On Wednesday, April 18th, second year Literacy*AmeriCorps member Gretchen Jacobs got to sit down with Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council’s Executive Director, Don Block and ask him some questions about his background, his work at GPLC, and his hopes for the future. Don Block has been the recipient of many significant honors while serving as the Execuitve Director of GPLC including recently being named to Governor Corbett’s panel on secondary education, receiving the Wishart Award for Excellence in Nonprofit Management, and being honored nationally as an Outstanding Administrator of Adult Education. Don holds a master’s degree from Indiana University, Bloomington, and has served in the Peace Corps.
Gretchen Jacobs: When did you become the Executive Director of GPLC? What were you doing before joining GPLC?
Don Block: 1984. So, I’ve been here 28 years. I was coordinator of adult literacy for a public library system in a rural area about 60 miles north of Pittsburgh. I was hired by a public library system to start their adult literacy program from scratch and I did that for four years. It got me very familiar with a four county rural area. I traveled extensively around those four counties and I worked with something like 12 libraries.
GJ: Before that what were you doing?
DB: I was in the Peace Corps. I taught ESL in the Peace Corps and that influenced me very deeply as to what sector of education I was going to work in. I always wanted to be in education from a very young age. I knew I wanted to be in education. I started tutoring kids when I was about 13. I was tutoring other kids slightly younger than me. But, I didn’t know which part of education, whether I was going to teach high school or what I was going to do exactly. Peace Corps definitely had a big influence on me as to working with disadvantaged people. When I came back I did my master’s in English, which was maybe not necessary for my career but was a good way to readjust to being back in the country after a long time of being away.
GJ: Could you expand on telling me about your experiences in the Peace Corps?
DB: We went to a country called Niger, which is north of Nigeria. It has been in the news a little bit lately—some Libyans after the death of Qaddafi ended up in Niger and there’ve been some arms from Libya that ended up in Niger, unfortunately. Niger is one of the world’s poorest countries, I suppose. It had about a 5 million population when I was there, but it’s a much larger population now. The entire country had 29 secondary schools. I was sent to one of the secondary schools, which in the French system are called C.E.G.— Collège d’Enseignement Général—that’s basically an equivalent of grades 7 through 10. Elementary school is six years and the secondary school is 7 through 10. So, I was teaching ESL to kids from age 13 to 17 or something like that. We had a short two-month training in ESL methods and then we went straight out to the villages. This town that I was in was called Tessaoua and had about 20,000 people and a secondary school. I believe I was one of two Americans in the town. There was one other ESL teacher in the same town for one of the years. I’m not sure about both of the years. And then in a nearby, much more remote village was a forestry Peace Corps volunteer who was there to prevent the desert from encroaching by doing various forestry projects.
GJ: So, you were on a track to become an ESL teacher. How did you end up in a management position?
DB: I think I was open to both kinds of positions, but I did realize over time that the management part is much more suited to my personality. I think that the classroom teaching is better for extroverts, which I’m not. The high energy level required to teach for 5 or 6 hours up in front of people—that’s not me. I’m more of a writer, a sort of behind the scenes person, although I can do trainings and conduct meetings, but it doesn’t fit me well to do that for the entire work day. Also, I had a great interest in the whole management structure, which a lot of non-profit directors—this is over generalizing, but a lot of non-profit directors are really program area specialists and they would rather be with the client than with the board of directors or the management. I’m absolutely fascinated by the Board of Directors involvement—how to maximize the effectiveness of the Board Members who only have very small bits of time to give you, how you maximize their impact in these couple of hours a month that they might have to give you. I find that very satisfying, but I don’t think that’s true of a lot of non-profits. I think that there are some peers of mine who would rather not be spending their time with the Board and you’ve got all these standing committees of the Board who have to meet and how are you going to manage that, how is their meeting time not going to be wasted and all of that. That’s really interesting to me. It sounds boring to most people but, it’s because their heart is obviously with the client rather than the management.
GJ: Did you start out as the Executive Director here or did you have another position?
DB: Yes, but it was very small then. I mean, the founder started it in her home in the 70’s and in 1982 it got its first office. Its first staff was five VISTA volunteers because there was no money to hire professional staff. I followed immediately after the VISTA volunteers and then I kept one of the VISTA volunteers so we were a staff of two. Today, we’re 40. So, though my title has been the same for all that period it’s been a very, very different job as the organization has grown. I like to say it’s never the same organization two days in row.
GJ: What accomplishment as Executive Director means the most to you?
DB: Two things came to mind when you said that. We have a culture of continuous improvement and I’ve tried to foster that. I don’t see this in a lot of non-profits, frankly. It’s an organization that’s happy to revise everything, all of its procedures and all of its ways of doing things to make it better for the students. I’ve tried to bring that attitude toward the organization. The other is simply leadership. We have been able to become nationally known for leadership in this field. A lot of the things that we do here are being copied elsewhere, so that’s a good feeling.
GJ: What are your hopes for GPLC’s future and what projects are in the works?
DB: I think right now we’re very concerned with capacity. I mean, four or five programs in Pittsburgh closed. If you took their total enrollment that we lost to the system that’s roughly 1,500 students. We are working to figure out how we can make that capacity up. So, while that might not be considered a “new program,” we need to try to reach more people with the services we have now and strengthen what we have now. It’s been a tough funding environment for a few years and it’s been hard to grow but we’re trying to reach out and grow. We did start the GED testing here because there was just an absolutely crying need for more testing, not to have people sitting around on their hands waiting for 6 months for a seat to take the test. So those are a couple of new things, the GED testing and increasing capacity. We’re looking into being our own test center for GED rather than depending on some folks from Washington County to send someone up to administer the test because we’re not licensed yet. We’re in the licensing application process now. I think a lot of my work is directed toward public awareness. We need people to understand what we do more. That will draw more financial support if they truly understand what we do, so we’re trying to do some marketing and tell people about the successes we’re having here. I don’t know if that’s exactly a “new program” but it needs to be intensified and strengthened.
GJ: What are the biggest challenges GPLC is facing in the upcoming year and the years ahead?
DB: I could give you an hour or so on that—how can I be brief? Well, the government seems to be not as dependable with its support, so we have a strong initiative in gifts from individuals, private support. It takes quite a while and a lot of effort. You can’t get to a million dollars very quickly when you get it $50 at a time. But, you have to start. That’s part of what we’re about is the private giving. Other than that, I’d say strengthening the board and some succession planning because I’m not going to live forever. The board is pretty concerned with succession planning knowing that I’ve been doing this for 28 years. They’re saying, “Well, what happens next?”
GJ: Are you nearing retirement?
DB: I would say not immediately but maybe in the next 5 to 7 years, something like that.
GJ: Do you have any interesting hobbies that maybe your co-workers might not guess? What do you do on the weekends?
DB: Oh, I just like to putter around the yard and pull the weeds and make the yard look as nice as possible. Plant stuff—I don’t do vegetables at my current house, but we have some bushes and flowers and things. It keeps you busy. Occasionally, I play golf or go swimming.
GJ: What’s your personal favorite book? What would you read on the weekend?
DB: Well, I read a really broad range of stuff. I also have a very strong religious faith, so I read a lot of religious kinds of things. I couldn’t possibly survive in this work for 30 years without that. I’d be gone. But, I read a broad range of stuff. I have this Master’s in English so I’m interested in all sorts of literary kinds of things, 19th century novels and things. It’s very hard to pick one. I’m reading currently a novel called, “The Art of Fielding,” by Chad Harbach. It’s partly about baseball and it’s partly about growing up. That’s not really my favorite though. Other than that, I’m a news junkie. Every morning before I come to work, it’s The Post-Gazette and The New York Times and many evenings it’s more of The New York Times because it’s incredibly rich. I have traveled extensively and I’m very interested in certain things in Africa and Asia and other parts of the world. That’s very important for me. I also get The Economist magazine. Journalism is kind of “in the blood.” That’s what my family’s business is.
GJ: What book would you recommend to our AmeriCorps members?
DB: There was a time when I bought 20 copies of a book and gave it out to my entire staff. It was called, “Other People’s Words.” That’s very work-related. A researcher went into a family in Appalachia, somewhere near Cincinnati or maybe Kentucky somewhere. It’s not scholarly, it’s not boring—she just went into work with this 6-year old boy to work on his literacy skills and lo and behold, she ends up teaching the mother. The key to addressing the first grader’s literacy skills was addressing the skills of the mother and that was not what she expected to find out. She tells in great detail the kid’s progress and the mother’s and also, the whole value system around how literacy is viewed in that family, which was the little boy wanted to grow up and be like his father. But, what was it to grow up and be like his father? Well, he knew how to fish and he knew how to hunt and he was never ever seen with any print material in his hand. So, why bother with literacy because there was no role model? He wanted to grow up and be like Dad and Dad’s masculinity was defined for this child by knowing how to hunt and knowing how to fish and not about literacy. It’s quite fascinating.
GJ: What advice would you have for AmeriCorps members that might be approaching the end of their service terms?
DB: I guess a lot of the former members make their way into the non-profit sector in some form or another. Hopefully, this is a whole generation of people who will strengthen the non-profit sector going forward and we won’t have so much concern about the baby boomers who are going to retire. The concern is there’s going to be this huge wave of people who grew up in the 60s like me who were very inspired by social justice movements of the civil rights movement, et cetera and got into non-profits as a result of that and now they’re all going to finish their careers. We do need the folks coming up to take their places.