Lindy Whiton, a co-founder of The Literacy Project and the first Executive Director, earned her doctoral degree from the UMass-Amherst School of Education. Before taking the job at Greenfield Community College which ultimately led her to found The Literacy Project, her teaching background was with elementary school students. Here she reflects on the excitement and energy that fueled the early days of the organization.
I remember it [the beginning of The Literacy Project]. I was lying in bed one morning. And it was, like, September of ‘83. And the phone rang. And this man says, “May I speak with Lindy Whiton please?” And I said “I’m Lindy Whiton.” “Well my name is Bob Keir and I’m the Dean of Continuing Education at Greenfield. We’ve recently gotten a grant to help adults learn to read. And I’ve been told that you’re the person to do the job.” So I went for an interview and took the job.
They were very excited about having a reading specialist. But I didn’t know anything about teaching adults. They had no resources. They had no idea where to get resources. And it was three classrooms full of people, one in Orange and two in Greenfield.
It was a17-week grant. And then all of a sudden, the money was gone. So then the Greenfield Community College Foundation put up the money to pay my salary for the spring semester of 84. And then we were cut off.
Jim Vaughan [who had been volunteering as a tutor] got laid off from his job. I didn’t have a job anymore. So the two of us just said, “Let’s just do it.” We took $500 out of my bank account. We got a credit line, you know, using some stock as backup. They let us use this credit line to start a new business.
Almost immediately, we opened up Northampton, too. And we opened the Ware Site on a DOE grant. We had people on staff pretty fast. There was a period of time in which it felt like it was growing too fast. Like, “What have we done?”
Those were exciting years. And I think they were based on passion. “We can change our world, and this works, and look what we’re doing.” You listen to those early students and you hear it. And it was happening to us, too. I mean, we were learning right along with them. I learned huge amounts of stuff.
There were just tons of people and tons of people passionate, and tons of people learning. There were people learning how to read and write and getting their GED, but there were also people learning how to write grants and do this and that. We had a good time. We also made each other nuts.
Jimmy had outrageous energy. There is no way in hell The Literacy Project would have happened without Jimmy. Jimmy had this outrageous energy and passion to get it done. And he pushed us. And he was a good teacher in a lot of ways, because he understood students. He was one of them. And they loved him. And then there was Phil [Rabinowitz] who was sort of the dad or counselor. He was sort of the steady one and kept a little sanity. He got swept up in it, too, but he had some level of sanity. I think in those early days he kept us from going off the deep end.
Jim stood up there one day – I don’t know if it was a Chamber [of Commerce] breakfast or what – and said, “I want The Literacy Project to be as much a part of this community as the fire department. It’s as important. And I want this town to recognize it.” And that was a big deal.
A year later the Chamber of Commerce gave us an award for bringing the most money into one project. It put us in the limelight. We had to be serious. Our lives went from being sort of counter-cultural to being in the limelight.
Must have been November of ’87. It was like 8:30 in the morning, and the phone rings, and it’s some reporter from the Associated Press. And she says, “Is this Lindy Whiton?” I said, “Yes.” The Association for Community Based Education gave us an award as being one of the ten best programs in the country.
When [former Governor of Massachusetts] Mike Dukakis announced he was running for President, he announced “Barriers to Success” and one of them was literacy. And he did it at the Orange site, and I was the co-speaker with him. He had created the Commonwealth Literacy Campaign by that time, which was all volunteers. And I stood up and gave this speech against it. It was a diplomatic speech, but it did say that volunteers can’t be expected to do this. This is a serious issue. People need to be trained to do this. Volunteers can be a big help, and we’re really thankful to them, but we need money to support professionals.
There were just tons of people who did tons of work with us. I don’t think that has changed. It has maintained some really important ingredients that I think have been there from the beginning. That sense of community, I think, is very much there. I think that understanding that everybody’s learning together.
Learning does not happen in isolation. There is a social context to learning. Learning is something that happens interactively. You have to interact with something in order to learn it. And if you create a community of learners, you also teach people how to be a member of a community. And that spreads out of the walls of that classroom into the larger community
You can’t learn to read and write if you’re smack in the middle of some major crisis. You can be recovering from a crisis, but if you’re in the middle of it… And if you were in the middle of it when you were six… if your life was a crisis when you were six, when people were starting to teach you how to read and write, you associate [learning with] that crisis.
Teaching people to read and write is going to change people’s lives, and it’s going to change them abruptly. One of the things that happens is when people start having success, there’s a stage which they have to go through in which they sabotage themselves. I have lots of examples of students who got to that point, and I wished I had had the key to give them to say, “You don’t need to do this to yourself.” There are some of them that come back, and they get all the way through the process. And others dig the hole deeper. I wish that, as a field, we’d understand that more and find strategies to help people go through it.