Audrey Gardner – Community Developer, Researcher, and Radical Adult Literacy Practitioner

Published Aug 7, 2014

AudreyG_Photo2“I was a junior high teacher for about five minutes,” Audrey Gardner laughed as our interview began. “I always struggled with working in mainstream education systems. I felt more at home working in grassroots, nonprofit education where you didn’t have as many restrictions to creating meaningful learning experiences.”

Twenty years ago, Audrey started her wide-ranging career working as an educator for Calgary Sexual Health Centre and AIDS Calgary. In 2001 she joined Bow Valley College (BVC), working on a project called Connecting Literacy to Community: Building Community Capacity (CLC).[1]  CLC was a two-year project (2001-2003), located in three rural and three urban communities in central and southern Alberta. It worked with communities to develop literacy awareness, promotion, and support, and to improve access to and the quality of existing services and programs (Gardner 2003, 10). This led to a provincial training project for literacy practitioners called Building Community Capacity: Focus on Literacy, which Audrey developed and led.[2] It was modelled on the CLC project.

“Both these projects were a good fit for me, and they were the start of an extended learning curve that I am still on. Even though I had been doing education for a long time, I hadn’t really considered the social stigmatization of adult literacy. In all my years of social justice activism I missed seeing the invisibility of adult literacy. I came to understand that it’s a serious issue of social discrimination, social exclusion, and access to power. When I began to notice how it is assumed that people ‘should’ be capable of reading it became very apparent that literacy— education really—is deeply embedded in the politics of social class, racism, ableism, and gender inequality,” Audrey explained.  She also spoke about the impact of reading Phyllis Steeves’s “Literacy: Genocide’s Silken Instrument” (2010).  Audrey said, “One of the most significant things I’ve read is Phyllis’s PhD Dissertation. It completely challenges our ideas about literacy as something good and something that everybody needs. Phyllis says Aboriginal peoples’ ways of knowing and well-being have been and are being erased by the idea of ‘Aboriginal literacy.’  I agree with her that literacy/education has been used as an ethnocentric instrument of colonial oppression, and strongly believe that we all need to read her thesis. We need to always question what we are doing as literacy workers.”

Over time, Audrey’s philosophy of adult education developed into two strands: her belief that education systems are classist and racist institutions, and at the same time, that education is also a pathway for self-determination and for resistance to perpetuating oppressive institutional thinking. Her beliefs about learning and equality underlie all her work.  “I’ve been ridiculously fortunate. In these last thirteen years at BVC, I’ve had great opportunities to work in projects and programs that were bold enough to address the politics of education. I learned that many students in adult literacy programs have horrible memories of their experience in mainstream schooling. I certainly struggled in school when I was young, and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to believe I was smart. I think that is why I keep going back to school over and over again. While working at the college, I’ve been a student and an instructor, an administrator and an advocate, and a participant in a variety of things,” Audrey told me.

She shared some of the projects that stood out for her. “A project I loved being part of was called Focused on Practice, a national research project. I had a very small part on the steering committee. The project looked at how practitioners are using research in the field. It just opened up all kinds of issues of being underfunded and under-resourced—all the things we know too well.”  The researchers interviewed over 500 literacy practitioners across the country, conducting an inventory of research in practice at four levels: national, provincial/territorial, community, and individual. They spoke of practice research’s value to the literacy field:

Literacy work is about hope. It’s about what we imagine is possible for learners. When we meet a new learner at intake, hear about the challenges in their lives and see their tentativeness, we know they may not be back, but we hold hope for them and speak with them in a way that makes hope audible. There is a cycle of burn-out that can happen in literacy work. We need to hold hope for ourselves too, for the programs, and for the literacy field as a whole. I think research can help with this. It can give practitioners the reflection time they need and deserve. (Woodrow and Horsman 2007, 1)

Audrey was drawn to projects that took risks and asked  hard questions. The Connecting the Dots: Improving Accountability in the Adult Literacy Field in Canada project was one of these.[3] The two-year project examined the impact of accountability on the adult literacy field across the country and explored new ways of approaching it (Crooks et al. 2008, 4).  Focusing on the accountability relationship between funders and organizations delivering literacy programming, it examined the tensions literacy practitioners experience between being accountable to learners and to funders, and the different measures that different stakeholders use to determine whether or not a literacy program is successful.

Audrey described the impact this project had on her. “I was a field researcher and this gave me insight, helped develop my critical eye about what we are doing in our work—particularly how the field was taking up the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) without questioning what this survey had to do with learning. I realized that we [as a field] were losing a community development approach, we were losing a Freirian Critical Education approach to literacy. [4] We were becoming machine like. That was a profound project for me and indirectly led to my PhD thesis work.”

Audrey’s doctorate thesis (in progress) examines the politics of measurement in adult literacy, how forms of large-scale assessment such as IALS are used in government policy, and what impact this has on literacy programming. She questions the disconnections between such policy and learners’ own knowledge about how they learn and improve.

Measurement of literacy in many countries, including Canada, has adopted the use of high-cost, highly technical international surveys such as IALS and PIACC over other assessment frameworks.[5] Comparing survey results between countries, regions, and groups of people may be valuable information, but when numbers become the dominant story of literacy, the knowledge of learning and teaching embedded in program practices becomes submerged. Learners as knowing actors become objects of the so-called literacy problem… Submerged under the statistical language of these measures is the misfit of policy objectives with actual assessment practices in literacy programs. (Gardner 2014, 14-15)

At the heart of Audrey’s work are a profound respect for learners, active resistance to social oppression, and a belief in self-determination.  These were very apparent as she talked about another project that was extremely important to her. The Literacy and Disabilities Study (LaDS)[6] conducted a survey of literacy and other community programs in Canada that use the Speech-Assisted Reading and Writing (SARAW)[7] computer program with adults who have disabilities. As principal researcher, Audrey interviewed adult learners, tutors, instructors, and coordinators in eleven programs currently using SARAW across the country. The survey explored the contexts in which SARAW was being used and looked for effective practices that contribute to literacy skill development.

Not enough people with disabilities know about literacy programs, and not enough literacy programs know about SARAW and how to support learners with disabilities. While there have been some strides made in making literacy programs more accessible, and increasingly best practices in literacy programs for adults with disabilities are being identified, adults with disabilities with low literacy continue to struggle to find accessible programs. (Gardner 2005, 41)

The LaDS project resulted in four publications: a fact sheet on literacy and disabilities, a book of  learner stories and experiences, the SARAW survey report, and an effective practices guide for using SARAW with people with disabilities.[8]

As we neared the end of our interview, I asked Audrey what she thinks has to change in how we view literacy and essential skills. She was passionate in her reply.

I think we need to bring back a community development framework for adult literacy. We need to be clear that melding the Employment and Social Development Canada’s Essential Skills framework with the term adult literacy, which has been taken up in most adult literacy organizations and certainly by governments, is squeezing out adult literacy education. We have to challenge our flawed assumption that workplace skills as defined by ESDC Essential Skills (ES) are the same as literacy in diverse social contexts (including work, but not solely work). The argument can be made that the ES framework does not necessarily incorporate social injustice issues of adult literacy. We have unquestionably brought these two concepts together, thinking that they are equal and the same, but they are most definitely not. Literacy has to be understood in relation to human rights and institutional oppression.

Drawing on community development models of learning, Freirian Critical Education principles, and Steeves’s work is what is needed now, especially with the ever-increasing move toward a reductionist idea that literacy is only skills for the economic labour market. For example, the government of Alberta has a social policy framework that names literacy as a social equality issue. [9] There is more than enough research on the social practices of literacy that support the stance that literacy is a social equality issue. It should be a straightforward decision to invest in adult literacy within this framework, but there is obvious tension to restrain literacy as simply workforce skills.

This is of particular importance right now, in light of recent actions and policy shifts by the federal government.

On 16 May 2014, the office of the Minister of Employment, Social Development, and Multiculturalism headed by Jason Kenney, issued this statement: “Our government is committed to ensuring federal funding for literacy is no longer spent on administration and countless research papers, but instead is invested in projects that result in Canadians receiving the literacy skills they need to obtain jobs … Canadian taxpayers will no longer fund administration of organizations but will instead fund useful literacy projects” (Centre for Literacy 2014).

Federal funding for organizations in the adult literacy sector across Canada ended effective 30 June 2014.  These decisions were made with no community consultation. The funding cuts coupled with the shift of funding away from provincial Labor Market Agreements to the new Canada Job Grant will have a significant impact on literacy programming across the country.

Audrey ended our conversation with a call to action. She urges adult literacy practitioners to fight back.

We are in a destructive time right now. The federal funding in the Office for Literacy and Essential Skills has been drastically cut. There is no place for community development in literacy – it doesn’t seem to hold any value anymore. Organizations have to fight tooth and nail to find funding. We have to compromise our values to get funding for programs that may serve only a small number of people rather than a broader and more diverse group of people. I think that if community-based, grassroots services were being cut in any other field there would be protests. You would have a union fighting for you. But it’s a silent kind of destruction that’s happening. The federal government’s statement from ESDC Minister Kenney’s office about how literacy organizations have been wasting money on research projects and what’s really needed is direct services to learners was absolutely wrong. Reading it, I thought,  “What do you think we have been doing all these years if it’s not direct service? And this field desperately needs research!”

The federal-provincial Labour Market Agreements shift toward the Canada Job Grant Strategy has also been a form of cut at the provincial and territorial level. I don’t know what kind of commitments—what kind of policies —are being considered under this flawed strategy but it seems like the knowledge and expertise of hundreds of people over the past three decades are being extinguished. The national adult literacy database, Copian, the largest repository of research and work, envied by other countries, has come to a startling end because of withdrawn federal funds. Fighting back will take a lot of effort but practitioners and allies need to act now. There are a handful of strong-willed resisters already speaking out. Tracey Mollins runs a blog called the Literacy Enquirer.[10] We need to read and write on this blog. Another blog is Beyond Literacy as Numbers.[11] And also look at Brigid Hayes’s blog.[12]

This is not only happening in Canada. David Rosen, a literacy advocate in the US, shared an e-mail with some highlights from a speech by Portuguese professor Licínio Lima at the General Assembly of the European Association for the Education of Adults in Brussels on 18 June 2014.[13] Professor Lima critiqued the European approach to adult literacy, and argued that “adult education needs to go back to its roots and focus on the issue of social inclusion instead of just skills for economic competitiveness… When adult education was created it was much more connected to the social movements such as the trade union movements or suffragist movement. We should try to get closer to the social movements of today…  I believe that adult education should become more ‘dangerous’ and regain its potential for transformation. This means being powerful, critical and active — adult education politically and democratically engaged, not only economically engaged.”

I love the idea of being “dangerous.” I see it as a way to act up against the quiet destruction of adult literacy education. I am disturbingly reminded about my first exposure to the invisibility of adult literacy when I started in the CLC project. I now understand the vulnerability of not being able to pass as literate, and also understand literacy as an instrument of oppression. Not only are individuals disavowed, but it is abundantly clear now that adult literacy education can be easily done away with as well. Paulo Freire said education is a political act, so be political and act up for a robust investment in adult literacy education that works for people.

And with those impassioned words Audrey ended our interview and walked out the door to begin her new life in Toronto. Her penetrating intelligence, astute political analysis, and subversive sense of humour will be sorely missed by her colleagues both at Bow Valley College and in the larger adult literacy world. We can only hope we haven’t heard the last word from Audrey Gardner.

For more information on the exact details of the cuts and the effects on the adult literacy sector, check out these websites:

As educators and adult literacy practitioners, we urge you to get informed, get involved, organize protests, ask questions, and demand answers.



Canadian Literacy and Learning Network. 2014. “Federal Government Quietly Collapses Literacy and Essential Skills Network.” Blog, 29 May.

Centre for Literacy. 2014. “Defunding of Adult Literacy Organizations Means Hard Times for Sector.” Blog, updated 26 June.

Crooks, Stacy, Paula Davies, Audrey Gardner, Katrina Grieve, Tracey Mollins, Marina Niks, Joanie Tannenbaum, and Brenda Wright. 2008. Connecting the Dots: Accountability in Adult Literacy. Voices from the Field. Quebec: The Centre for Literacy of Quebec.

Gardner, Audrey. 2003. Connecting Community to Literacy Building Community Capacity: Focus on Literacy Handbook. Calgary: Bow Valley College.

———. 2005. Literacy and Disabilities Study (LaDS) Survey Report. Calgary: Bow Valley College and Neil Squire Society.

———. 2014. “Flooded with Thoughts on Literacy While Bailing Out in Calgary.” In Stories from the Field, edited by Sandra Loschnig, 11-15. Calgary: Bow Valley College.

Holbrow, Bill, and Audrey Gardner. 2005. Building Community Capacity: Focus on Literacy. Calgary: Bow Valley College and Literacy Alberta.

Horsman, Jenny, and Helen Woodrow, eds. 2007. Focused on Practice: A Framework for Adult Literacy Research in Canada. Vancouver: Harrish Press.

Steeves, Phyllis. 2010. “Literacy: Genocide’s Silken Instrument.” PhD Dissertation. University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta.


[1] The Connecting Literacy to Community: Building Community Capacity project resulted in three publications available for free download on the Adult Literacy Research Institute Resources webpage under Research and Resources, then Community Development.


[3] See

[4] “Paulo Freire (1921–1997) wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which describes how education can help people change social injustice. Freire believed that education allows people to become aware of their oppression, then to transform it. For more information go to Freire Institute” Tracy Mollins, “Where’s Freire?” Literacies (2003) 1.

[5] The OECD commissioned three international adult literacy surveys of mostly western/industrial countries. The two mentioned here are IALS – International Adult Literacy Survey, conducted in the early 1990s and PIAAC –Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies. PIAAC results were released in October 2013. The other survey is called ALLSS-Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey, which was completed in 2005.

[6] See

[7] SARAW is a computer program developed by the Neil Squire Society in partnership with Capilano College in Vancouver, BC. Initially developed for people with physical disabilities (who are non-verbal) to learn basic reading and writing skills, SARAW can also help people with intellectual and physical disabilities strengthen their literacy skills.

[8] These are all available on the Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning website on the resources page under the heading Disability.

[9] Alberta’s Social Policy Framework, February 2013 is available at

[10] “Counting Research,” Literacy Enquirer, 29 April 2014,

[11]  “After Twenty-five Years, COPIAN (NALD) Announces It Can No Longer Receive Resources,” Beyond Literacy As Number in Canada, 9 June 2014,

[12] “Transparency? Just What Is the federal Government Funding?” 24 June 2014,

[13] Licínio Lima, “Adult Education and Democracy, ” 18 June 2014,

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