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Author John Grisham to interview UNC professor Gene Nichol at charity event

Gene Nichol, director of the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity, spoke about the center’s closure before members of UNC Young Democrats Monday evening in Bingham Hall in 2011.

Gene Nichol, director of the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity, spoke about the center’s closure before members of UNC Young Democrats Monday evening in Bingham Hall in 2011.

Author John Grisham will be interviewing UNC professor Gene Nichol at the Orange County Literacy Council’s 12th annual Writers for Readers fundraiser on Wednesday evening.

Orange Literacy was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1984. Its vision is to foster “a community where literacy is available to all.” It works to help adults reach their education, employment and life goals by providing free, flexible instruction in reading, writing, basic math and more.

The event this year aims to give a platform for the "unheard voices" in North Carolina's history of poverty. One of Orange Literacy’s goals is to help people build their literacy skills to secure a job, get a better job, receive certification or to go into a career.

“Literacy plays a large part in what kind of job you have, how much money you make, whether your kids go to college, where they go to college, where you live, what kind of house you can afford," said Alice Denson, executive director of Orange Literacy. "Literacy is at the foundation of just about everything you do and very much so in what you do as a job.”

The first Writers for Readers event was composed of a reception in the evening at the organization president’s house, followed by a luncheon the next day at the Carolina Inn. The format continued that way for several years before the reception was moved to Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery and now The Carolina Club.

Denson said the event now usually attracts about 200 to 250 attendees, with 2019 ticket prices selling for $125. There are four ranks of sponsors for the event, with certain perks such as signed copies of the featured authors’ books and recognition in promotional materials. The four ranks are reader, writer, editor and publisher, costing $1,000, $2,500, $5,000 and $10,000 respectively.

This year’s format is a deviation from the norm, Denson said.

“It’s a little bit different than we have done in the past; we’ve generally had a larger panel. It hasn’t been as much of an interview. This is almost a conversation between them," she said. "So I’m looking forward to this new format this year.”

Nichol, a distinguished professor of law at UNC, was also the director of the UNC Poverty Center for seven years until it was shutdown by the Board of Governors for being overly critical of the governor and the General Assembly, according to Nichol's website. 

Grisham will interview Nichol about his book, "The Faces of Poverty in North Carolina: Stories from Our Invisible Citizens." Nichol said he was glad to accept the invitation to be interviewed at the event.

"It raises awareness for Orange Literacy, and it raises money to help support their good efforts, which are very strongly volunteer-based, and I’m very grateful that John Grisham is playing a role," Nichol said. "That I think will help raise the visibility of poverty issues across North Carolina because of Grisham’s deserved high profile.”

Nichol’s book is about poverty in North Carolina and the challenges of low-income and marginalized people. Though it is not a book that is principally about literacy, he thinks low literacy rates can create a substantial barrier to economic prosperity.

“I just think that, first of all, that Orange Literacy is a terrific story in its own right. People coming together to form, in this case, a nonprofit which uses terrific volunteers to reach out and help those who are willing to work hard and willing to learn but face real challenges,” he said.

Nichol said he thinks poverty, economic challenges and marginalization are the largest issues that people face in North Carolina, but they are rarely talked about in politics or in the public sphere.

“Orange Literacy is a great exemplar of people working hard to combat the challenges that folks often face,” he said. 

Denson said it was her decision to bring in Nichol and talk about his book.

“I heard that he was writing a book, and it’s so apropos to what we do," Denson said. "His people are our people, and it just seemed right.”

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