Usha Tamba Dhar

Ashoka Fellow
This description of Usha Tamba Dhar's work was prepared when Usha Tamba Dhar was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2010 .


Usha Tamba Dhar is introducing new perspectives to the field of literacy in Canada by providing organizations with effective tools, training, and micro-funding to engage youth in their own literacy and life-skills development. Usha is addressing the illiteracy rates in Canada, creating an easy to use, culturally appropriate, and replicable set of methods to combat illiteracy. Usha takes a unique approach to change in this area, by seeking recognition of literacy as a human right.

The New Idea

Usha is focusing on strengthening literacy in marginalized communities in Canada by implementing a strong community-based approach. Her approach is two-fold: She builds her program participants’ self-esteem and integrates community support to address low literacy rates. The tools Usha developed enable families and volunteers in community to support youth as they learn to read and write. Her method gives mentors and parents techniques they can use to develop their own skills, as they teach and become leaders and role models.

Usha believes that an effective approach to literacy works equally well with 25-year-olds, street-involved youth, high school students with exceptionalities, and six-year-old refugees. Hence, she is reviving a traditional approach and is based on four comprehensive steps. Usha adapts her methodology to be inclusive of diverse groups. The materials she uses reflect their cultural and social realities, be they First Nations, street-involved and homeless youth, immigrants and refugees, or youth with special needs.

To scale the impact of her literacy approach, Usha provides micro-funding to help community groups initiate or run literacy programs. The ELF’s grant program operates at a national scale. These partnerships also involve sharing their effective and inclusive manuals, as well as capacity-building workshops around literacy. To date, 150 organizations are using these materials and methodology or have received micro-funding to increase literacy across Canada.

The Problem

According to Statistics Canada, 42 percent of Canadians are semi-illiterate. For the past 15 years there has been scarcely any improvement in Canada’s 42 percent literacy rate (The National, 05/24/06). The Toronto Dominion Report – Literacy Matters, stated in 2007 that, “Four in 10 high school youth have insufficient reading skills. Two in 10 university graduates, five in 10 adults, and six in 10 immigrants also have insufficient literacy skills… While both levels of government are engaged in literacy programs, there is little evidence that it is working. Canada is losing billions because of illiteracy.”

Illiteracy is a dynamic and severe social problem, particularly with Canada’s marginalized populations. Marginalized groups, such as immigrant communities, need materials and methods of learning relevant to their experience in order to engage effectively with literacy development.

By addressing marginalization, diversity, and illiteracy in a cohesive and systemic manner, literacy among Canadians can dramatically increase and Canadian society as a whole will benefit from a greater number of individuals being educated, employed, leaders, and entrepreneurs.

The Strategy

In 1992, Usha co-founded Sage Youth to provide literacy support to marginalized communities in Ottawa. Through its programs, Sage Youth students move toward becoming “children in-opportunity.” Since 1992, 8,000 youth have been supported through this program: 45 percent are homeless children and youth; 55 percent are new Canadians and 35 percent have special needs.

Through Sage Youth, Usha is building self-esteem alongside literacy. She involves youth in mentoring programs about job preparedness and skills development, and encourages them to become active leaders and changemakers. Through this type of programming, Sage Youth students begin to see themselves as potential heroes and community builders.

Usha’s four step approach has proven to be highly effective. It increases 1) verbal skills 2) phonetic skills 3) comprehension skills 4) writing skills. ELF materials are inclusive to the populations they serve in a way that is culturally relevant, sensitive, empowering, and respectful. The combination of these four approaches is core to Usha’s methodology.

Sage Youth mobilizes 100 volunteers per year who become empowered to affect significant change in the lives of participants, to help them develop life-skills, and to guide them in realizing their dreams. Sage Youth’s training practices effectively engage community members with educational backgrounds ranging from a 5th grade education to a Ph.D. Her programs have expert staff members on site to assist with fine-tuning literacy and life-skills support to the needs of the individual child.

Sage Youth creates a space that gives their program participants confidence and a sense of joy and hope, while being able to measure their literacy developments qualitatively and quantitatively. It uses a rigorous structure to evaluate social impact in its target areas. Through the use of a standardized measurement tool, Sage Youth has demonstrated that its methodologies yield improvements three to four times greater than control groups for ESL students, and double the rate of control groups for special education students. In addition, Usha’s organization monitors the number of successful community partnerships maintained in the areas of program delivery, volunteer recruitment, and program support. Sage Youth also diligently tracks participant registration and attendance, and uses qualitative as well as quantitative methods to measure the impact of its leadership and employability programs. Finally, Usha and her team assess the success of its volunteer engagement program by measuring volunteer registration, training, screening, and attendance records, as well as through occasional surveys. She continually uses these evaluative tools to improve her programming and expansion strategies.

Conscious of the magnitude and hidden nature of Canada’s illiteracy problems, Usha’s team decided it was time for them to disseminate their methodology more broadly. In 2002, she co-created the Excellence in Literacy Foundation (ELF), now a sister organization, in charge of spreading and replicating the approach through partner organizations. Workbooks co-authored by Usha are used in over 150 communities across Canada. Since 2002, the ELF has provided micro-funding ($500-$2,000) to nearly 100 organizations, and has offered trainings, workbooks, and evaluation materials to approximately 150 organizations across Canada. ELF targets similar populations: Low-income, First Nations, new Canadians, homeless, and special needs communities. Since 2002, 16,000 youth have participated in ELF activities, and Usha’s goal is to reach out to 3,000 youth yearly.

ELF measures success by evaluating 1) the number of programs introduced and served 2) the number children and youth served 3) the percentage of children served in each of the targeted high-risk communities 4) partnerships with dynamic, effective, ethical programs 5) the relevancy of materials, based on updates to student workbooks and partner training materials.

In addition, Usha fosters large-scale change by partnering with schools to adopt ELF methodology, training tools and teaching materials. Usha has currently worked with 27 in-school or school-supported programs. Usha is taking an alternate approach by challenging Canada to recognize literacy as a human right. The aim is to push the government to increase the human and financial resources necessary to address literacy in Canada. She believes that literacy is a birthright of Canada’s children, and children all over the world. Usha pursues public policy changes to ensure that all communities in Canada can receive adequate literacy development, thereby drastically augmenting literacy rates, and fostering a more representative and diverse body of leaders.

The Person

Usha chose to work around the social issue of illiteracy because she believes knowledge is freedom. Her father, who was involved in the Gandhian movement for independence in India, had a huge influence on her perceptions of what freedom means and its true reality. Her grandfather once told her father, “While you are all traipsing after this Gandhi fellow, remember that freedom is not a license. True freedom comes from a powerful mind. No one can take that from you.” Usha grew up in a family culture of community service. She was raised with a sense of civic responsibility to create opportunities for others. This is the work she has always envisioned for herself.

As a teenage volunteer at a camp for children with developmental challenges, Usha met a young child with Down syndrome whose family, because of his diagnosis, had been told he would never learn to speak, read or write. But at that camp, he did speak – and one of his first words was her name. Years later, Usha found out that he was attending high school, mainstreaming many of his courses, and even had a weekend job. As a child it was assumed that he could not live a full life. Challenging assumptions about who can and cannot be literate is the basis of Usha’s life’s work.

Usha’s students at Sage Youth have also been a continuing source of inspiration, always giving her more reasons to continue to work on eradicating illiteracy in Canada. One of her first students at Sage Youth was a young refugee who had witnessed the murder of loved ones during war and famine. Despite the hardships she endured, she was full of kindness and generosity and would regularly set aside time to spontaneously support the other children in the program. She was then, and remains to this day, Sage Youth’s youngest “volunteer”. Usha later learned that she was a straight-A student and was moving forward with plans for medical school. These are the stories that encourage Usha to continue to commit 100 percent to her vision of a completely literate Canada.