I learnt to read soon after I learnt to walk. My mum was a teacher and she took the time to sit with me and gently ease me into a world of books and reading.

This forged me personally and professionally.

When those around me did not know answers, books did.

In primary school it was Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry that taught me about slavery in America. Playing Beattie Bow taught me that girls actually existed in history. It was Are You There God It’s Me, Margaret that taught me about periods and David by Ivan Southall that taught me about the Holocaust. It was the book on Robben Island that my grade 8 geography teacher, Mrs Adams, lent me that taught me about Apartheid, which in turn lead to some early activism – ‘End Aparthied’ (sic) scrawled into wet concrete near school.

At home I asked about our forests being logged as I was reading about the Brazilian forest activist Chico Mendes, and I was told to “go away and read the Regional Forest Agreement” – which I did. I read Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not Christian but the only thing I took from it at that age was the word ‘omnipotent’. In grade eight I borrowed Anna Karenina from the school library and I had to renew the loan so many times that when I finished our wonderful librarian told me I should keep the copy, which I still have today.

I tell you all of this to illustrate how reading formed me and broke me over and again. Every day it makes me realise how much I do not know. It has given me the tools to realise and understand the space I live in and the world around me. It has nurtured and educated me way beyond the confines of my formal education, and the conservative community into which I was born

In Tasmania I am more privileged than half of us who do not have access to reading and writing –50% of Tasmanians struggle with basic literacy.

That’s 50% of our fellow Tasmanians who struggle to read the dosage on their medicine bottles, sit a driver’s license test, check for ingredients they may be allergic to, read a street sign, a lease or a summons – and it also means that half of us have significantly less tools to read the stories of others and therefore better understand our place in the world. This is in no way to diminish those of us who have not been taught literacy. All of us experience love and pain and passion, peace and joy, but only half of us have the extra tools to share and express these that literacy affords.

In prison it is 80% of us with literacy challenges.

I’ve recently had the fortune to work as Writer in Residence as part of the dedicated LINC Literacy program in Risdon Prison. I’ve been working with a group of inmates doing Slam Poetry. Slam offers a dynamic, performative space and one that gives voice to the disenfranchised – which these men are. It has been a frustrating and beautiful ride and the changes I have witnessed in these fellows many of whom at the beginning were adamant that poetry was not for them, have been significant. They are now writing, reading and performing their own poems and while I’ve had nearly enough of car chase rhymes, I celebrate this progression heartily. With 80% of inmates facing literacy challenges it is not a long bow to draw that if literacy was augmented across our entire community we may see a reduction in crime.

I believe that, those of us who were privileged to begin with and were given the gifts of reading and writing have a duty of care in our community. There are practical things we can do, like reading a book on a bus, a visual celebration of literature and therefore literacy. We can support our bookshops, and use the wonderful libraries we have on offer all across our island, including inside Risdon Prison. We can call our politicians and let them know that we value literacy, and ask them what they are doing to effect positive change in this space.

We have a choice. We can choose a future where more children are excluded from the power of story through reading and writing, one where we see entire communities further damaged and where illiteracy becomes endemic in some places. This is a Tasmania of increased division and alienation. OR we can take action now to ensure that our island becomes a place where fairness and access to reading and writing are celebrated. This is a world where we all have access to diverse stories – our own, our community’s and our universe’s.

Rachel Edwards is Editor in Chief of Transportation Press. She has recently been working as a Writer in Residence with lower literacy inmates at Risdon Prison as part of the LINC Literacy Program. Here, Rachel writes for the Communicating: The Heart of Literacy initiative – find more at chattermatters.com.au.

Something to think about: What action are you going to take for a fairer, more literate Tasmania?

Photo: © Giles Hugo 2013