Suzanne Sievert with ELLA codirector Obraztsova | Photo credit: Will Austin
Suzanne Sievert had been teaching English language learners in private ESL (English as a second language) schools and community colleges since 1997, when, in 2012, she found herself at a personal and professional crossroads. At the time, she was teaching ESL classes at Bellevue College, and her two sons were nearing the end of their high school careers. “I had mostly been a full-time mom and a part-time teacher while my kids were growing up, and so when they were reaching this period when they were going to leave, I started thinking about that empty nest thing. It just seemed really scary to me,” she says.
Sievert decided to quit her job at the college and start a nonprofit “as something interesting and different” to do with her life. She founded the English Language Learners Alliance (ELLA) on a very simple but powerful idea, one inspired by something she consistently heard from her students throughout all of her years teaching English: They craved more opportunities to learn English outside of the classroom.
Fittingly, ELLA’s first program was a lunchtime conversation group that convened at the Crossroads shopping center in Bellevue. Today, the completely volunteer-run organization offers multiple free drop-in classes and groups designed to help international visitors and immigrants improve their English skills and expand their knowledge of American culture, as well as connect with and become a part of a diverse and supportive community. Learners meet in conversation groups and English classes; enjoy planned activities and field trips; benefit from job search and citizenship assistance and resources; and participate in ELLA’s popular parent-child programs, including a playgroup that meets weekly at Highland Community Center, and song and story hours.
“Our original goal was ‘Okay, everybody’s going to practice English.’ But the secondary goal — which kind of has become the primary goal — is for people to connect with other people in similar situations and find and share resources. If that needs to happen in their native language, so be it, that’s great. Our main thing is, we don’t want people to feel isolated,” says Sievert.
How do you make all of this work?
I have to give a big shout-out to all of our volunteers, because we are entirely volunteer-run. Also, to my codirector Nadya [Obraztsova]. She had just moved here from Russia right around the time I was starting this and she was so excited about it. She was the one who just stepped up to the plate, and we totally did everything together at the beginning.
What makes you most proud of what you’ve accomplished through ELLA so far?
When I meet someone who I know at the beginning was feeling isolated or didn’t know anyone, and now I see them and they feel like they’re well connected and have a community of people that they know — that makes me feel really proud.
Who is your personal hero?
My father. He was an amazing role model for me and just a super-caring person who always put himself second and put everybody else first. And that just really has stuck with me over the years.
What do you want people to understand about your work?
That every person, no matter where they’re from or what language they speak or how they might look, is human and has the same basic need to feel included and feel like part of a community.
What’s one small action our readers can take in their own lives to make positive change happen?
Just reach out to someone if you notice that they are looking or feeling isolated or might need some help. Or even just give a friendly smile to a foreigner so that they feel more comfortable.
What one thing did an adult or mentor do for you as a youth that helped you succeed?
Both of my parents were very supportive, and my husband has been amazing through this whole journey, just giving me the confidence to try it.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
Healing. Healing the world.
If you could dine with anyone, living or dead, whom would that be and why?
Barack and Michelle Obama. We should all hope that would happen, because I would invite everybody and have a big dinner party.
Favorite read of the past year?
I love reading books about the South, so my most recent favorite read is “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens. It’s a great book that takes place in North Carolina in the marshlands.
Fill in the blank:
What the world needs now is more peace.