See Joyce Run

By David Hill — November 01, 2000 21 min read
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I’ll just pull up here and start walking.” It’s a steamy Saturday morning in Little Rock, and Joyce Elliott, a 49-year-old high school English teacher making a run for the Arkansas state legislature, is ready to knock on some doors. She has chosen to canvass a slightly shabby neighborhood of small brick and clapboard houses several miles from downtown. “I would guess these people are middle- to lower middle-class,” she says as she parks her Mazda 626, with its “Building Better Schools: It’s Union Work!” bumper sticker, under a large magnolia tree. “They’re mostly white, except for certain streets,” she says. “I wanted to come here because these people have a history of being ignored.”

Joyce Elliot battled segregation as a teenager. As a teacher, she took on a powerful union. Now she’s making a bid to go from the schoolhouse to the statehouse.

Elliott, who is dressed comfortably in running shoes, black shorts, and a white tank top, grabs a handful of pamphlets (“Joyce Elliott for State Representative, District 56") and gets to work. Careful not to step on the grass, she walks up the driveway to a beige brick house and rings the doorbell. An elderly woman opens the door a crack.

“Good morning! I’m Joyce Elliott, and I’m running for the Arkansas legislature. It’s the position that . . .”

“I’m not registered to vote,” the woman says, cutting Elliott off. From the backyard, the sound of a dog’s barking fills the air.

Any seasoned politician will tell you that this is the moment when you’re supposed to say, “Thank you for your time” and go to the next house. But Elliott, an unabashed liberal Democrat who believes that politics can change people’s lives for the better, just can’t bring herself to do that.

“Would you like to be registered?” she asks.

“No, because I can’t see, and I don’t have a way to get anywhere. I’m by myself. And the doctor won’t let me drive, so I gave my car away.”

By now, it’s pretty obvious that this woman has no intention of ever voting in any election. But Elliott isn’t ready to give up. “Now, just for future use,” she says, “we can help you get registered and give you a ride to the polling place because you should not be cut out of the process just because you can’t get there.”

“Well, I’ve got other problems, too. I had both knees replaced, and I can’t walk very well without falling.”

“OK. But I just want you to know that there are people who can help you. Do you want me to look into it, to help you get registered?”

The woman points to some nasty-looking scratches on her arm and answers cryptically: “No. If something happens, I’m going to have to move from here.”

Elliott studies the scratches and asks, “Are those from falling?”

What inspired Elliott to become an educator? Her racist high school teachers: ‘I saw how much damage teachers could do, and I knew I could do better than that. It just became a mission for me.’

“No,” she laughs. “I was going to clean up my backyard, and my dog didn’t want me out there.”

“He attacked you?”

“No, he’s not bad. His bark is worse than his bite. I guess he figured I ain’t supposed to be out there, ‘cause I might stumble and fall, and then I’m down until somebody comes and helps me.”

“How long have you lived here?” Elliott asks.

“Thirtysomething years,” the woman says. “My husband used to work for the city, and he’s been gone 11 years. So I’ve been here 11 years all by myself.”

If Elliott keeps asking questions, she’s going to be here all day, listening to the woman’s life story. Finally, she says, “All right, then. You have a good day. I hope everything turns out OK. You be careful.”

The woman smiles and shuts her door. Her dog continues to bark.

“I run into that a lot, where people just want to talk,” Elliott says, moving on to the next house. “Sometimes they’re lonely. I was thinking to myself, This is a classic example of don’t waste your time. I mean, she told me she wasn’t registered to vote. But I couldn’t just walk away from her!”

Meet Joyce Elliott-teacher, union activist, and aspiring lawmaker. If elected on November 7—and her prospects look good—she won’t be the first educator to go from the schoolhouse to the statehouse. But what makes Elliott unusual is that she has no intention of leaving the classroom. She did that once before, for four long years, and she doesn’t want to do it again. And because the Arkansas state legislature convenes every two years for just 60 days, she won’t have to.

Which is good news for the students of Joe T. Robinson High School, where Elliott has taught since 1989. Located just outside the Little Rock city limits and roughly 15 miles west of downtown, the school serves about 500 students in grades 10-12. A quarter of Robinson’s students are African American, and many of those students are bused to the school from Little Rock’s inner city.

By most accounts, Elliott is one of the school’s best-and most popular- teachers. Fran Henderson, Robinson’s librarian, says: “It’s her ability to treat absolutely everyone with respect and dignity. I’ve never seen her treat anyone with anything less than that. . . . Joyce is the least cynical person I know.”

“She’s an inspiration,” adds math teacher Meredith Davis. “She’s an excellent role model. She looks like a professional, and she acts like a professional. Every minute that I’ve been in her room, she’s teaching. She makes the kids stretch their thinking. She makes them question what they’ve always thought. She’s good for them.”

“Miss Elliott has been the most influential person in my life,” gushes senior Ashley Cullum, who has gone door to door in the pouring rain to spread the word about her favorite teacher. “She’s just amazing. Her teaching style is really good, really interactive. We talk about issues and about life. She takes English and makes it the world.”

From the start of her career, Elliott has seen teaching as something that went beyond the classroom walls. “I never assumed that I would teach, go home, grade papers, and that would be it,” she says. “I wanted to be involved in making teaching better. And for me, the union was the way to do that.”

‘[Joyce] has the ability to treat absolutely everyone with respect and dignity. I’ve never seen her treat anyone with anything less than that.’

Fran Henderson,
Joe T. Robinson High School

In 1985, after about a decade in the classroom, Elliott was elected president of the National Education Association’s Pulaski County chapter, then the largest in the state. It was a job that required her full attention, so she quit teaching for her two two-year terms. “But I truly missed it,” she says. “There were people who just assumed I would go from that position directly into politics because it was very high profile. But I didn’t want to do that. Everybody was floored when I went back to the classroom.”

During her second term as Pulaski president, Elliott found herself increasingly disenchanted with the state’s NEA affiliate, the Arkansas Education Association. “I just thought we should be focusing a whole lot more on what teachers do in the classroom as opposed to just contracts and bargaining and so forth,” she says. “And I became disillusioned to the point where I began to look around to see what else was there.”

What she found was the NEA’s rival, the American Federation of Teachers, which, at the time, had embraced the school reform movement and was moving beyond its roots as an industrial-style trade union. To Elliott, the AFT, more than the NEA, represented the future of teacher unionism. But it had virtually no presence in Arkansas. Elliott proposed that her 1,200 colleagues in the Pulaski chapter join the AFT while maintaining their ties to the NEA. “I suggested that we join both organizations for a year,” she says, “see what they were like, and then make a decision.”

Not a chance, state NEA officials told her. So when Elliott’s tenure as Pulaski president ended, she and about 100 others left the NEA and aligned themselves with the AFT. They created a local chapter as well as a state affiliate, which Elliott has led since 1992. NEA state officials were not happy; though Elliott wanted to keep her membership with the group, she was promptly expelled. “They played hardball,” she says. “It got really ugly.” At one point, the group’s president called the AFT “a disease.”

Ten years later, the AFT counts just 400 educators in Arkansas—hardly a threat to the 17,000-member NEA affiliate—but there’s still bad blood between Elliott and her old group. In June, when she faced a runoff election in the Democratic primary, the affiliate announced it would endorse Elliott’s opponent, accountant Orville Abrams. “Some teachers,” the group’s president, Linda Pondexter, told a reporter from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, “just shouldn’t be in the legislature.”

Despite the snub, Elliott beat Abrams, narrowly, and now faces Republican candidate Herbert Broadway in the general election. District 56, which snakes around the city and includes neighborhoods that are black, white, rich, and poor, has traditionally gone Democratic, so Elliott is confident—though not too confident—that she’ll win on November 7. “This race is mine to lose,” she says. “If I don’t win this, then it’s almost like, ‘Well, you don’t have any hope, honey.’ ”

It was inevitable that Elliott would one day get into politics. “I have been a political hound since I was 9 years old,” she says. It was 1960, and John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were in a tight race for the presidency. On election night, Joyce, who lived with her mother, six brothers and sisters, and grandmother in the southwest Arkansas town of Willisville, stayed up late into the night listening to returns on the radio. “I remember going to bed with a transistor radio, trying to find out who won, and I fell asleep not knowing. I woke up in a funk the next morning, thinking, I don’t know what happened! And, of course, I wanted Kennedy to win.”

Oddly enough, no one else in her family had the slightest interest in politics. “I don’t know where I got this political gene,” she says, “because my family did not even vote. I’m not sure if anybody could even spell politics. I did not come from an educated family. We were very poor. But I was always a reader, and I was always interested in what was going on in the world.” Elliott’s grandmother subscribed to the Shreveport Times, and every morning they would read the news together while the others fought over the comics. “And because of that,” she says, “I began to realize early on how politics played a part in our lives.”

When Elliott was in 10th grade, politics became something more than what she read about in the papers. Willisville High School had remained segregated long after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. In 1966, however, as a result of a court order, the town’s K-12 school was forced to integrate. Boundaries were redrawn, and five black families— including Elliott’s—were enrolled in the school.

Elliott, her siblings, and the other black students—about 10 all together—were told that, after one year, they could return to the other school. The others went back, but Joyce and her siblings stayed at Willisville High. “It had become a cause for me, and I was determined to stay there,” Elliott says. “And I did, even though it was a grueling experience. I remember hearing teachers make remarks about ‘the nigger kids.’ The white students would call me names, and the teachers would hear them and do nothing and say nothing. I would raise my hand in classes and the teachers would look the other way. I got grades that I didn’t deserve—I know that now.”

Even after she was named first runner-up in a ‘southern belle’ beauty contest, Elliott got a letter that read ‘You’re still a nigger.’

Elliott graduated from Willisville High in 1969. The year before, her older sister had been the first African American to graduate from the school.

Surprisingly, it was the teachers at Willisville High—the ones who so casually used the word ‘nigger’ behind the black students’ backs—who inspired Elliott to go into education. “I saw how much damage teachers could do,” she says, “and I knew I could do better than that. It just became a mission for me.” Despite her growing interest in politics, she felt that teaching was where she could have the greatest impact on people’s lives.

When Elliott told her family that she wanted to go on to college, her uncle, who had given up on the South and its endemic racism and moved to Michigan, offered to pay for her education if she went to school in the North. He’d even throw in a car. “It was bribery, really,” she says. “And to this day, I don’t know how I had the strength to turn him down. But I said, ‘No, I want to go to school in the South, because this is where change needs to happen.’ But all he remembered was how awful it had been for him. And he said, ‘Well, if you do, I won’t help you.’ And he meant it. He did not help me.”

Elliott enrolled at Southern Arkansas University, about 20 miles away from Willisville in Magnolia, a school that had only recently begun to admit black students. “At the time,” she says, “the only income we had coming into my family was a welfare check.” A top athlete, Elliott thought she might earn a basketball scholarship—until she found out that girls didn’t get such things. She went to the financial aid office, explained her situation, and ended up tutoring the football players—many of whom had scholarships. “The irony of that,” she remarks, shaking her head.

At SAU, Elliott wasn’t the only black student—"I was in Africa, as far as I was concerned,” she says, “because I wasn’t used to seeing that many black kids!"—but racism was still a fact of life. During her junior year, someone nominated her for the school’s Miss Southern Belle pageant. “First, I thought, I’m not doing this,” she says. “It had always been a pageant for Southern white girls, and that offended me. Then I thought, I’ll go ahead and do it because somebody needs to contaminate it!” Elliott entered the contest almost as a joke. “It was like satire in action. And then, lo and behold, I got first runner-up! It was my most embarrassing moment.”

Things turned serious, however, when the local paper ran pictures of Elliott and the other winners. “I got tons of hate mail,” she recalls. “One man had cut out the picture and colored in my eyebrows and blackened out my teeth, and he wrote, ‘You might get your picture in the paper grinning from ear to ear, but you’re still a nigger, and don’t you forget it.’ I was stunned!

“I knew then that I would always be an activist, and I knew that I would run for political office some day. Government could work for the good and make a difference in people’s lives, because it did in mine.”

First, though, Elliott turned to teaching to empower other blacks. She majored in English and speech at SAU because those were the subjects she wanted to teach young black students. “I felt that standard English was the cash language,” she says. “It was power. And that’s what black students needed to learn to get ahead.” It was not a popular sentiment among African Americans in the early ‘70s, but Elliott never wavered in her conviction. And to this day, she considers herself a crusader for minority students. “As a young girl,” she says, “I wanted to change the world, and I’m still not convinced that I can’t.” In her windowless classroom at Robinson High, the walls are decorated with portraits of the usual suspects—Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, and John Steinbeck, to name a few. But Elliott has made sure to include pictures of a number of distinguished minority writers, including Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Sherman Alexie.

Running for office, Elliott is living out a dream, and she seems almost giddy about it. ‘I’m a romantic about politics,’ she says.

During her years in the classroom, she considered running for the legislature more than once, but the timing was never right. For one thing, she wanted to wait until her son, Elliott Barnes, was in college before devoting time and energy to politics. Two years ago, the teacher decided the time had finally come to pursue her dream. Her son had graduated from high school and was a student at the University of Arkansas, and her district’s state representative, Michael Booker, would be ineligible to run again because of term limits. And so, after school one day last April, Elliott drove to the statehouse and filled out a form stating her intention to run as the Democratic candidate for District 56 of the Arkansas House of Representatives. There was no press conference, no press release, no “big bells and whistles,” as she puts it. “I just drove home and went to work.”

“Joyce has always worked hard,” says her ex-husband, Bill Barnes. “She stands up for what she believes in, no matter what, even if it means standing alone. She has tenacity—she never gives up. She’ll do well in this campaign. She’s got a mission, and she will be working toward that, and she will give up her time. I know how she is. She’s been that way all of her life.”

Elliott’s political activism has taken several different forms over the years. As a union leader, she has lobbied state legislators to increase salaries for teachers. She serves on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which certifies outstanding teachers. Several years ago, she was invited by James Hunt, governor of North Carolina, to attend the National Education Summit, a meeting of governors and business leaders. (Incredibly, she was the only teacher there.) She has also campaigned on behalf of Bill Clinton, whom she first met when he was governor of Arkansas. When Clinton first ran for president, in 1992, Elliott appeared on an American Federation of Teachers video urging teachers to cast their votes for the Arkansas governor.

“I admire Bill Clinton a lot,” she says, “which is probably the most unpopular thing in the world to say these days. But I think he more than any other politician understands the difference between making sure somebody gets an opportunity rather than a handout. I think he distinguishes between those two things really well.” Still, Elliott admits she became less enthusiastic about the president as he moved toward the political center. She promises she won’t do the same. “For me, swallowing what I have to swallow to get there might mean that I won’t get there. Clinton does that almost too well. I think the same thing is true with Gore. His heart is in the right place, and I think that he will be a good president. But sometimes he’s too malleable.

“I’m a liberal and a feminist, and I’m not apologetic or abashed about either one of those things. And most politicians are. Even if they aren’t, it’s just not politically the thing to do. But I figure if I’m going to go down this political road, I’m going to go down this road honestly, with people really knowing who I am. I’m absolutely unwilling to be something I’m not.”

Despite her background as a teacher and a union activist, Elliott insists she is not a one-issue candidate. “I’m a person running for office who just happens to be a teacher,” she says. “I would be doing this if I were a firefighter. Education isn’t necessarily my main issue or focus. It just so happens that it’s a major issue everywhere right now. But I have other concerns—health care, for instance, and the wages that people are paid.”

Elliott’s platform is a straightforward liberal Democratic one. Her campaign literature, though somewhat vague on the issues, lists her three primary concerns: public schools, families and children, and economic justice. “Workers,” she believes, “must be paid salaries that will support families and be guaranteed the right to organize and join unions.”

Elliott is most familiar with education issues, and she intends to use her expertise to add some “authenticity” to the discussion.

Certainly, Elliott is most familiar with education issues, and she intends to use her expertise to add some “authenticity” to the discussion. “It’s the number one issue in the state,” she says, “there’s no question about it. And teacher salaries"—according to one study, Arkansas teachers earn an average of $32,350 a year, well below the national average of $40,528—"will probably be the first item to come up in the next session. We have a teacher shortage here, and one reason is that teachers are leaving the state because they can make more money elsewhere.”

Last spring, Governor Mike Huckabee, a Republican, called for a $3,000 across-the-board pay increase, to be phased in over the next two years, for Arkansas teachers. “But,” Elliott says, “teachers here can go to Dallas and get a $5,000 signing bonus! So $3,000 won’t do that much. It’s a nice start, but it’s not enough.”

As a candidate, Elliott knows her views will be scrutinized and occasionally misconstrued. She says, for example, that another of her goals is “to make people think in a more realistic fashion about standards and testing and what they really should do. They should not supplant learning. Yet we spend so much time shutting down learning to give tests. And it really is way out of hand.” Then, as if anticipating the criticism that may come from her statements, she adds: “But if you say there’s too much testing, you run the risk of having people think you don’t believe in standards, you don’t believe in accountability. That’s what you face.”

Walking down the street, Elliott spots a man unloading a lawnmower from a white pickup truck. “Hello!” she says as she hands him a pamphlet. “I’m Joyce Elliott, and I’m running for the Arkansas legislature.”

It turns out that the man, whose name is Jimmy Snell, doesn’t live in the neighborhood, and he doesn’t live in District 56, either. But Elliott has made a connection, and she seizes the moment. Handing him a pamphlet, she says: “I’d really like for you to take one of these and tell your friends about me. I’ve been active in this community for a long time.” Snell looks at the pamphlet, nods his head, and says: “I will. I’ve got a lot of friends.” They shoot the breeze for a while, and then it’s time for Elliott to move on to another block.

The fact is, as much as Elliott loves politics, she loves teaching even more, and she has no intention of giving that up.

“Someone like that guy, Jimmy Snell, he’s interesting to talk to,” she says as she gets into her car. “And he’s eager to talk. He’s not afraid. He said, ‘I’ll hook you up with some of my friends.’ Hey, all right! Hook me up, Jimmy!”

She pauses, then adds: “I really do enjoy this, but in a way, it’s weird. You go walking up to somebody who knows nothing about you, and you think, How is he going to react to a total stranger? And sometimes, honest to God, people come to the door, and they’re barely even clothed! But what’s really fun is when I knock on a door and somebody goes, ‘I was in your class!’ It’s happened more times than I can think of, particularly in the predominantly black neighborhoods. In those areas, it’s downright fun. It’s a whole different dynamic. In the evening, when kids are coming home and parents are coming home, there’s so much energy and animation. Everyone’s going, ‘You doing what? You the lady?’ And people are sitting on their front porches. And a lot of people in this city know my face whether or not they know my name because I was in the news a great deal during a teacher strike a few years ago. So they got used to seeing me then. They say, ‘You’re that union lady! You’re that teacher lady!’ ”

Elliott limits her canvassing today to about an hour. In July, she donated a kidney to her sister, Gloria, who is also a schoolteacher, and her doctor has mandated a slow campaign pace as she recovers. After knocking on her last door, Elliott drives to a nearby church parking lot, where she meets up with some of her supporters, who have also been going door to door. Bill, her ex-husband, is there, and so is her live-in boyfriend of 10 years, Larry Buck, a high school principal. The others include Meredith Davis, Elliott’s teaching colleague from Robinson, her husband, Kelly, also a teacher, and student Ashley Cullum, who dragged herself out of bed early on a Saturday morning to help out her favorite teacher.

“Thanks, everybody,” Elliott tells them. “I’ve got to call it a day.”

Back at her house in Little Rock’s leafy Western Hills neighborhood, Elliott sits at her kitchen table—"Campaign Headquarters,” she calls it—sipping a glass of fruit juice. In the garage, dozens of “Joyce Elliott for State Representative” signs are stacked against a wall, waiting to be distributed.

The teacher is living out her dream, and she seems almost giddy.

“I’m a romantic about politics,” admits Elliott, who fantasizes about being a U.S. senator. “That would be the ultimate for me. But I could never give away that much of my life. It would be all-consuming.”

The fact is, as much as Elliott loves politics, she loves teaching even more, and she has no intention of giving that up. Not that people haven’t tried to lure her away. Business people have tempted her with big salaries, but she’s always turned them down. “They always say, ‘If you come work for us, we’ll pay you this and that.’ But that’s not what I want to do. I always feel like saying, ‘You’re telling me the work I do is important, so don’t offer me a job to take me away from the classroom if I’m doing a good job and I love it. Figure out a way to help me do a better job and compensate me better for what I’m doing.’ ”

The way Elliott sees it, she’ll serve three two-year terms in the House—the maximum allowed under the state’s term-limits law—and then she’ll consider a bid for the state Senate. But she’ll always be a teacher.

“I really can have it all,” she says.


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