So how do you know each other? Privacy, Confidentiality and Adult Literacy : Choose Privacy Week 2019

By Anika Johnson

Adult Literacy Services are confidential in California. It is a delicate dance honoring and practicing confidentiality for many reasons. I hope to give some food for thought by sharing three experiences I have had as a tutor-learner (student) coordinator for Solano County Library’s Adult Literacy Program.

#1 The Crab Feed – Anonymity
I’m at a crab feed raising money for scholarships. I run into Joe. We chat. He updates me on his daughter’s college plans, his recent retirement, and the latest update to his corvette. A mutual friend walks up to us and asks. So how do you two know each other? Joe looks at me trying to mask his panic. I quickly say, “The library.” Joe hurriedly says, “Yes, I volunteer there.” His answer satisfies our friend and Joe is relieved. Joe did not lie when speaking to our mutual friend, he did volunteer, as a student advocate. Joe was 51 and spent the last 10 years being tutored to read and write better. For him his struggles were a shameful secret that only a handful of people knew. This is common for many of our students in Solano County Literacy Program and why we value confidentiality. They have spent their lives tirelessly hiding their low skills from co-workers, friends, and families. Diversions they use are: I forgot my glasses, using the phone instead of email to conduct business, and avoiding reading out loud.

When students share their struggles with their family they are not independent. When you live and work in the same community even a simple grocery store run threatens a student’s exposure. Over the years, I have learned to never acknowledge a student in public unless they acknowledge me first. It is an awkward dance staff maintains to ensure confidentiality for the students.

#2 The Newspaper Article – Volunteer Recruitment
I’m at a student volunteer recognition event and a student has just spoken. She makes a moving speech about her tutor and all that she has helped her accomplish. A reporter is present and asks to speak with her. A million thoughts come rushing in. At her speaking level will she understand all the questions? Are there unknown status concerns? Should I ask her and make sure she understands that her picture and name will be public for all to see? Advise her to request only her first name to be used? The reporter is standing there smiling and I know he is looking for his lead and we need the publicity. I ask him to let me check. I have a brief conversation to make sure she understands her potential exposure. She says yes! Whew… this time. This is not always the case. Many adult students say no to showcasing their literacy story in such a public way. Whether it is to speak at a fundraiser or talk to other students, risking exposure is something they are not willing to do.

The reasons behind their struggles with reading and writing and speaking English are varied and many times traumatic. We don’t want to be trauma inducing, but we know that the stories inspire community members to volunteer. Therein lies the conflict. Student life stories and triumphs are what moves community members to volunteer. Volunteers are literacy programs bread and butter. We need volunteer tutors to work with student on their personal reading, writing, or speaking goals. In order to get tutors we need to publicize our need. However, a student’s personal story is their personal story. To demonstrate our need, the most effective tool we have is our learners’ stories.

Whether our learners are hiding because of the cycle of school failure or because they fear being harassed for being an immigrant, putting a vulnerable student in the crossfire of social media or online news articles threatens their privacy, and as a program we are responsible. Their stories are our most powerful weapon in our arsenal. At the same time, my fingers are crossed that they will agree to expose themselves in order to recruit more tutors. As literacy professionals we must balance the two.

#3 The Phone Call – Safety
A husband calls in looking for his wife, asking if she is at the library. I cannot tell him if she is here. Our services are confidential and we do not know if she wants him to know. I see the student later in the day and tell her about the call. I explain I did not tell him if she was a student in our program or her location. She breaks into tears and apologizes. “(Her husband) is a very jealous man,” she explains, “He does not trust me.” She then goes on to describe the emotional abuse. Later after receiving her citizenship, the woman’s husband calls. He has not seen her in a couple of weeks. A few weeks after that, I and her tutor receive thank you cards from the student from an address out of state.

In this instance, privacy was a protector. There is a link between low literacy skills and abused women (ProLiteracy, proliteracy.org, 2019). Often, their partner will use their power of literacy to demean and stay in control of the relationship and the woman’s access to resources. Learning to read and write shifts the power dynamic in the relationship. This is not only for women adult learners, but men as well in emotionally abusive relationships. Their low literacy skills are no longer a weapon of control once meeting their reading and writing goals.

California Library Literacy Services states, “The service is provided confidentially and free of charge in the non-threatening library environment – crucial qualities in attracting these hard-to-reach adults who don’t have the skills and/or comfort level to attend traditional classroom-based programs,” (CLLS,libraryliteracy.org, 2019). Issues of privacy in adult literacy are viewed through the lenses of anonymity, volunteerism, safety, and many other social issues.

These stories are just a few I have encountered in my 16 years with Solano County Library Literacy Services. Honoring the privacy of our students is always first priority against the needs of the program. Upholding confidentiality has built trust, community, and support allowing the students to bond not only with their tutors, but the program itself.

*student names have been changed


Anika Johnson, EMPA, is a literacy program assistant and EDI trainer with the Solano County Library.

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