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Education advocate, author to bring message to HCC

Date: 9/12/2012

By Debbie Gardner

HOLYOKE — Famed social justice author and lecturer Jonathan Kozol will bring the message of his newest book, "Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America," to Western Massachusetts with a reading and book signing Sept. 17 at Holyoke Community College (HCC).

His first appearance in the area, Kozol will speak in HCC's Leslie Phillips Theater at 7 p.m.

Kozol is recognized as the most widely read and honored education writer in America, and has spent the majority of his career highlighting the challenge of providing equal opportunities to public school children regardless of race or economic level. His books include "Death at an Early Age" and "Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation."

Joan Grenier, owner of The Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, said Kozol, whom she has hosted for readings several times in the past, asked for help to arrange an appearance in Western Massachusetts prior to one at Amherst College that same week.

"I know that Jonathan has spent some time in Holyoke and the Holyoke Public Schools," Grenier said, adding that, by chance, an HCC professor was at one of the shop's recent poetry readings when she was discussing Kozol's desire to read locally.

Lisa Mahon, an associate professor of English, said she was in the audience for a poetry reading put on by students from Holyoke's Care Center — an alternative educational program to help pregnant teens and young mothers who have dropped out of school, but now want to better their position in life — and overhead Grenier talking with the women about Kozol's request.

Mahon said she became excited about the prospect of bringing a writer she had admired since college to HCC to read.

"Years ago when I was a graduate student at the University of San Francisco, Jonathan Kozol was my hero. I taught [his first book] 'Rachel and her Children' and that is what got me into service learning," Mahon said.

Service learning, she explained, is when students take the information they are studying in the classroom — such as Kozol's message about the inequalities between the education opportunities offered in wealthy and poor neighborhoods — and apply it through volunteer work in a neighborhood.

"He has a new book coming out, and I said, 'Of course we can make this happen,'" Mahon recalled. "We have so many students [at HCC] who have dealt with inequalities in their lives."

She said HCC seemed "the perfect place to do a reading and introduce 'Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America.' Everyone I talked to at HCC said 'yes, we definitely want Jonathan to come and read.'"

She contacted Student Activities Coordinator Liz Golen, who made the arrangements for Kozol to appear at HCC.