February 16, 2018

Lisa Harris | Movers & Shakers 2009 – Advocates

Lisa Harris, Alameda County library, Freemont CAFresh Starts

Lisa Harris grew up in a rough neighborhood in East Oakland, CA, where many classmates dropped out around eighth grade and later wound up behind bars. Eighteen years ago, when Harris answered an ad for a “Jail Literacy Coordinator” with the Alameda County Library (ACL), she reconnected with some of those peers—and began teaching them literacy skills. That’s one great aspect of her current job as jail literacy manager: “I can help people I grew up with,” she says.

Harris fundraises and designed the curriculum for Reading for Life, a largely volunteer-driven tutoring program for low-literacy-level inmates. Her success relates to Harris’s “quiet dignity that translates into respect for others in the face of difficult circumstances,” says ACL web services coordinator Susan Fisher.

Another winning Harris initiative, Start with a Story, educates kids as they wait to see incarcerated loved ones. Harris got the idea on a hot August day when she was “taken aback” observing the crowd of children standing in line with nothing to do.

Start with a Story is now a “de facto children’s library branch” at two jails. Volunteers serve 150–200 enthusiastic children per weekend. The program won the 2008 California Counties Innovation Award, and Harris is poised to launch it at the Tri-Homeless Coalition in Fremont.

“Incarceration and low literacy skills are intrinsically intergenerational,” says Harris. “There are myriad issues these children face. We can’t solve them all, but we can ‘Start with a Story.’”


Alameda County Library, Fremont, CA

POSITION Jail Literacy Manager

DEGREE BA, Social Welfare/Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, 1988

WEB SITES startwithastory.wordpress.com; jailtutoring.wordpress.com