A New Readership for Dickens

January 24, 2015

As Dickensians worldwide prepare for the Dickens Project’s 35th annual Dickens Universe, a group of high school seniors in South Central Los Angeles is also hard at work reading Martin Chuzzlewit and American Notes. The books themselves are part of a grant from a new partnership between the Dickens Project and the USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI)—a program that helps students in low-income communities around USC better prepare for the challenges of college.

Jacqueline Barrios, an AP English teacher with the program and co-founder of the partnership, said that "students from our community need complex and challenging books to prepare them for complex, challenging lives. Martin Chuzzlewit, the only Dickens novel that includes a transatlantic journey to America, makes a great parallel for the experience of crossing into new worlds, that first-generation college students face . . . that first-time readers of Dickens face."

Jacqueline and students

Jacqueline Barrios with NAI students receiving their copies of Martin Chuzzlewit on the USC campus.

The new partnership between the Dickens Project and NAI evolved out of the Project's former high school essay contest, which brought students from around the country to Santa Cruz for the week-long Dickens Universe. Now, after a decade of successful outreach and engagement, the contest has transformed into a scholarship competition that will award up to six scholarships a year to NAI—four for students and two for teachers—to attend the Dickens Universe. The Project will award the new scholarships based on both the quality of the students' final essays, and the students' academic standing within the program. Scholarship recipients will be selected by a joint committee of Dickens Project and NAI faculty.

"The students and teachers of the USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative are extremely excited about this new partnership," said Kim Thomas-Barrios, who has been the Executive Director at NAI for over 12 years. "As a body of educators we feel that this partnership between our program and the Dickens Project will allow for a greater exposure of Dickens to our students and teachers, and bring a new understanding of the rigor it takes to deconstruct such texts in preparation for college."

Jon Michael Varese, Director of Digital Initiatives for the Dickens Project, said that "the partnership with NAI is going to allow us to take the outreach work we've been doing for the past decade, and focus on urban and Title 1 school outreach specifically, which, frankly, is one of the few areas of focus where the Dickens Project lacked strength."

The partnership will launch with a $10,000 scholarship grant—$5000 of which Varese raised through private sources, and the other $5000 coming in the form of matching grants from the Adobe Corporation, the Salesforce Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. (The Philadelphia Dickens Fellowship, the oldest Dickens Fellowship in the United States, also provided a substantial donation.) The $10,000 grant, and the launch of the partnership in 2015, is part of a larger fundraising campaign to grow the Friends of the Dickens Project endowment, and ensure the longevity of the Dickens Project, far into the future.

"This partnership will not only have a huge impact on the lives of NAI scholarship recipients," Varese said, "but it will also transform the nature of the Dickens Universe itself. Our attendees—many of them faithful to the Universe for over 30 years now—are thrilled to embrace this new generation of Dickens scholars and enthusiasts."