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SETH | Larissa Gerstel Critical Literacy Collection and Endowed Fund

The Larissa Gerstel Critical Literacy Collection is housed in the American University Bender Library Curriculum Materials Center. The Center gives students, children, parents and the community a safe, comfortable space for reading multicultural books that deal with critical literacy and issues of social justice and equity.

Thanks to a generous donation from her family, the Larissa Gerstel Critical Literacy Endowment now helps to fund the Collection.


“Aching with caring” is how Mem Fox, children’s author and writing professor, described how deeply some of her students felt about their writing.

In my first semester as a professor at American University, I met a student like those Professor Fox described, someone who passionately cared about her work exposing injustice, even fighting when necessary for what she believed in her heart to be fair and equitable, despite opposition at times from classmates. That person was the late Larissa (Rozek) Gerstel.

I remember well a report she gave on what it means to be literate. For this assignment, Larissa critically analyzed the National Museum of African Art—its location, size, and darkness—framed from the perspective of social justice and equity. Some of her classmates challenged her views, suggesting they were tainted by her quest for social justice. But to Larissa, what anyone said did not matter. She stood her ground, believing her views reflected what was fair and just. I was so proud of Larissa that day. It was after that class that we had the first of what would be many, many chats about life and children and what we hoped for the future.

In addition to her course work, Larissa worked with me to develop the Educators for Critical Literacy (ECL) D.C.–Area Student Affiliate, a group associated with the National Council of Teachers of English. ECL over the years has organized and hosted events such as the Prevent Child Abuse and Youth Leadership workshops, Critical Literacy conferences, and a workshop on violence against women. The group has also participated in events such as book drives for underprivileged children and Hands on DC. As part of ECL, Larissa worked hard to reach out to local community organizations to make literacy a central component of children’s lives.

Even though she graduated in spring 2000, we have always remembered her as someone who embodied the mission of the school, living and acting on the beliefs she espoused. For those of us whose lives she touched in the School of Education, Teaching, and Health, we received the news of her passing with a heavy heart. With a desire to be true to Larissa’s spirit, we knew that we, too, needed to act on our beliefs, to in some way show our appreciation for Larissa and the impact she made on those who had had the pleasure of working with her.

To honor Larissa’s work and her contributions to literacy, the school, in concert with AU’s library and in consultation with Larissa’s family, has begun building the Larissa Gerstel Critical Literacy Collection. This collection, is housed in the university library, gives children a safe, comfortable space for reading multicultural books that deal with issues of social justice and equity.

All of us in the school are proud to say that Larissa was one of our kids, so we are thrilled with these plans to commemorate her work at AU and her contribution to the lives of the children with whom she worked. In a sense the center is a celebration of Larissa’s passion.

In April 2007, we will be opening the center. We would love to have you come and celebrate Larissa’s work with us.

-- Dr. Vivian Vasquez, PhD, Associate Professor, 2006


We hope you will consider making a donation in support of the Larissa Gerstel Critical Literacy Collection and Endowed Fund. Please go to the AU giving page and make a gift to the Area/School of the University Library and then to the Larissa Gerstel Endowed Fund.

If you have suggestions for books or materials for the collection, please send an e-mail to Dr. Vasquez at vvasque@american.edu. To learn more about Larissa, please go to her memorial webpage.


*Mem Fox, “Notes from the Battlefield: Towards a Theory of Why People Write,” Language Arts, vol. 65, no. 2 (1988).