By Ashley Alt
A reader and writer all her life, Stacy Ratner intended on going into publishing after college to pursue a writing career. Unlike most writers’ dreams of being on the New York Times bestseller list, Stacy wanted to be part of the greater good in a different sort of spotlight.
Founder of two nonprofits, award winner of 10 innovation and leadership awards and counting, and inspiration to the local literacy community at large, Stacy Ratner continues to be the powerhouse redefining the nonprofit sector. Proving that she’s not another run-of-the-mill executive, this whip-smart entrepreneur has found a way to empower children and adults through her literary programs, ultimately transforming their lives.
“I believe that literacy is a fundamental human right,” Stacy tells us. “And that once you are fed, clothed, housed and safe, it is the most important thing you can be. It is not only enriching; it is transformative.”
Before Ratner came onto the Chicago literacy scene, she worked for high-tech startups overseeing corporate culture of branding, directing, marketing and public relations. While looking at a milestone birthday in 2006, she decided to switch gears to a nonprofit career by reconnecting her love of reading and writing, which is how her first nonprofit, Open Books, was born. Three years later, the second nonprofit, The Chicago Literacy Alliance, followed suit.
“Getting to spend my time, resources and creativity on two very different organizations with a common goal rooted in my heart is pretty amazing,” Stacy said. “No matter the size of the task at hand, I get to know that working on it will translate into greater literacy access for people.”
There is an estimated number of 882,000, or 30 percent, of adults in Chicago have low basic literacy skills and would benefit from adult basic education services. Stacy and her team are part of a network serving more than 3.6 million people each year, from young children all the way through adults.
“All of us share our story as often as we can,” she says. “But more can always be done to raise awareness.”
Bringing Innovative Reading/Writing Programs to 40,000 Students
By using a combination of data analysis and qualitative feedback, Stacy and her team are able to gauge the difference they’re making. For example, before last year’s Reading Buddies Program under Open Books, the majority of students said that reading made them feel frustrated, bored or nervous. After their semester together, 88% of the students reported that they were excited and confident about reading on their own, every one of them gaining a new collection of 5-10 handpicked books to take home.
The same kind of transformation happens in the Creative Writing Workshops and ReadThenWrite programs. Students come to the organization uninterested in writing and end up finishing the programs as confident, published authors.
“Watching our Publishing Academy students go from blank page to finished novel is a profound experience every time,” Stacy says. “They consistently describe the program as life-changing, and we’re delighted and honored that many of them return for multiple summers to repeat the magic.”
To provide ongoing literacy opportunities beyond their in-person offerings, Stacy and her team give away 120,000+ hand-picked books each year directly to students, families and educators through their grant programs.
“We feel affirmed each semester by our students’ increases in reading fluency and writing skills, but the most heartwarming moments come from their comments and behavioral changes,” she said.
Providing Opportunities For Creative and Effective Collaboration
Stacy opened the Literacenter in 2015 as North America’s first shared nonprofit workspace dedicated to the cause of literacy that offers space, programs, connections, resources, benefits and collaboration opportunities to their members.
Introductions Stacy and her team have made between members have created partnerships including new joint workshops for adult learners, new after-school programs for teenagers, significant book grants to students in homeless shelters, and new professional development programs for educators.
While Stacy feels “beyond privileged” to be a part of continuing and improving literacy, she is reminded often of a favorite memory working with a student whose “imagination and talent still inspire her eight years later.” After the student’s finished novel was featured on a local TV segment, she became the first person in her family to continue her education beyond high school.
Spreading Literacy Love
In addition to spearheading a literary movement, Stacy participates in something called National Novel Writing Month every November, which she says has been a highlight of every year since she started doing it in 2002. While she has completed 12 novels to date, no one has ever read them because “none of them are polished enough for outside eyes.”
She says someday she would love to write one novel fit for publication, that the concept of devoting her full attention to it is something she dreams about a lot, but she has no idea what it would be about.
“Whether it’s a book, a billboard or the back of a cereal box, you are the sum of what you read,” Stacy said. “And of all the information and experiences that the reading plants in you.”