Friday, September 7, 2018

On Receiving Doak Health Literacy Award

When Health Literacy Media informed me that I would be receiving this year's Cecilia and Leonard Doak Health Literacy Champion Award, my first thought came in the form of a long ago memory - an image of listening to Ceci Doak sensitively speak about the lives of individuals who struggle to read and understand the complexity around them.

My second thought image was of me as a young linguistic graduate student tasked with being the moderator of a semiotics talk at Brown.  The speaker and I engaged in this rarefied ( OK, you're right,  obtuse) exploration of how humans interpret words both syntagmatically and paradigmatically - and wow wasn't that infinitely fascinating.  I remember the large, patient audience chuckled when we were done.

I was helping out at the conference with my then fellow student and now life-long best friend Debbie Topol.  The conference was the inspired product of my mentor, Dr. Peter Blackwell, then Principal of the RI School for the Deaf and the Co-Director of The Language Awareness Project at Brown, along with Dr. Naomi Baron.

After our session Deb and I trudged off to make sure that the coffee and donuts were readied for the break ( sound familiar). On the way I'm sure the small talk was our familiar riff - what's the connection between all this complex theory, all this stuff we're learning and thinking through - and the language acquisition  and literacy problems of deaf young people we're teaching.  (The fundamental literacy level achieved by deaf adults is far poorer than the general population and many struggle to read at 5th grade level).

It's 40 something years later and a true surprise and honor (a gift indeed)  of learning that I am receiving the Doak award is that it came at a moment when the question of how to connect theory and practice has been pricking my conscience more than usual. I've been writing about perception and action in complex emergencies.  Where's the theory in the practice?  Is there new theory? The question that I realize has been walking beside me all these years of my work.  At once both vexing and energizing to me.  Often alienating to others. But as Rilke said, if you live the question, perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along into the answers.

To all the questions yet to be answered.

Thank you.