Tracy Swinton Bailey, PhD, FOREVER FREE

Tracy Swinton Bailey, PhD, FOREVER FREE

“I realized that being a good reader and helping other people read well is a political act. You take a stand in society when you decide to chase after that.” Along with instilling a lifelong love of reading, Tracy Swinton Bailey’s father taught her how powerful literacy could be, which inspired her to start the literacy nonprofit Freedom Readers in 2010. Tracy talked with Zibby about her memoir, Forever Free, the incredible results Freedom Readers has produced, and how the group plans to grow in a post-pandemic world. Listeners can get involved at


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Tracy. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Forever Free: A True Story of Hope in the Fight for Child Literacy.

Tracy Swinton Bailey: Zibby, I am super excited to be here. Thank you for this opportunity to talk about the work and to get to know you a little bit better.

Zibby: Thank you. As I mentioned to you over email before we did this, I was just so moved after reading this about all of your pioneering work and how to really tackle child literacy, not that you’re the only one out there. I know so many people are focused on this very, very important, fundamental-to-our-society issue. The way that you’ve done it and the way you’ve taken it on yourself and your backstory, all of it is so inspiring. I was just so moved. Thanks.

Tracy: Thank you for those kind words. I really appreciate it. When you’re working on something like this and you feel like you’re doing it a little bit in obscurity, then when you’re doing your writing, it always feels good to know that it connects with someone. Thank you so much for sharing that.

Zibby: Sure. Would you mind telling listeners a little about Forever Free, about Freedom Readers, about how you ended up in your leadership position at this nonprofit, but also how you ended up making it into a book? So, the whole thing.

Tracy: Forever Free is a memoir. It’s a call to action. There are lots of stories in the book about how I fell in love with reading when I was a little girl, mostly because of the way my father nurtured me around books, read to me every night before I went to bed. He was a person who never had the opportunity to finish high school but really understood the importance of literacy, reading. He told me that his mom taught him to read before he entered school. He was very, very focused on making sure that that was something that I enjoyed when I was growing up. Having that background, having that foundation led me through a life of loving books and wanting everybody to understand how important it is to not only learn to read, but to love reading and understand how reading can open doors for us. As an adult, I realized that being a good reader and helping other people read well is a political act. You kind of take a stand in society when you decide to chase after that. I was an English teacher. I loved being in the classroom. Still there, I was trying to share that love with young people around books that I hadn’t necessarily chosen, books that probably were not my favorite, weren’t their favorites. When I had the opportunity to open the world and let kids choose their own books and practice what they knew about reading from school, then I definitely started to seize that opportunity.

Zibby: I thought it was so interesting, by the way, how when you were teaching, you pushed back on your assignment as a brand-new teacher to teach the most challenged readers, the most, not impaired, but the lowest-level reading group or the most problematic students. You were like, I’m a new teacher. Shouldn’t I be with the easiest students? They already know what they’re doing. Why do you put all the new teachers with the hardest students? They should get the best teachers. You sort of hit up against that wall repeatedly. Tell me a little about that.

Tracy: When I think about education and I think about the way that teachers are assigned, I absolutely believe that those teachers who have the most experience, who have been recognized for being the most successful with students, those are the teachers that should be paired with the kids that need them the most. When I walk into classrooms around the country, I rarely see it roll out that way. I see the newer teachers being placed with the kids who need the most instruction. It didn’t seem quite fair. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Zibby: The fact that throughout all these examples in your career you don’t just take it, you push back against all of it, it’s great. You could easily have just thought that and not said anything or done anything. Yet you end up getting to be teaching the higher group in the next paragraph, essentially.

Tracy: It does turn out that way. In the moment, though, Zibby, I have to tell you that it doesn’t always feel like it’s great. It feels like a thousand knots in your stomach. It feels like, am I the person to really say this thing, to really bring up this issue? I was told this is the way that things have always been done. I’ve always been a questioner. I’ve always been a person who wanted to know, just because it’s always been done this way, does that mean it’s the best way for us to continue doing it? So here we are.

Zibby: I’ve been raising questions like that with regard to book publishing and distribution. I keep getting that same thing too. This is how it’s done. This is how the whole thing work. I’m like, does it have to be done this way? Nobody wants to hear it. Nobody wants to shake that. For whatever it is you pick where you see something inefficient or something you can improve, it’s not often met with such joy by the people who are instituting that system day in and day out. That’s what they do. I guess if you question it to them, what does that do to what they do, then, all day? It makes them have to question. That’s just too much work and effort and soul-searching, perhaps.

Tracy: It’s hard. That was why it made such a difference to me to have the example of Frederick Douglass. I’ve read a lot of Douglass biographies. Read his autobiography. I just really take a lot of strength from his story because it seemed as if he was a person that was questioning day and night and would not give up. He was relentless. It may not have seemed that way to him, but looking back at what he was able to accomplish in his life, he was one of the single most important people in our country’s history to help our country see what she could be.

Zibby: As you say, that’s why you named your nonprofit Freedom Readers, based on freedom writers.

Tracy: Right, and based on the fact that he said once you learn to read, you are forever free. Hence the name of the book.

Zibby: There we go. You had a great line, let me see if I can find it now, about helping others. I’ll just start over here. “These mentors, these books of mine spoke in no uncertain terms about the value system that should guide a life worth living. From an early age, my moral compass was set toward considering the most vulnerable members of the community. Through a confluence of situations and explicit instruction, I internalized a lesson that would shape my entire life. How we treat those with the least power and influence will ultimately define us.” I love that. We should all have that be our battle cry and think about how society would function if that were the case.

Tracy: I think it’s so important. It’s the way I was raised. I was just raised in a community where if we had something, our neighbors had it. If my parents grew it in their garden, they made sure to pick an extra bucket and leave it on the front porch of a cousin or a friend. It was the code that we lived by. We were always looking out for another one. That’s just the lens with which I viewed my life and my career.

Zibby: By the way, this is probably completely inappropriate to say, but I was talking to someone who mentioned that a university they’re involved with was looking for a new university president who had a PhD and this, that, and the other thing. I was like, “You should talk to this woman who just wrote this book.” They were like, “Why would an author –” I’m like, “No, no, she’s not author. She’s an educator. She could do it.” Anyway, I don’t know if you have any interest in running a major university. Let me know. I can put you in touch.

Tracy: Oh, my goodness, Zibby, it’s amazing that you would even say that. I just really feel like the people who end up in those positions are the people who have been on that track their entire lives. In some cases, I really feel like in order to for us to get to where we need to go, we need to shake that up a little bit. We need to invite some people in with some fresh ideas and some fresh perspectives because I think sometimes, we get tunnel vision. We only see what’s right in front of us. Thank you for that nod. I appreciate that vote of confidence.

Zibby: You would be interested, right? I’m going to see if I can throw your name in the hat. We’ll see. Not that I’m so influential, but at least get you on people’s radar at this particular place. So what was the process of writing this book like for you? How did it feel to go back into your childhood and outline everything you’ve done and all of that? Did you end up feeling really proud at the end? What was it like?

Tracy: I’ll tell you, Zibby, that I wrote a novel back in 2014. My novel, it came as a result of missing my family when I was at Harvard with my husband when he was doing his Neiman Fellowship. It captured my community. I used a very small publisher. I may have had about five hundred copies printed. I was thinking about writing a sequel to that novel and reached out to my husband’s publisher. She said, “Wait a minute, I read about you in his book. I know that you’re doing some great work. Why don’t you think about telling the world about your work?” That’s how we got started on this journey together.

Zibby: I did notice you two had the same publisher.

Tracy: Absolutely. I’ll forever be grateful to her for making that suggestion. Going back through some of these stories starting with my childhood, some of it was great. Some of it was not so great. There are some moments in there that were some kind of traumatic and scary moments for me. It was difficult to tell those stories, to put my business in the street, as they say sometimes. I do believe it’s very important for those of us who have a platform to use it to really help other people understand how important it is for us to stand for what’s right, to really understand that fighting for the least of these is some of the most important work that we can do. If I can help other people realize that, embrace literacy, get it out into the communities, especially now in this semi-post-COVID America, then I will have done what I was supposed to do.

Zibby: Explain your way of making childhood literacy — how changing how it’s taught — tell us your approach to doing that and how people listening can help.

Tracy: Our approach, it’s really simple. We try to go to where the kids are. We started out in their communities. It so happened that we started in — the housing authority invited us in. By going there, it says something to families, it says something to children about our commitment to helping them reach their full potential and reach their goals. We also recruit people from our community who love reading and love children. Some of them are attorneys. Some are doctors. Some are judges, just people that these kids may not have had the opportunity to encounter in another space. We develop a program that’s about ninety minutes once a week. We choose a theme for each one of our sessions. A session might be about ten weeks long. We start out with a theme song. We look at videos. We have discussions about that particular theme. Then we give the scholar and the tutor forty-five minutes to read together from a book the child might choose and from the book a tutor might choose that will help them kind of stretch their reading abilities just a little bit. The end of all of these meetings comes around when a child is given the opportunity to make a speech about something that we ask them to talk about. We teach them about making eye contact and projecting their little voices. This is where we see the most growth, where we see them really come out of their shells and really practice what they’re about, expressing themselves. They pick up a brand-new book on the way home to build their home libraries. Then they come and see us again the next week.

Zibby: It’s so great. You let them keep the books, right?

Tracy: Absolutely. They read to their little brothers. They read to the cat. They read to their Barbie dolls. They read to their parents. We’re hopeful that they’ll take those books and read them every day and just fall in love with being able to satisfy the curiosity, being able to travel to different places within the pages of those books. We hope that their lives and their homes are enriched by those books that they take home every week.

Zibby: I was literally just saying that. I interviewed earlier this morning, Joan Silber. Part of her novel took place in Bangkok. I was like, thank you. I’ve never been there before. Now you took me there yesterday. You didn’t even know, but you did. Now I know what it’s like a little more. I get to feel like I experienced some of that just by opening the book.

Tracy: It’s magic. It really is magic. That’s the kind of thing that I don’t want kids to miss out on because there are standardized tests or because there are worksheets or because somebody feels as if they’re not where they need to be. I want them to experience that magic of being transported to a different time and place. Research tells us it’s a stress-reliever. It can help you sleep better. It’s important.

Zibby: That is my main stress-combatant. I don’t know what I would do. That’s the key to my mental health, is reading. I know, obviously, this is such a huge problem. Not being able to have that, it just seems so fundamental, such a fundamental skill that everyone should have. How many communities are you in now? What’s your vision for the organization going forward?

Tracy: We started in two communities in 2010. Right before we shut down for the pandemic, we were in twenty communities. Right now, we are back up to four. Gradually, bit by bit, we’re hoping that we’ll be able to get back to that number of twenty and beyond. Our vision is to expand as far as possible. As long as there are kids who need books in their hands and need to experience the freedom that comes along with reading, then we’ll continue to do the work. We’ll continue to keep pushing.

Zibby: How can people get involved if they are so moved after hearing this?

Tracy: They can absolutely reach out to us at our website, which is They’ll find out more information about what we’re doing there. They can contact us and get involved that way.

Zibby: And they can read your book, Forever Free, and learn even more. There we go.

Tracy: Absolutely. I hope you do. I hope you like it.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Tracy: My advice for aspiring authors would be, keep going. Keep writing. Keep doing it every day. Keep reaching out to the people who are doing what it is that you want to do. Absolutely every day, keep reading. Read good writing. That’s my advice.

Zibby: I love it. Tracy, thank you. Thank you so much for chatting with me today, for all the work you do on behalf of so many people. I can’t even imagine the impact. What you’ve decided to do with your life and how many people that that’s helped, it’s so cool. Thank you. It was a pleasure chatting with you. Now I’m going to send a little email. Next thing you know, you’ll be running half the country. There you go.

Tracy: Thank you, Zibby. Like I said earlier, I appreciate the vote of confidence. I think I’ll stay in my lane for right now. I really loved getting to talk with you today. Thank you for the opportunity.

Zibby: You too. Have a great day.

Tracy: Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Tracy Swinton Bailey, PhD, FOREVER FREE

FOREVER FREE by Tracy Swinton Bailey, PhD

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