Maine, Thankfully: Teyonda Hall, Director of LearningWorks’ Literacy Volunteers Greater Portland

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For today’s installment of Maine, Thankfully, I talked with Teyonda Hall, Director of LearningWorks‘ Literacy Volunteers Greater Portland. LearningWorks is a not-for-profit umbrella community organization. Hall’s focus is on literacy, of course, and her the programs she oversees include efforts focused on family literacy, reading and mentoring for elementary school aged children and immigrants, and some alternative education programming.

Another Maine, Thankfully interviewee, Caseylin Darcy, put me in touch with Hall and I couldn’t be happier that she did. She was delight to talk with, and it is clear that Hall finds joy and fulfillment in her work. Her job is easy, she says, because everyone she works with is ultimately aspiring for success and she is simply there to help empower them to achieve it. We talked about how she found herself focused on community education and development, the importance of empowerment, and more.

What draws you to this sort of work? I think a lot of people might look at the work you are doing with admiration but then also assume that it is both rewarding and sometimes overwhelming.

When I thought about what I was going to go to school for and what I was going to focus my professional life on, I really struggled. I played with a couple of different ideas. My mother is a therapist and she was asking me all of these questions. What it had boiled down to was I really wanted my life to be about something that makes a difference. Growing up, I really benefited from people taking the time to invest in me, saw and nurtured my potential, and who just helped me to realize that I could be more than my circumstances. When I thought about what I wanted to do, I thought I really wanted to be in a position to do those kinds of things.

I have done a lot of different kinds of work. When you work in social services, you end up developing a lot of different kinds of transferable skills. You end up moving in all sorts of directions. I have always been privileged to be positioned to offer an encouraging voice for people have not had a lot of encouragement or are really going through a lot and needing that encouragement.

What are some things about your work that inspire you?

I am the Director for the program and so my job is to facilitate the work of other people. I work with my teachers and volunteers who are working with populations of students made up of immigrants and refuges and folks who are native English speakers who maybe don’t read so well. My job is to coach them and give them the resources they need to be successful. What I love is when we hear those success stories that remind we are on the right track, that this is the right thing to be doing right now. That feels really good.

My family literacy program is really focused on work with students who are in the most need. Specifically, it is largely made up of kids from other countries who never learned how to read or write in their own language. They come here, they are trying to learn how to figure out the culture, learn about the language, and they are trying to figure that out with this reading and writing thing that we do and that they didn’t have access to. In my work with those people, we’re trying to teach the ABCs and also how to get and keep a job. The thing that I always love is when my students pass their citizenship test. You cannot imagine how happy they are to become US citizens. Or when they are able to fill out job applications and start to apply for jobs. That’s an accomplishment.

We also have students who leave their countries with college degrees and they are trying to figure out how to make lives for themselves and for their families and we work with them. When they get jobs—when they get their feet on the ground—those are the moments where I think “Okay, we have helped this person cultivate the tools they need to be successful in the world.” If you do that, you can help someone live a dignified life. That sounds pie-in-the-sky and a little bit rosey-eyed to say something like that, and I can be as cynical as the rest of ’em, but one of the things that I know is that the people that I work with do not want to be using benefit services. They do not want to be living a life made up of subsisting in a variety of ways. They want to live a dignified life and in order to do that, they have to learn some stuff. Part of that process in and of itself is rewarding. You can help do something that seems so basic and unsexy but that is also lifelong and lasting.

What is an aspect or element of your work that you find you don’t get to discuss or underscore as much as you wish you could?

The people that we work with in all of our programs, from the kids to the adults, are people who envision a life for themselves where they are healthy and happy and providing for their families just like everybody else. Our goal is to help them to put themselves in those positions. Everything about those pursuits is good and worthwhile. When people ask about our students and programming, they are so focused on the deficits—what our students need to learn—and not on all of the gifts that they bring with them to all of our different communities. If anybody out there is interested in getting involved in this education work, they should jump at the chance to do so. Being a part of the lives of people who want nothing but to be successful is the best kind of work that you can do. You don’t have to fight people on anything, they just want to succeed. They are so hungry for that. Sometimes what they need is just someone to say they they can do it, or to show them how, or to share the resources and go through it with them. This organization partners with all of these people to figure out how to be successful in their own lives. There is something about that that is really cool and awe inspiring.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.