Shazam! Can comic books slay the high functional illiteracy rate in Mt. Pleasant?

Like the millions of moviegoers who saw "Black Panther" on its opening weekend in February 2018, Dawn Arrington was captivated by the film’s superhero story brought to life by a predominantly black cast.


But unlike most of those moviegoers, Arrington took it a step further to become a hero in her own right.


“There was such a sense of pride and excitement within the black community when "Black Panther" came out, but something was tugging at me,” shares Arrington, ioby’s Cleveland action strategist. “There are subtitles in the film because the characters speak in isiXhosa, a South African dialect—making it impossible for those who can’t read well to get the full experience of the movie.”

For Arrington, the issue of functional illiteracy hits close to home—literally. Arrington grew up in Cleveland’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, which is estimated to have an 85% functional illiteracy rate, and she now lives nearby in Buckeye.


“Literacy and literature are really huge for me and have made a difference in my life,” shares Arrington. “Poetry is my first love, but my kids are obsessed with comic books and graphic novels—so it just clicked that our family connects around reading those. I wanted to find a similar way to connect my neighbors and people I grew up with around literacy.”


Enter Comics at the Corner, an initiative Arrington started in late 2018 to distribute comic books and graphic novels throughout Mount Pleasant—with the hope that the books' visual nature could attract and support reluctant readers. After raising $3,141 through ioby, Arrington was able to distribute approximately 1,000 comic books throughout 2019 at places like Zelma Watson George Recreation Center and Edwins Restaurant.


With the help of Cleveland Heights-based Imaginary Worlds Comics, Arrington was able to compile a “huge variety” of comic books and graphic novels. The common thread is that all were written by and for people of color. Arrington also worked with the Cleveland Foundation to create a colorful one-page resource guide sharing information on local literacy resources and libraries.


“Being a black person in American requires superhuman strength in and of itself, so it was really important that the characters reflected who we are on their pages—not just superheroes, but black superheroes,” says Arrington, citing Miles Morales, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, and Cloak & Dagger as examples.


On the heels of the first round's success, Arrington is gearing up to do it all over again in 2020 with a new ioby fundraising campaign scheduled to conclude Feb. 7. Says Arrington, "The success of the project last year led me to realize that the work is not done, and more people in my neighborhood want to know about these characters."

The rest is still unwritten, indeed.

Jen Jones Donatelli
Jen Jones Donatelli

About the Author: Jen Jones Donatelli

As an enthusiastic CLE-vangelist, Jen Jones Donatelli enjoys diving headfirst into her work with FreshWater Cleveland. Upon moving back to Cleveland after 16 years in Los Angeles, Jen served as FreshWater's managing editor for two years (2017-2019) and continues her work with the publication as a contributing editor and host of the FreshFaces podcast.

When not typing the day away at her laptop, she teaches writing and creativity classes through her small business Creative Groove, as well as Literary Cleveland, Cleveland State University, and more. Jen is a proud graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.