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.
“During their research they found out students had to do well in math, science and writing,” Oliver said. “I said to them, ‘Let me develop a writing program.’”
For the past three summers they have operated a writing program that has been successful enough that the city has funded it to run year-round.
But the real measure of his work, Oliver said, are the students who return to update him on their successes.
Loni Rainey, an art teacher at Parkview Arts & Science Magnet in little Rock, attended Say it Loud! Readers and Writers poetry workshop when she was nine years old. She was reluctant because a diagnosis of dyslexia had made learning more difficult.
“I wanted to be a teacher but I was discouraged because I couldn’t comprehend what I was reading,” she recalled. “My mother made me, my older sister and younger brother join his poetry group. I was in third grade, but reading on a first grade level.’
In Oliver’s program, the group wrote poems and made an anthology of their work.
“Seeing my words and feelings on paper at that age helped me a lot,” said Rainey, who kept attending. When she was 15, Oliver took the group to Chicago to a Gwendolyn Brooks conference, she said.
“My mother, an avid reader, made me take six books to have Walter Mosley sign them. He signed them. Then he asked me if I had ever read any of his books and I said no. He said, ‘Next time I meet you I want you to have read my books.’”
Rainey went home and read five of the books, which surprised her and gave her a great sense of accomplishment.
“Mr. Oliver encouraged me and helped me have confidence…,” she said. “Without him, I wouldn’t be a teacher… Meeting actual writers and poets motivated me to try harder and not give up. Hearing these people I considered famous coach me and encourage me and let me know I am important really helped.”
Jose Hollaway, now band director at McClellan Magnet High School in Little Rock, is another graduate of one of Oliver’s programs.
“I am proud to be from a single parent household. My mom was always looking for something for me to be involved in that had black male role models,” Holloway said.
He was 11 and a trumpet player. He didn’t have a reading problem, but Say It Loud! opened up his world, he said.
“I gained exposure to the culture, learned to think positively. We took a lot of trips, saw a lot of stuff. We learned the importance of the arts and how to collaborate. It was so encouraging. Suddenly, it didn’t seem out of reach to go off to college or do things like that.”
Oliver’s work is featured in a new book published by The Poetry Foundation called Open the Door and now he gets calls from people all over the country who want him to start programs for them. “I explain I help communities and schools and other organizations develop programs themselves,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Little Rock, he hosts “Literary Nation Talk Radio” a live weekly broadcast with nationally known guests. He has also published, Turn the Page and You Don’t Stop: Sharing Successful Chapters in Our Lives with Youth, an anthology of noted writers testifying to how writing and reading has impacted their lives. On September 21, he will co-host the Congressional Black Caucus’s annual legislative conference’s author’s pavilion.
But Oliver is on a mission. “As this country shifts from factories to technological entrepreneurship, I want to help create the next generation of entrepreneurs,” he said. “I’m not just talking about writing poetry. If kids are not reading well, navigating their way through sophisticated documents, they won’t be successful in the 21st century.”