Patrick Oliver traces his success back to this scene: As a little boy in his home in the projects of Little Rock, he shared the morning newspapers with his parents and his grandfather. Each person grabbed a section of the newspaper and passed the other sections around. He and his grandfather, who lived nearby, shared the sports pages.
Years later when he worked himself up from a low level job to one as a material analyst and senior contract administrator in the defense industry, he remembered those scenes at home. His reading and writing skills allowed him to easily understand systems and write proposals that suggested more efficient ways of operating, thus gaining him attention, respect and promotions from upper management. Oliver never forgot the connection between the rituals at his house and his success at work.
“The success of me being a success in corporate America is because of my reading,” he said. “Our house was full of newspapers and magazines,” he said.
Now a literary consultant, program manager and radio host in Little Rock, he devotes most of his life to developing programs that introduce black youth to literature and the importance of reading and writing well. In 1993, he founded “Say It Loud! Readers and Writers,” the nonprofit that provides opportunities for youth ages 10 – 18 to participate in literary arts activities and events designed to enhance their appreciation for literature as a tool for empowerment. Today, in addition to programs in Little Rock, he has partnerships with programs in Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.
The journey to his life’s work began after his company downsized and he lost his job as a contract administrator in the aerospace industry in California. He decided to return home to Little Rock for a while. He wound up staying longer and opening a bookstore/gift shop.
When someone asked him to serve as program director of an after school program, he gave that a try, too.
“Working with young people and assisting them with their homework, I discovered reading and writing deficiencies in children of color. I was trying to assist them with math and science, but knowledge of reading and writing was always required,” said Oliver.
He helped reshape the after school program so that it centered on literacy arts.
“We used poetry and creative writing as a focal point,” Oliver said.
A door had been opened and Oliver embarked on a new career, first going to the Memphis Arts Council, where he taught at community and school writing programs. Later, he became Director of Sales and Marketing at the historic black-owned Third World Press in Chicago and program director for a citywide after school reading program.
What Oliver has learned, he said, is “kids do well when I put them in environments or a classroom setting that mirrors their culture—with books written by African American authors and stories that reflect their experiences. They embrace writing and reading more.
“I say, ‘Here is someone with a background like you—and now they are great writers and owners of publishing companies. When I put the kids in those cultural incubators, they respond much better. They read books with names like Jamal and Keisha, names they know from their community.
“Visiting writers use rap, haiku and prose around social justice issues like violence, crime and health, all of which helps the youth embrace the reading and writing.”
He has noted writers visit his programs. Visitors have included Dr. Bernard Harris, the first black astronaut to walk in space, who wrote a book called “Dream Walker” and Sharon Draper, who co-authored “We Beat The Streets”, the youth version of an adult book about three boys from a tough neighborhood who made a pact to become doctors—and did.
Writers who teach at colleges engage the students with college level exercises, he said.
“They treat my kids as if they are brilliant,” said Oliver.
For the past three years, he has partnered with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Center for Diversity Affairs as it tries to attract the next generation of health professions.