Jane Ilgen, a long-time member of ORUCC, established the “Jane Ilgen Literacy Fund” in the fall of 2020, reflecting her passion for early childhood education and racial equity, especially for African American children. To carry out Jane’s legacy after her passing in late 2020, ORUCC raised funds within the congregation for Jane’s endowment at the UCC Foundation, and for an internal ORUCC account to begin the project in 2021. Then, the Christian Witness and Service Ministry (CWS), which is responsible for overseeing this type of project, created an “Explorer Team” to advise and move forward on project implementation this year.
Today, we joyfully report that in the Ilgen Fund’s inaugural year, ORUCC partnered with RISE Wisconsin’s Early Childhood Initiative to purchase nearly 200 brand-new books for young children in Southwest Madison. The selected books feature black, brown and indigenous stories, characters, authors and/or illustrators. This will provide RISE home visit staff a regular opportunity to read and provide books in which children in the program more often see themselves represented. We were able to purchase books from the Itty Bitty Bookstore, a black woman owned small business in Stoughton.
RISE Family Support Specialist social work staff are very excited to have access to these books for the children they serve. The staff provide home visits to families with preschool aged children, the majority of whom are African American. Ongoing literacy learning for children is among the supports that staff provide. Before now, most of the available books tended to be donated, used books for older elementary children. Providing books to preschool children and younger, especially new books that feature more diverse characters and stories, was always on their wish list, but they lacked the discretionary funds to make it happen until now.
We intend to continue building this partnership with RISE in the coming year and see it as a foundational piece of the project. Jen Walker, the chairperson from the Explorer Team, will remain with the project. We also hope to recruit at least two or three additional church members to form a standing “Ilgen Literacy Fund Mission Team” to support future implementation under the CWS umbrella.
Thinking longer-term, the Explorer Team recommended that we build more connections with black-led grassroots organizations and leaders in our community in parallel to our partnership with RISE. As a first step, the Ilgen Fund Mission Team will be represented within ORUCC’s Racial Justice Mission Team and the Justice Coordination group, to make sure that our work with the Ilgen Fund is part of a broader context of racial justice at ORUCC.
As we collectively work to further our connections and relationships with the local black community in Southwest Madison, the future Ilgen Fund Mission Team will aim to make space for additional creative strategies for book distribution that prioritize literacy support and relationship development. We look forward to exploring a number of possibilities that were identified by the Explorer Team, and uncovering new ideas and synergies that might emerge through shared leadership with our current and future project partners.
It is important to note that the context of the pandemic greatly influenced the ways that our work unfolded in 2021, and we anticipate that it will continue to influence the Ilgen Fund’s implementation going forward. It was difficult to establish a new initiative that values both relationship development and the physical distribution of books. Both of these goals require some amount of in-person interpersonal connection, which was infeasible for a large portion of the year. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, we were and are blessed with the resources, creativity and dedication to navigate the constraints and move forward on what we believe will be the best path possible.
Orchard Ridge UCC is grateful for Jane’s invitation to step into a loving legacy that prioritizes learning and literacy for young black children in our community. The first year of the project gave us the opportunity to learn, think and take action together, in ways that will benefit young childrens’ lives. Planting the first seeds of the Ilgen Fund in 2021 has also planted excitement and optimism in our community and in our own hearts. We look forward to continuing this work and seeing the ways in which it will blossom and grow in the future.
This is a copy of the report that was submitted to the UCC Foundation and the Ilgen Family, dated March 14, 2022. Questions, comments and/or discussion about the Ilgen Literacy Fund may be directed to Jen Walker, [email protected].