Tri-C Alumna is Giving the Gift of Words in Hough
Rhonda Crowder rose from the streets of Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood to become a professional writer. Through “Hough Reads,” she is inspiring more readers and writers to follow their dreams.
Rhonda Crowder remembers the moment she wanted to become a professional writer.
“I was going through the Youth Opportunities Unlimited program, working at the Cleveland Children’s Museum,” Crowder said. “A mentor gave me a copy of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and as soon as I read that, I knew I wanted to be a writer.”
She called Cuyahoga Community College and registered for fall classes in 1994. On her way to graduating in 1998 with an Associate of Arts degree, she became an honors student, joining Phi Theta Kappa and becoming the treasurer of the Metropolitan Campus chapter.
In the 21 years since graduating from Tri-C, she has earned a bachelor’s degree from Cleveland State University, worked as a reporter for the Call & Post, served as associate publisher of Who’s Who in Black Cleveland and launched her own creative services agency, Rhonda Crowder & Associates.
But amid all of her professional success, the 45-year-old hasn’t forgotten her roots in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood, where she has coordinated the project she hopes will be her lasting legacy: Hough Reads, an initiative that battles a widespread illiteracy problem in the neighborhood Crowder once called home.
An uphill battle
Crowder is a professional writer who grew up in Hough. To give an idea of how rare of a feat that is, consider that an estimated 95% of Hough’s population deals with some form of illiteracy.
The numbers aren’t much better in other inner-city Cleveland neighborhoods. In nearby Kinsman, the illiteracy rate is an estimated 98%.
“If you have a community where the majority of adults can’t or don’t read, it will trickle down to children,” Crowder said. “It becomes a cycle. Where the literacy rate is low, poverty is usually high.”
Community-based organizations are trying to chip away at the problem. In 2017, Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood became the first in the U.S. to be designated a “Little Free Library Neighborhood,” taking the Little Free Library concept — small outdoor boxes where area residents can take, leave and share books — and turning it into a communitywide initiative.
Margaret Bernstein, a Little Free Library board member and friend of Crowder’s, wanted to expand the initiative to Hough and asked Crowder to coordinate the effort.
But Hough Reads goes beyond Little Free Libraries. It’s active in its approach, taking reading to the people.
“We have book giveaways,” Crowder said. “We go out and read books to kids and adults. We have activities to get people enthusiastic about reading, in a way that doesn’t make them feel insecure if they have literacy issues.”
Hough Reads is currently run by Crowder and Wayne Dailey, creative director at Rhonda Crowder & Associates. The initiative relies on volunteers to lead community activities and support from community partners.
It’s a grassroots effort to tackle a massive problem, but Crowder is unfazed. She realizes that every book shared and every event coordinated is an opportunity for someone to discover the value and joy of reading.
She realizes this because she lived it.
Rekindling a lost love
Crowder came close to becoming a part of the illiteracy and poverty statistics. She was a diligent student as a child, but soon into her high school years, she became disinterested in education.
“I basically blew off 10th and 11th grade,” she said. “When it came time to become a senior, I only had one credit for senior-level classes. I had to make up classes that year, but I did manage to graduate.”
After high school, she worked as a housekeeper for a while, but low income and long hours led her to seek a new direction.
That’s when she entered the YOU program, and a copy of Maya Angelou’s 1969 autobiography found its way into her hands. It opened her eyes to the work of female African-American authors. Through Angelou’s book, Crowder started to believe that she could be a writer.
She brought that belief with her to Tri-C. In her years at the College, Crowder learned many lessons that she still uses to provide Hough Reads with a strong guiding hand.
“As treasurer of PTK, I learned a lot about how organizations run. My classes taught me how to look at problems critically and solve them. And I continued to develop my love for reading and writing and the desire to share it with others,” she said.
"All of that stems, in some way, from my time at Tri-C. I built my foundation there.”
December 18, 2019
Erik Cassano, 216-987-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org