Last month, I enjoyed the opportunity to attend the first-ever International Literacy Association (ILA) conference in St. Louis, Missouri. Throughout the weekend, it was clear that the newly branded 60-year-old organization, formerly known as the International Reading Association, is excited and passionate about its transformation and future as the leading worldwide community for literacy professionals. Their membership consists over 300,000 literacy educators, researchers, and experts across 75 countries, with the mission “to empower educators, inspire students, and encourage leaders with the resources they need to make literacy accessible for all.”

This first ILA conference was held in July so more teachers could attend, and I spoke with several first-time attendees who were pleased about the opportunity for professional development during the summer. At the Opening General Session on Saturday morning, ILA Board of Directors President Jill Lewis-Spector pointed out that half of attendees this year were first-timers. And the multitude of accents around the room, ranging from the voices of Australians and New Zealanders — well-known for some innovative approaches to reading and literacy education — to the variety of African, Asian, Central and South American, European, Canadian, and regional U.S. inflections, made it clear that the ILA membership is truly global.

On that international note, we were inspired by an opening talk from activist Shiza Shahid, who spoke about the importance of education and literacy in the lives of children everywhere — particularly girls in regions of the world where their schooling sadly is restricted.

During the summer of her sophomore year as a full-scholarship student at Stanford University, Shahid returned to Pakistan to work at a confidence-building educational retreat with then 12-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who later became the co-winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize — at age 17! The two young women, together with Malala’s father, have founded the Malala Fund and travel the world supporting the right of all children and young people to education. Shahid drove home the importance of what conference attendees do when she told us that as literacy professionals “You are the guardians of our combined human advancement.”

Through literacy education, people can be empowered to rise above the circumstances into which they are born. “Literacy is not something you can dip into and dip out of,” said Shahid. A focus on one important goal enables people to gain a depth of understanding and really make a difference. Participating in the standing ovation that Shahid’s speech invoked, I felt renewed in my resolve to provide Questar’s customers with focused and meaningful professional learning workshops around Questar’s literacy assessments. Together, we can improve the literacy of many young people — and make a real, measureable difference in the world!

P.S. If you are a literacy professional, I’d encourage you to learn more about ILA and get involved.