One day I broke down over Tylenol. Seriously.
I moved from Statesboro, Georgia to Atlanta to pursue graduate school. When I arrived, I accepted a position as an AmeriCorps VISTA member. A couple of months into my service year, I was sitting in my apartment and received a call from my mom. She asked how I was doing. With a cracked voice, I said I was doing okay, but my mama being my mama knew when something was wrong.
She asked again.
I started to cry uncontrollably and told her I had a terrible headache and didn’t have enough money to go to the store and buy any Tylenol because my account was in the negative, and I wouldn’t get my stipend until a couple of days later. As the support system she is, she was so upset that I didn’t call sooner and didn’t ask for help.
Community was created for us to nurture one another, but I was so eager and ready to “pay” my parents back for all they had done for me that I was willing to go through the pain instead of leaning into the community designed for me.
That was a defining moment in my journey as an AmeriCorps member, for several reasons. As I reflect on that time, I continuously see newer parts of that situation that ground and affect my work to this day.
See, that situation wasn’t just about Tylenol and not having the means at the moment to get it. It set off a culmination of instances, experiences and emotions from my service year thus far that propelled me to react so strongly.
As a recent college graduate on the journey of getting that sought-after “after college” work experience, I remembered having to decide whether taking the stipend in a position like this in the first place was going to be more of a heavy weight than an open door of opportunity.
I had to assess my housing situation and how tight my budget needed to be to make rent. I had to determine what it meant to be in an office environment for the first time and the pressure to perform and assimilate. I had to think through what type of emotional, spiritual and financial burden this could mean for my family.
I thought about my service so far and the us vs. them mentality that seemed to permeate the workspace.
I thought about the slick comments I heard that would echo out from under the office doors that alluded to AmeriCorps members being combative, cliquish, and overly inexperienced.
All of these thoughts rushed back to me in the brief minutes I was talking to my mama on the phone, and I unraveled. It was about more than just Tylenol.
Fast forward to years later, when I had the opportunity to serve as a Volunteer Program Manager. I was tasked to galvanize faith-based, civic and corporate partners to serve. Lo and behold, the position would also encompass being the Program Director for the current AmeriCorps program at the organization.
Why did I feel like this was a second chance at making a difference in the space of national service? Maybe because it was.
As a Black woman who was an AmeriCorps member, there were unique ways in which systemic oppression showed its head in my years of service. I wanted to be a beacon of understanding to Black AmeriCorps members while also connecting with the entire cohort over similar experiences of the journey of service.
I saw it as a second chance to ease some frustrations with the cohort of members I’d interact with because I remember having them myself.
I embraced it as an opportunity to infuse change from my lens, my lived experience.
After being a part of three cohorts as an AmeriCorps member and going on to manage the grant and onboard and shepherd over 60 members as a Program Director, I want to share my heart’s reflections from me to both members and staff:
Dear AmeriCorps Program Staff,
When you become a community engager, you take a public service oath to do your best not to perpetuate harm. Creating a space of safety, care and connection aren’t just limited to your full-time staff or the community you partner with but should graciously extend towards the AmeriCorps members who have decided to dedicate a significant part of their service journey alongside you, the organization and the community. This relationship requires a partnership- not an extraction, not preset assumptions, not perpetual oppression… but genuine connection.
Secondly, grant parameters can often push us to translate people into numbers and impactful stories into mere metrics. This can be hard. I know. You literally have to work a program from two different brain spaces. As an AmeriCorps staff, we can then sometimes translate that straightforward, grant-like mentality into our everyday, nuanced interactions at a detriment to the cultivation and transformation of the members. Don’t let the hindrances of the grant influence your connection with the cohort you are partnering with.
Also, AmeriCorps members are not wild chickens that must be wrangled. They already come with specific lived experiences and innovations to enhance the organization’s mission. Share the plans, values and connection to the mission while consistently believing their value and reaffirming their dignity. Help them make the mark they wish to leave.
Lastly, know that I am rooting for you, for all of us. There’s a lot of juggling, many intimate conversations, tons of metrics and a lot of mediation. I remember wearing so many hats, having to wear multiple ones at one time and having to embrace heightened discernment as to when to pull which ones off and on. Gather your village and lean towards trust, self-awareness and compassion.
Dear Prospective and Serving AmeriCorps Members,
If you are already an AmeriCorps member, you have recognized that it’s not easy. Know that it won’t be easy if you aren’t one already. One of the best things I received from my service year was a beginning recognition of my true gifts and a sharpened focus on what I did and didn’t want to continue to do as I progressed into my journey of work. This was so valuable for me, and I believe it will benefit you too. Be open and perceive the parts of your role that enlighten your heart as well as the things you pull away from. Both are important.
Secondly, as you may be aware, there are issues that inequitable systems have created, and as a result of those systems, nonprofits are formed from good intentions to address them. This may be why you decided to serve or are thinking about it in the first place – to alleviate these issues. But while you serve, you may come to realize that the organization you chose to partner alongside could also be perpetuating some of that harm. Know that nonprofits don’t always get it right and don’t have a monopoly on doing good.
Gain reconciliation on what you can and cannot control. You may be pushed from idealism to realism, but don’t let that hinder you from seeking and finding hope. Accept what you can change and adjust and do good “work” from where you are. Own your role in the community. Do your best to cultivate the type of community and environment you’d like to be a part of for those you serve, the staff you partner with, and the cohort you journey alongside. Protect your heart and tune in when your body and mind say it's time to rest.
At the end of the day, regardless of title or role, you may have a day where a flood of emotions rises, just like my Tylenol moment. It can be especially challenging for community leaders, activists and changemakers like us due to our heart posture. I use the following to continue to ground me, and I hope it will help you as well:
I am a partner in service.
I am holistically and personally connected to a community-centered mission.
Creating harm towards the communities I partner with derails that mission.
So I must consistently and fervently ask myself:
What am I doing to create or carry out harm that derails my holistic mission?
What must I be accountable for in creating that harm? What do I need to own?
What can I do in my power to consistently repair and rebuild and own my role in community care?