Growing Power

The following post was written as an installation in the “VISTA Alumni Stories” series on UGIVE.ORG’s blog. Forgive my breadth & depth…or simply don’t let it bother you in the first place. It was shared by Webmaster Phil on Thursday, October 11, 2012.

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A thin, long strip of golden cardstock, 1 ½ inches by 11 inches, hangs on the wall of my new office atNorthwestern University’s Center for Civic Engagement. It’s an office I just moved into 2 weeks ago today (one week ago, according to my full-time employee contract). I am well-known as a sucker for quality touchy-feely quotes so it comes to no surprise to those in my life that I immediately covered my corner of this shared room with several uplifting thoughts and phrases. This particular one on the cardstock, written unostentatiously but not carelessly, has been with me in Cleveland, Baltimore, and now three Chicago neighborhoods to remind me of what I consider to be a very important message:

The acquisition of knowledge doesn’t mean you are growing. Growing is when what you know changes how you live.

The maxim is from a rapper named Lecrae, who tweeted it on February 5, 2011, right in the middle of my serving as a Youth Service Outreach Coordinator with UGIVE.ORG through AmeriCorps VISTA.

My current job with the CCE (and the Civic Education Project, also at NU) focuses almost entirely on youth civic engagement & education. It incorporates tons of service-learning and forming partnerships with community organizations, and because it is a very young organization (happy 3rd birthday, CCE!) it also involves a lot of initiative and evaluation of what seems to be working. It would be an understatement to say that my time with UGIVE.ORG helped me adjust quickly to the culture and goals of my new position for these reasons, and that does not even touch on the countless other professional skills I now use constantly that UGIVE helped me develop: sharing workspace respectfully, picking up a phone to call people instead of just emailing, wearing many NPO hats (PR, trainer, IT support, motivational speaker, event planner), managing social media platforms, creating (and adhering to) workplans…

The position I recently left was with Marquette University’s Center for Peacemaking. I had the honor of serving as the program

Photo: Jason Smith

coordinator for a pilot peace education program in an area of Chicago known for its struggles with gangs & drug-related (as well as culturally-rooted) violence. It was also a startup, and my background at UGIVE made me an ideal candidate—I’d had vast experience engaging classrooms of students, I’d worked remotely from supervisors and prepared periodic reports to submit on progress, and I had found a home in underserved schools, districts & neighborhoods in my charming-yet-segregated hometown of Cleveland, OH (don’t hate!). It’s without any doubt in my mind that the demands of my AmeriCorps role developed my versatility and imagination as a worker in more ways than my resume can ever demonstrate.

And while all of these anecdotes & laundry lists of “how AmeriCorps/UGIVE.ORG helped me get to where I am today” are true and valued and something I carry with me into my office life regularly, they aren’t what comes to mind when people ask me what I gained from my time with UGIVE or VISTA. It all comes back to Lecrae—none of those skillsets would matter if I continued to operate in the world OUTSIDE of my 9-to-5 as I had prior to my time with these innovative organizations.

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I was transformed by my year-long stint with AmeriCorps in how I interact and engage with my community. I will never again take advantage of being a citizen of whatever communities I claim membership to, and I “blame” my drive to be a positive advocate and intentional participant on the hope instilled in me by UGIVE and VISTA life. I not only have the eyes to see asset-based community development but I have the language to discuss it with others. UGIVE’s passionate, Cincinnati-aware staff enhanced my optimist perspective; they reminded me of what it looks like when one spends her/his days seeking out the good and spreading it to others…and, even further, when one balances one’s time finding the not-so-good and then creating a dialogue around how to

CLI PBD Res Life Staff 2011

make it a stronger resource for the area. It’s the holistic “what?,” “so what?,” “now what?” processing approach of good teaching because it does not stop with the doing but uses the doing to propel people into ACTION for the betterment of a situation.

The limited post-grad volunteer budget I had both during my ten weeks in Cincinnati and my ten months in CLE forced me to explore & maximize on what the areas offered—museums, free days, public spaces, delicious (cheap!) food spots, hidden gems, sources for good news & long-term plans—and I quickly found myself breaking through region-wide long-standing stereotypes that are often either a) untrue orb) the root cause of the cyclical underdevelopment that is happening in certain neighborhoods. UGIVE’s mission is about “guiding [students] to give their time and talents to build communities” in order to “create LIFE-LONG GIVERS!,” and that is precisely what they do. For students & schools, it’s presented as a remedy to a SYMPTOM of apathy. But for those of us working behind the scenes, engaging (and encouraging others to engage) in this way is more than that—it is an early stage of the healing process for all the ways we are taught to NEGATIVELY interact with and contribute to our communities. AmeriCorps’ framework continually builds the conversation around poverty and how we might be able to work together as a society to eliminate—or at least abate—the presence & impact of poverty in our society, and in the process we as participants and workers are transformed. We have the opportunity and, more importantly, we have the wherewithal, to no longer see pockets of our regions as “boring,” “desolate,” “vacant.” “hopeless,” “ghetto,” or any other mess of words that condemn and separate THEM from US. We, the providers of an exit out of the cycle of poverty, are enriched by being educated, and eventually spreading that knowledge & process, about how to reshape our own perceptions that make us isolated, fearful, and lacking in the “hope” department—all of which are classictrademarks of those living in poverty. AmeriCorps, and in my specific case, the team at UGIVE, works hard to get people OUT of that individualized mentality and IN to their cities, towns, and neighborhoods to be (active in) realizing the full potential (of that area).

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It doesn’t happen overnight; neither does most of the work that VISTA-sponsored organizations are charged with accomplishing. Good things rarely do, contrary to what our fast-paced, disillusioned, urgency-addicted society conditions us to believe. One of my favorite catalyst reads is called The Impossible Will Take a Little While and my brief VISTA term at UGIVE is a constant reminder

EVOKE Scholars 2009-10 say farewell.

of the validity of that statement. But impossibility is not a condition of permanence. It is merely one of circumstance, of perspective, of the means with which one has been provided to approach a particular situation. And until we can learn to use the tools, resources and experiences to actually alter the way we approach our interactions, our communities, our lives, our world, we may as well have not learned anything at all.

I am grateful for all of the professional and innately personal development UGIVE’s AmeriCorps VISTA position provided to me two years ago, and while I could turn myself blue in the face trying to tell people over and over that this is the case, I choose instead to use each and every day to lead a life that proves just how much I do value all that I was taught & given.

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