That sentiment, expressed in a variety of ways, represented a prevalent quest among students at the Bob Steele Reading Center between 1987-1996. Such a climate of potentiality motivated not only the students, but represented a major organizational drive which shaped the program’s expansion through major transformative stages during much of its first decade (Demetrion, 2002; Demetrion and Gruner, 1995). However “mythical” this perception of growth through literacy may be, I argue that such a belief played a significant, although ambiguous role in shaping much of the emotional, cognitive, social, and cultural climate of the program during the formative period of the program’s history. Without such “illusions,” what William James refers to as “A live hypothesis...which appeals as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed” (Wilshire, 1984, p. 309), the program very well could have deconstructed under the depressing weight of “objective” reality. My objective in this essay is to unearth something of the phenomenology of key transitional events during the program’s founding decade in order to provide the reader with a felt sense of the Center’s historical development, at least as viewed through my eyes. Most basically, I want to examine the role of potentiality as a vehicle of program transformation and secondarily as a means of mediating and mitigating organizational conflict as well as my own intrapsychic tension.
In order to grasp something of such a force field, a historical overview of events surrounding the Center’s founding may be useful. Public documentation for this early history is scarce. As an observer-participant, I draw on a profusion of local knowledge and my own recollections, while recognizing that others may have different slants on the little known history of the Bob Steele Reading Center and the growth of Literacy Volunteers of Greater Hartford during these formative years.
The concept of a learning center was developed among the board and staff leadership of Literacy Volunteers of America-Connecticut (LVA-CT) in the early 1980s. LVA-CT was formed in 1972 through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, which enabled LVA national to set up centralized offices in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York City for the purpose of expanding local programming. LVA-CT focused its first decade on the development of eighteen local affiliates across the state. In the LVA model the affiliates provide direct services while the state organization offers auxiliary support in training, public relations, fund raising, and other related areas.
Literacy Volunteers of Greater Hartford (LVGH), which in 1989 took over the management of the Bob Steele Reading Center, also began its history in 1972 as the state’s first affiliate, which was initially incorporated into LVA-CT. A few years later, as other affiliates in the state were formed, LVGH became an independent entity. Grounded in the ethos of LVA founder, Ruth Colvin, the early pioneers of LVGH emphasized the spirit of volunteerism. The agency leadership consisted essentially of middle class women largely living west of the Connecticut River, who used their homes to carry out various managerial functions of data collection, tutor support, and the matching of students and tutors. In its initial stages, the LVGH program was completely decentralized. Students and tutors met as isolated “matches,” typically in libraries and other locations throughout the greater Hartford community based on the one-to-one tutoring model in replication of the LVA set-up as pioneered by Syracuse-based national agency founder, Ruth Colvin in the 1960s (Colvin, 1992). This decentralized format program delivery and volunteer tutoring remained characteristic of the vast majority LVA affiliates in Connecticut and throughout the nation through the early 1980s.
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