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A Conversation with Literacy KC: New Adventure App Highlights Kansas City’s Rich Black History

Mar 03, 2021

U.S. Engineering

U.S. Engineering Company Holdings CFO Brendan Rittel recently sat down with Literacy KC’s Gillian Helm and J.P. Deckert to talk about how the Adventure App works to amplify Black voices and celebrate Black History.

Brendan Rittel, CFO and General Counsel, is on the Board of Directors of Literacy KC.  Literacy KC is a non-profit organization, located in Kansas City, that is committed to offering a welcoming community for adults and families to increase literacy skills and workforce potential, thereby increasing quality of life. 

Recently, CEO of Literacy KC, Gillian Helm, Chief Development Officer, J.P. Deckert, and their team launched the Literacy KC Adventure App. The App takes users on a fun and educational tour of historical Black landmarks throughout the Kansas City Metro area.  

Here are excerpts from a conversation Brendan had with Gillian and J.P. about how the launch of this Adventure App helped Literacy KC support its mission while also amplifying Black voices in the community. 

Brendan: Thank you both for taking the time to speak with me about this exciting new App! I’d like to let our readers learn about the App and find out other ways they might be able to support your organization.  Before we get into all those details, could you tell us more about Literacy KC?  

Gillian Our mission is to advance literacy, and our vision is literacy for all. That’s a hefty lift, you know. What does that really mean when you drill down to it?

To us, it means making the world a more legible place for people in all aspects.  We do everything from offering basic writing and reading classes, to high school equivalency test preparation, English as a Second Language, and workforce development opportunities in various trades.  We offer all sorts of different wrap-around comprehensive approaches to teach people how to increase their skills in order to improve their quality of life. 

But, we take that a little bit further by defining literacy in a lot of different ways. One of the most important ways to us is social and cultural literacy. Being able to go out into the world and find yourself in it, along with being able to navigate to the information you need, and digesting that information to take care of yourself and your family.  

Brendan: Exactly. You go much deeper than just transactional-based support. Yes, you’re involved in helping people with finite, tangible things, such as warm coats and socks in the winter. But, what always connects with me about Literacy KC is that your organization offers people much more than those finite things. You offer the gift of learning. People develop skills that stay with them, and that benefit them and their families, forever. There’s a generational impact type thing going on here that really is special. 

As far as the Adventure App goes, it’s an educational tool, it’s fun, but there are other reasons the App was developed, especially this month. Can you speak to that? 

Gillian: As an organization, it’s not lost on us that we exist, at least partially, due to historical inequity in our educational systems. We serve largely black and brown communities in the heart of urban Kansas City. Because of that, we’re just really committed to lifting up those voices that have historically been silenced, and especially those voices that our students are going to identify the most with. 

Launching this App during Black History Month with a map that celebrates Kansas City’s rich Black history is just one way to put those words into action. We’re not just releasing a statement. We want to walk the walk as much as possible.  

Brendan: How did the idea for an App come about?  

J.P.: Our team met with PNC Bank’s Senior Vice President of Client and Community Relations, Kim Herman, to discuss the ways our organizations were supporting diversity, equity and inclusion. PNC Bank expressed that they were eager to support Literacy KC’s Black History Month Initiative, and out of that brainstorming session came the idea for an App.  

Gillian: One thing I’d like to mention is that because of COVID, we had to think outside the box on what this might look like. The App is universally accessible. You don’t have to go to the physical locations if you don’t have access to transportation, or if you’d rather not leave your house. Anyone can use the App by listening to the narrations, looking at pictures and using whatever technology is available to them to keep learning.  That’s what we really hope the Adventure App will do—spark interest to learn more about Black history in Kansas City.  

J.P.: Agreed. The idea of this App really grew legs when we started to think about how Literacy KC could leverage technology to create something new to amplify voices. We also happen to have a board member, Marquis Queen, who runs a local technology company, SLCKET. So we thought he would definitely be the guy that could help steer this thing for us. Marquis grew up in the communities that are featured in the App. He started out in the music industry with Tech N9ne. His background is part of why he is dedicated to democratizing technology in a certain way, which is part of the mission of his technology company.  

What it really came down to was creating an experience that isn’t out there yet. I don’t mean this disrespectfully, but it’s easier to do something that’s already been done. We wanted to think outside the box on what this might look like—something that combined technology, literacy, local Black history, accessibility and something that could be interesting to users during our current pandemic restrictions.With the help of Marquis Queen, Literacy KC team member Xavier Hankins (who secured many of the celebrity narrators on the Adventure App), and the entire Literacy KC team, we turned that idea into a reality in just about two months. 

Brendan: One of the main reasons I wanted to have this conversation is because U.S. Engineering is deeply committed to our communities. We think of it all as a bit of an ecosystem.  We serve our communities in the work that we do, and our communities serve us in return in countless ways. So, community engagement creates a reciprocal life cycle that we celebrate and take very seriously. We believe in Literacy KC’s mission. We think it is very important. We want to find ways to support the great work you are doing. Can you tell readers how they can get involved with Literacy KC? 

Gillian: First and foremost, download the Adventure App! Learn the history, take selfies, and answer the trivia questions.  Invite friends to play and take your family out to experience it all in person.  In the App, you can also click through to the Literacy KC website, and there you can learn all sorts of things about what we do in our community.

We are making life-long differences in the lives of real people every day, and we invite others to join us. Fortunately, there are many ways to get involved. Volunteer! opportunities include volunteering in a classroom—in-person or virtual. We’re still offering limited face-to-face classes, but we also have a new virtual component completely built-out where tutors and teachers can work with students. We have all sorts of fun events that happen throughout the year that we constantly need sponsors and volunteers for. Although our events have been virtual for about a year now, we hope to be able to have in-person gatherings one day again soon.  

Lastly, just share the message. Help us spread the word about this really important work that we do. Like you mentioned before, Brendan, literacy is an intergenerational tendency. Kids of low literate parents have a 72% chance of growing up to be low literate, and that’s a big deal. If we leave the parents out of the equation when we think about education, we’re doing ourselves a disservice as a community. We can lift up the entire community through education by breaking that cycle.  

Brendan: I know we have some future plans for the Adventure App—there are so many possibilities. Will more adventures be released as the App matures? What can we expect? 

Gillian: Part of the idea of this App is that it has an evergreen component to it.  We can add more and more information and experiences to it. The Black History maps will live on. If you missed it during Black History Month this February, feel free to catch it any other month. The plan is for each map to stay live on the App indefinitely so users can enjoy them any time. 

Then, this opens up opportunities to do similar maps and adventures for things like Hispanic Heritage Month, Women’s History Month or National Literacy Month (which is September). There are all sorts of fun possibilities, so we can continue to highlight all the amazing things happening in our community.  

J.P.: This is definitely version 1.0 of this idea. I think there’s a ton of potential behind it from an engagement standpoint of getting people in our community to truly learn more about history and current happenings from 31st and Troost area, down to 18th and Vine, and beyond. We’re just getting started with this thing.  

At U.S. Engineering, our mission is to Leave a Legacy. To us, building better communities is just as important as building better facilities, which is why we’re proud to feature organizations like Literacy KC and their important mission. Learn more about Literacy KC here and download the Literacy KC Adventure App today for Android and Apple!

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