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Todd Allen

Todd Allen is a part-time CUBM faculty member who teaches History of the Civil Rights Movement and Speech. He is a full-time professor at Grove City College in the Communications Department. Todd also founded an organization called The Common Ground Project, which among other things sponsors an annual Retracing the Steps of Civil Rights Tour. Both Mrs. Byrd and Dr. Stanko have been on the tour. They started Todd’s interview by asking the status of the 2015 Tour.

JS: How is the tour shaping up this year?

TA: The tour is shaping up well. I was talking with some of my friends in the South and they are looking forward to seeing us. It looks like this year we’re a little smaller with about 25 people. But I tell people whether we have 50 or 5, we are going to have a blessed experience.

JS: How many years is this for you, Dr. Allen?

TA: This will be year fourteen.

KB: Are there any special celebrations this year?

TA: This year is the 50th anniversary of the events in Selma, a there were a lot of the activities there recently, and continue to have special programming throughout 2015. We are also hoping to have a few events along the way as we travel. It’s too early to say whether they will happen, but there is always a surprise or two up our sleeve.

JS: Mrs. Byrd, when you think of Dr. Allen, why do you believe was nominated and is qualified to be an Urban Hero?

KB: Todd and I – I call him Todd because we have known each other for some time – met on campus at Geneva College. He also managed the site we had at Aliquippa and he has been a teacher at the CUBM campus for some time. This is a young man who has gone through the ranks of education. He earned his undergraduate and graduate degree and I was so pleased when he received his PhD from Duquesne. He has a great family, and the tour is a family project and is amazing. The entire family is involved. His mother comes, his sisters, and their children. This is how we should do business to pass it on and how to live a Christian life. And Todd and his family are a good example of that. We were pleased to nominate him to be an Urban Hero.

TA: I am humbled to have been nominated. I just love the fact that she continually calls me a young man.

JS: Karla talked about family. Fill us in on Todd Allen. Where were you born and tell us about your family? Bring us up to speed on who you are.

TA: I’m a native of Western Pennsylvania, Beaver Falls to be exact. I grew up here and continued to live and raise my family here. I am one of six children. I’m in the middle. My parents, Caperse and Wilma Allen. My father passed a few years ago but my mother is still with us. I would like to say I married my high school sweetheart, but truth be told, in high school she wouldn’t give me the time of day. But we have been married for 21 years. We have a 15-year-old son who is in high school. I have been blessed to not only go to school in the region, but to find employment in the region starting with Geneva College. Currently I am with Grove City College.

JS: What did you study in school? And why?

TA: I began my undergraduate career at Morehouse College in Atlanta. I had an amazing African American history teacher in high school, and one of the people she focused on was Dr. King, because this was the time when the Dr. King’s birthday became a national holiday. I was determined to go to school where he went to school, which was Morehouse. I had a great experience there my freshman year, but you never know what God has in store. Lo and behold, I transferred to a place I said I would never go, back to my hometown of Beaver Falls and Geneva College from where I graduated in 1991. I started out after graduation working in admissions and student life. My degrees are actually in communication and rhetorical studies. So for the past 17 or 18 years now, I have taught in the discipline of communication studies.

JS: What are you teaching at Grove City College now?

TA: In 2014 I was invited to the campus at Grove City to speak in chapel for the Martin Luther King holiday. Apparently I must have given a message that was well received because within a month I was contacted by the college and encouraged to apply for a position they had. Within weeks of that call, I interviewed and was hired. It’s been a smooth transition and I have been blessed. Again, another one of those chapters in life that I never saw coming but, lo and behold, that is where God ends up sending you.

KB: Do you want to tell us a little bit about your community focus? What are you doing in the community?

TA: I have been an elected member of the Big Beaver School Board for 15 years. I am currently up for re-election this year. I am going for my fifth term, which will probably be my final term since that will be 20 years, and that’s enough to have done any one thing. But again, I am blessed because I work in the field of education and here in my hometown, there was an opportunity 15 years ago to run for office. Sometimes people will sit back and complain about things, but no one wants to step in and work to address those problems a community has. It’s not all peaches and cream when you are a school board member, but I’ve been blessed to give back to my community by serving in that way.

We also mentioned the Civil Rights Tour, it is something that is open to whosoever wants to go and we draw people from all over the country. I am quite proud of the fact that it’s something that comes out of little old Western Pennsylvania in a place called Beaver Falls that is touching so many people.

I’m a member of Second Baptist Church in Beaver Falls, the church I grew up in as a child. I remain actively involved in that congregation, but I am also supporting others who have come along. There is a great group of young people now who are rising up doing community programming in their own way in that church. I’m at that age now where I still look forward to those who are older who continue to mentor me, but now I also have the responsibility to mentor those who are coming along and know when to get out of the way and be led by this younger group. That is so important if we are to have a vibrant future.

JS: Jesus said a prophet is not without honor, except in his own hometown. How tough has it been? It sounds like God has given you favor. Any drawbacks to being in the church you grew up in and being on the school board? Your son is in the school district. What’s it like ministering and working so much in your hometown?

TA: I laughed initially at your question because I have a saying that everybody who stands up and claps is not necessarily giving you a standing ovation. Some people are just using that moment as an opportunity to stretch. I have people who are very supportive of me and affirm me and the work I do and that feels good. But you’re always going to have the doubters and your haters. I don’t get too excited when someone praises me and I don’t get too disappointed when someone criticizes me. I just try to get up every day and do what’s right the best I can and try to do it better tomorrow.

KB: What’s the website for the Common Ground Tour?

TA: There isn’t a website, but there is a Facebook page, and it’s called Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour https://www.facebook.com/pages/Returning-To‐The‐Roots­ Of-Civil-Rights‐Tour/. Periodically throughout the year, we also conduct various programming. In 2015, a lot of that programming happened at the front end of the year. We sponsored a community forum in Beaver Falls on relationships between communities and law enforcement. We brought in nationally-known documentary filmmaker Keith Beauchamp for that program. We’ve had Rutha Harris, one of the original SNCC Freedom Singers, as well as LPGA tour member Renee Powell from Clearview Golf Course in East Canton come speak in the area. We’ll be doing some small programs after June once the tour is out of the way. Come fall we will probably move into a film series. But people can keep up to date if they “like” our Facebook page. Through that we will let them know when we have some events going on.

KB: One of the things people don’t realize is there is an African-American-owned golf course within driving distance of Pittsburgh.

TA: Yes, in East Canton, Ohio. I’m glad you brought that up. We call our tour Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights for a reason. We could go all over this country if we wanted to visit sites of the Civil Rights Movement, but we intentionally go south and even when we go south, we don’t go everywhere we could possibly go. As the veterans of the Movement remind me, we don’t spend near enough time in every town and city as we could or should. But the Tour is an opportunity to introduce people to the landmark sites and moments of the Movement. When people return to whatever community they came from, they can explore the history of civil rights in their respective communities. I hope people go back home and look at the current issues and challenges going on to get involved in addressing those. I tell people if they go on the trip, and all they do is take a lot of nice pictures and buy some t-shirts and the souvenir mug, they’ve missed it. The Tour is about continuing to make a difference in their community once they get home.

JS: Todd as we get older we get a little more reflective. What were your most significant accomplishments? What do you look back at and reflect on now and think you were really glad you were involved in or did that?

TA: This might sound a little sappy, but honestly when I look at my son, I enjoy watching the man he is becoming. It lets me know the man that raised me, and the others, did something right and something that stuck. And that I am in the process of doing something right - not perfect, but doing something right. The trips are great, the people I have met are great, the awards and accolades are great, but watching my son is the most meaningful.

KB: And I would agree with you, and that’s why I pointed out that your family is involved in it. Because this is how our children really do learn to work and to study and to be successful.

TA: He is 15 now and has been traveling on the tour with me since he was five. I honestly tell people that he could do it without me. I fear the one day he comes to me and says, “Dad, you know what? You’re fired.” Maybe when that day comes I can just fly into certain cities and let him run everything else. I say that jokingly, but I look forward to the day that he and some of the other younger people who have gone on this experience launch their own trips. It’s about getting the message out by any means, and so I am excited people are inspired to go forward.

JS: What do you do to grow? What inputs do you have in your life? Reading? Studying? Authors? What do you do to stay sharp mentally and intellectually and on the cutting edge?

TA: Well, I’ve never met a book store I don’t like. I constantly have books stacked by my bed and favorite chair in my office. I am always looking at something. That can run the gamut from a book on history to something on sports to something more motivational or inspirational. It just kind of depends. I also like circling myself with a lot of good friends who are like-­‐minded. I look forward to those conversations we have formally and informally. Golf is a good walk spoiled, but there is something to be said for getting out there when it’s nice and warm and sunny, it’s just you and a golf club and a ball and a couple of buddies. I think all of those in differing ways help to keep me sharp.

JS: So that’s why you stop in Clearview? You probably get some passes. Tell the truth now. Do they invite you back and do you play there?

TA: Oh I play there quite a bit. I tell people I owe it to Clearview to play there a couple times a year. Because of a course like Clearview, I can go to just about any other course that my money can get me into as a person of color.

KB: What advice would you want to give someone who wants to follow your path?

TA: Honestly, I don’t think it’s about following my path. I think it’s about following the path the Lord has set for you. The thing I tell my college students all the time is the key to be faithful in the moment. You can’t worry about what’s going to happen a year, two years, or five years from now. It’s that faithfulness you have in the moment that is most important, doing the work set before you that can open up those doors of opportunity down the road, sometimes when you least expect it. The last thing I tell people is to never say never. I have repeatedly said never, that I would never go back to Geneva or go to Grove City, and finding that when God is sending you somewhere, He is going to send you over that “never.” He isn’t going to send you to a place He hasn’t prepared for you to be.

JS: In the realm of communications and in teaching, in your settings has publishing and broadcasting or issue or something that has been required of you? Have you done it? Or do you see that in your future?

TA: My undergraduate degree was broadcast communication. I used to say my mother was going to see me on the news in a good way. I’ve never done that as a profession, but as a result of a number of activities, including the Tour, I have had opportunities in both radio and television and that’s been exciting. As far as publishing, I am part of a very exciting project with a young scholar out of New York. Dr. Anthony Bradley brought together a group of African American Christian academics from a variety of Christian colleges and range of disciplines to contribute to an edited book called Black Scholars in White Space: New Vistas in the African American Christian Academy. That’s an opportunity for me to share the work I am doing in civil rights and write a reflective piece on the importance of memory. that’s been my most recent project.

Of course I am constantly preparing for conference presentations throughout the year. I have a big one I am waiting to hear on that goes back to the idea of law enforcement and community relations, particularly in light of a range of events that have happened over the past year or so. And honestly I look at what I do every day walking into the classroom. I have a crisis communication course to attend after this interview where we wrestle with difficult issues of individuals or organizations and how to handle those.

It’s always exciting to sit down with these students. Sometimes when we are talking about figures from history, I ask the students how old they were when something happened, and I know the answer is they were one or two years old. It’s so comical to me, because I look back and remember it like it was yesterday, and for them they weren’t even here or just got here. They also introduce me to some of the more recent events of their generation and era, so it’s a nice give and take.

KB: I think about my life and what’s happening now is what happened at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement with the riots, protests and things like that. The Common Ground Tour shows people we can’t forget where we have come from and the need to keep moving forward. I want to voice my concern with all these things happening concerning police brutality and community violence.

TA: You are absolutely right. One of the themes that is emphasized in the Tour is that the struggle continues. It takes on different forms, but freedom is a constant struggle.

JS: With Urban Press I have two things we are working on. One is Millie Johnson’s dissertation from Regent on ethics in law enforcement. I have a priest friend who teaches at William & Mary who did something on ethics in law enforcement and he is working on his PhD at Oxford and I thought this thing is going to read like eating sawdust, but It’s really excellent. We’re looking at how he can publish both of those treatises because they are so timely. They are biblically based, and relevant for what is going on. Certainly what we hope to do with Urban Press is to put material out there that can somehow contribute to the issues of the day. The brutality along with the institutional and personal racism in some of our systems are some things we have to continue to war against. What’s the racial mix of those on the tour?

TA: It’s funny because that’s a question I am often asked and there’s an assumption people make that the majority will be black. Honestly, the 2015 will have more white people than black. Usually my numbers are about 50/50. As Karla mentioned, if you take out my family then it’s typically more white than black. I emphasize to people that, as my pastor often says, the tour is open to whosoever will. But the Tour does not focus on black history. it’s American history and world history. It’s the story of God’s hand in history. The last time I checked that’s for everyone.

JS: I would imagine that African Americans would feel that they lived this. White folk, like me, we’re sometimes out to lunch, but we’re catching up. We don’t want to be trendy or chic, because we can’t fully enter into what people of color went through in those eras, but we can certainly strive to understand it better. I had to ask myself what I would have done if I was alive when Martin Luther King, Jr. was in his prime, and I probably would have done nothing. But that’s not really the right question. The question is what can I do now?

TA: I was going to say that. It’s the question. What am I doing right now? What are the contemporary issues that are crying out for people of faith to engage?

KB: What are your future plans, Todd?

TA: For me, it’s about being faithful in the present. I am enjoying teaching. I would like to, as I get a little older, transfer over to something more administrative, continuing to keep my foot in the classroom, but also doing some more administrative kind of work. I am a strong advocate of reconciliation. I could see myself working on some level systematically as well as individually to help our colleges and universities come to grips with what it means to be the beloved community, as Dr. King referred to us. That’s something I have my eye on towards the future. What that means in terms of where, I am open to see what happens. Short-­‐term future, however, is that I have a stack of papers to grade!

JS: You mentioned your high school teacher and you mentioned the church. Talk to us about any other people who influenced what you are doing today? Or maybe just expand on your high school teacher and what it was that impacted you so much that directed and shaped the course of your life.

TA: There are so many people and it’s like an award show where you get in trouble when you start naming names. But really, it begins at home with my mom and dad and what they modeled for me in terms of their relationship and love for one another. It was also their expectations of me and their love for me and encouragement and support so that whenever I stepped foot outside that door, I knew that at least two people had my back. And obviously it’s so important that when we send our children to school, we have teachers who value, respect and challenge them.

I was raised in an era where parents and teachers knew each other quite well and were often friends outside of their respective areas of responsibility. That’s what the teacher you mentioned was for me. Her name was Mrs. Paulette Potter and I had her in junior high. I will never forget in ninth grade when she asked what my future plans were, and I said college. She asked how I was going to get there and I said a basketball scholarship. she asked what I would do if I got hurt, and I looked at her as a 14-year-old and asked what she was talking about because we don’t get hurt. She warned I had better have a backup plan.

I had never considered until that moment that I needed a backup plan and of course her backup plan was academics. I had been a good student, good enough to stay out of trouble at home, but not so good that I received academic accolades, because at the time I didn’t think that was the cool thing to do. Mrs. Potter really pressed me in ninth grade. And I took on her challenge and did a variety of things.

She was the one who encouraged me to run for class offices, and the more I became involved in the life of the school, leadership and various other academic opportunities, things really took off for me. She was the one who in a more systematic way introduced me to African American history and culture. and that lit a fire that has stayed with me. It was really powerful.

The very first year I did the Tour, she was one of the participants to go on it because she had been someone I approached with the idea. She encouraged me, as expected, to follow through. I remember watching as she was meeting some of the veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. She told them that never could she have imagined one of her students would take her to the places to meet the people she taught him about.

For me as an educator, that was profound to hear my former teacher say something like that. Truth be told, one of the reasons I am still doing the tour is one of my former student saw something I did in that first trip and was able to secure some funding for that dream to grow into what I have done for the last 14 years. Mrs. Potter was phenomenal.

Obviously the church has impacted me, being surrounded by people who knew me before I knew me has been a blessing. Over the years a lot of those folks have been transitioning on to glory. Yet to have a church that when you step out into a community has your back and supports you, means a lot to moving forward. One of the things in life is I realize I’m not perfect, but I don’t want to let those people down. I have long lived by that credo that service is the price we pay for the space we occupy. There have been generations before me that opened doors for me and I can do no less than continue to open doors for those that are coming behind me.

JS: We did one Urban Hero interview and that person had gone to Seton Hill. She said when her mother was driving up the hill to the school for her freshman year, the mom told her that a lot of people worked to make it possible for her to go to school, and not to mess it up. She said it was the first time she felt the weight of so many people who had gone before her, and she said she received that and did not screw it up. I’ll never forget that interview and the simple words of her mother saying she wasn’t going up that hill alone. In the same manner, you’re not going on the tour alone and Mrs. Byrd doesn’t do what she does alone. It’s a lot of people going along with you. And may we always remember that. Do you have a favorite book? Favorite movie?

TA: Favorite book. I don’t think I could limit it to just one. I hate to give it the answer that so many artists give, but it’s the next one is my favorite book. Favorite movie? My niece and I will watch The Color Purple every time it comes on as if we’ve never seen it before. We love just quoting it back and forth to each other. I have no idea why.

JS: What did you think of the movie Selma that came out earlier this year? Did you think it was an accurate description? Were you pleased?

TA: I was pleased. I did have to take my historian hat off as there were things that were and weren’t accurate about the film. It told a powerful story that holds the potential to introduce people to a chapter in history that otherwise they would not know about. It might spur them on to go read some of the more accurate or detailed historical accounts of what went on there, or maybe even to visit Selma. There are a number of people, and it’s shocking to me, who have never heard of Bloody Sunday. Who didn’t know about the Selma to Montgomery March? But when the film came out and was so well publicized and promoted, that encouraged people to actually travel to Selma. Once you have gone to these places where history has happened, you can’t be the same. So if the movie has the potential to do that, then I say kudos, it’s a great film. We’ll be watching that aboard the bus. We use that bus as our rolling classroom and that will be one of the films we will see, hopefully prior to getting into Selma. So it’s something I will continue to use in the classroom, but will also supplement it and fill in the gaps as they say.

KB: To me it was so significant, because I remember the Freedom Riders. So as we were riding the bus I was saying this is what it must have felt like. I think it was the perfect vehicle. In fact, my sister came from Philadelphia last year to attend and she is still talking about it.

TA: I encourage people to journal about their experience. I remember vividly when I went on my first tour prior to leading trips of my own. That was one of the things I chronicled in my journal that as we are traveling, this is reminiscent in some ways, at least the destination we were going to, to what folks did on the Freedom Rides. What was so different was I didn’t have to worry about where I was going to lay my head at night. I didn’t have to worry where I was going to get something to eat or where to use the restroom facilities or anything like that.

I was blessed to be in Selma back in March when the President and First Lady arrived. To me one of the most powerful moments of that entire weekend was watching that motorcade, fifty years almost to the minute, come across that bridge. Knowing fifty years prior John Lewis were being beaten nearly to death, and fifty years later, here comes, I don’t want to say the fulfillment of that dream, but as they said, one down payment on it. John Lewis himself said that day if you had told him fifty years ago as he was being beaten that he would be back here at this bridge introducing the first African American president, he would have called you crazy. My goodness, look at what God has done in that time. Even though we continue to have work to do. But look at what has been accomplished.

JS: Do you have a favorite passage or Bible verse?

TA: Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, oh man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” Honestly, that is what I attempt to do every day. Some days are better than others, but that is what I attempt to do every day.

KB: I want to say for those of us who lived through the Civil Right’s Movement that it’s really a cathartic thing going back and seeing it. Because at least for me, it was a life experience. Every day coming home, the riots were going on, Martin Luther King getting shot. I was college at that point and was thinking I needed to get out of there and go home. To see what people have done and that it’s such a difference in the South than in the North and how they have used the experiences to move on. It was healing for me. It really was, and my sister had the same experience.

TA: That’s one of the things we’ve been blessed with. Not only do folk come from a variety of geographic and ethnic backgrounds, but from quite a spread of ages. Our youngest is eight and I’m not allowed to say how old our oldest is, and every stage in between. As the two of you were sharing, we have had participants who were around when a lot of these key moments happened and can remember where they were. And for others, this is just black and white footage they have seen in documentary films. There is something about the experience, whether you are around or not, that has a way of bringing together that diverse age range of participants we are blessed to have.

JS: Thank you for making this experience available to us.

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