to grow and meet some of the need that's out there. Here you have an organization that could serve a great deal more, but if they don't get the funding, they cannot. And back to something I'm always talking about, we've got a lot of companies in Indiana needing to hire people. The people are here. If we don't help them become more literate or more proficient in English, then they're going to stay on the outside looking in, and the companies are going to suffer. We have a solution here. Let's exploit it. Let's grow it. This results in more funding. So to cap it off, September 21st Indy Reads is hosting their Alphabet Affair. Yes. Wow. I'm happy I said that correctly the first time. Alphabet Affair. This is a great way to support an organization that we definitely hold dear because our country is about making sure people are literate. Again, her emphasizing that education is a right here. If we don't equip everyone with the ability to read, then we're kind of doing ourselves a disservice because those people won't be able to participate in the workforce as efficiently as they can. So let's support Indy Reads and let's support other adult education programs that are focusing not only on literacy, but English language learners so that they can also participate in our workforce and we can help lead them to thrive.