Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Todd Elliott

Full disclosure: I've been friends with Todd Elliott and his wife Kathleen for years. Todd and I met in a nonprofit management program in 2003, shortly after he became director of the Adult Literacy and ESOL Program at Greater Homewood Community Corporation.

In addition to being a devoted educator, Todd is an enthusiastic outdoorsman, a talented nature photographer, a fan of live theater and the symphony, and an irredeemable film buff.


As a young graduate student, Todd Elliott never imagined would end up running an adult education program in Baltimore.

"I wanted to be a film critic," laughs the 41-year-old Cedarcroft resident. He attended Penn State to pursue a degree in media studies, a field he sardonically describes as one "where you talk a lot about movies, but don't actually make them."

That goal changed when he read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Brazilian education theorist Paulo Freire. The book, considered a classic by adult educators, argues that literacy is essential for the individual and social liberation of marginalized peoples.

The idea was a transformative one for Elliott, who summarizes Freire's thesis bluntly: "there are far too many adults who don't know how to read." Consequently, "they're disenfranchised, they can't participate in civil society. In Freire I saw the connection between education, media, and civic engagement."

This realization kindled a passion for pedagogy in Elliott, who joined the Peace Corps after graduation and soon found himself in Slovakia, teaching English to adults. After their two-year stint in the Peace Corps ended, he and his then-wife moved to Baltimore, where she enrolled in the University of Maryland School of of Social Work.

Growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, Elliott was familiar with Baltimore's dubious reputation in other parts of the country. So he was pleasantly surprised when he discovered Baltimore to be "a really cool area."

"I love being so close to the water and the mountains," says the avid hiker, canoer, and cyclist. "There's so much to do here." Asked to name one pet peeve about the city, Elliott ponders a while before responding. "I guess I would have to say the state of the roads," he muses. "But that's been the worst of my experience here. I mean, I've never been mugged or robbed!"

Soon after settling in Maryland, he found work teaching GED prep to adults at the Young Parent Support Center in Baltimore County. He stayed there for four years, eventually becoming the adult education coordinator. During that time, he became increasingly convinced that teaching adults to read was a calling, not just a job. When the position of director of Adult Literacy and English for Speakers of Other Languages at the Greater Homewood Community Corporation opened, he siezed the opportunity.

"The majority of the learners at Greater Homewood are between 30 and 60, with the average age being 45," explains Elliott. "Most of them have really struggled...I try to show respect for people's ability to say, 'I can't read, will you help me?'"

Like Paolo Freire, Elliott sees illiteracy as part of a larger set of social problems. "Thirty percent of Baltimore City kids don't have a diploma," he says, leaning forward. "Mostly that's due to lack of resources." He views adult literacy as a necessary component of a "community infrastructure where people feel safer and have more options."

Despite the daunting nature of the challenges facing Baltimore, Elliott finds reasons for optimism.

"Baltimore has a lot to offer," he says. "Its best hope and resource are its people: people who care what happens to their neighbors, individuals who reach out to one another."

In addition to teaching, one of the ways that Elliott has chosen to reach out is through lobbying. He serves as president of the Maryland Association for Adult Community and Continuing Education (MAACCE), which advocates at the state level for more resources to support literacy, GED preparation, ESOL, and other adult education services. Elliott's longtime involvement with MAACCE has given him a nuanced perspective on the legislative process.

"I like to think there is altruism among political leaders," he reflects. "They have a hard job and I don't envy them. I'm encouraged that people want to step up."

As much as he enjoys policy work, Elliott feels most at home in the classroom, working with adult learners.

"I'm never bored," he grins. "What I like most about my job is working with adults who are trying to improve their lives, watching them make progress, watching the change in their faces."

For Elliott, the benefits of adult education extend well beyond test scores. "A lot of what we do [with the learners] is around self-confidence," he says. "Adult education can be the first line in helping people build that...we smile at them, we give them hope. And that's when things start to change."

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