Monday, September 28, 2009

Building Engaged Citizens

“Don’t worry about what the world needs. Do what makes you come alive and do
that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
— Howard Thurman

BUILDING ENGAGED CITIZENS: This weekend was the Building Engaged Citizens conference for all of the Campus Corps members and Vista members that belong to Montana Campus Compact. In words that anyone outside of Montana can understand, it was orientation for college students that get AmeriCorps money to serve in their communities. My role in this hectic compilation of college students from universities all over the state was planning, facilitating, and lending my couch to the various VISTA's that stayed in Missoula over the weekend. Like many anticipated moments in life, I spent more time and energy planning for the conference than actually attending it. The weekend seemed to fly by and now remains in my memory as a whirlwind of new faces, behind the scenes tasks, and tons of icebreakers. It was exciting to see everyone in one place and get to have a somewhat leading role in this.

DEFINING SERVICE CONTROVERSY: I seemed to stir up quite the controversy with the "defining service" activity (Elon Vols folks, you all probably do this in your sleep now) but boy did we have some heated conversation. This activity is designed to really make people define what service means to them, and help them consider their own service ethic. For those of you that are unfamiliar the activity asks participants to rate different proiects on a scale, such as giving blood, donating money, voting, and joining the armed forces. In reality with 80 AmeriCorps members, it creates a heated conversation and deep debates. I saw this as a positive thing, because it got people discussing their definition of service and forcing themselves to really define what service means. It also proved how passionate people are about service and what it means to them. However, the debate left a bad taste in many people's mouths. I am a firm believer that this is where people learn the most but as a leader it also puts me in a tough spot because now we have unhappy participants. All in all it went well, and I guess there's nothing like a little bit of controversy to get people reflecting on their personal values.

HAPPENINGS ON HIGGINS: After the seven day work week I took Monday off to sleep and be mindless for a day. This led me to "liquid planet" (my favorite coffee shop) in the afternoon where I was able to enjoy the weather and be on the internet at the same time. I love walking around town in the afternoon because there are so many people out on the streets sipping coffee, writing, playing music, or reading. It is great to get to interact with strangers, and people watch. I ended up spending a good bit of the afternoon speaking to a man living off the disability allowance, who admitted to being an alcoholic. He opened up to me about all of his problems, what he wants from life, and how he got to where he is. It was a strange conversation, mostly because of how off guard I felt when a stranger wanted to speak with me. I've become so accustomed to tuning out my surroundings and having that "city" mindset of not interacting with anyone that I forget it's ok to interact with new people. It amazed me how open to sharing he was and how easily he admitted his problems. I wanted to help him, but listening felt like the only thing to do at that point. Needless to say, Brian has been on my mind all week and i'm glad I had the chance to interact with him. It's one of those moments that felt like I was in the right place at the right time. What does this have to do with my service or building engaged citizens? It made me realize that the "service" we provide on a daily basis through AmeriCorps should not end there. Instead it should inspire a certain mindset, where talking with a community member and giving of ourselves is part of our lifestyle and personality. It is the smaller aspects of "service", the subtle everyday deeds that really make us an engaged citizen.

HATS AND SCARVES: I have realized what "seasons" really mean as the cold begins to set in, and I find myself wearing a scarf, hat, and north face in my office. Winter is no joke out here, but i'm enjoying the change in season. Today is first Friday where I will be going down town to the art museums sipping free beverages and looking at new works of art. There certainly is a lot of culture to the town, and I'm excited to see all that arises from the winter here.

Well it's Friday afternoon, so it's time to go.. Tune in next week to hear about my weekend at an ACMAC (Americorps Member Advisory Council) retreat.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

From the Classroom to the Community..

BACK TO THE CLASSROOM: Last week I was invited to speak in a class about the beauty of service, and opportunities that students can find at UM. Most of the students looked at me like I was crazy(teachers of mine, i'm sure you've seen this look from me at some point in your career). I wasn't sure if I captured any of their interest outside of their required service hours. It was tough to judge what inspired them and what just went over their heads considering all of them gave me blank stares. I also caught half of them studying for the quiz they had next (something I was g
uilty of on many occasions). I tried being engaging by asking questions but most of them had zero desire to speak up. Many of them did end up seeking out service opportunities, so it was successful. It also helped me define why I am in the service field, and how I got here. I traced it back to the car wash I helped arrange after 9/11 in high school, and the fast I did to raise money for Haiti (See Mr. Deal your persuasion techniques weren't lost on me) . I hadn't realized how much these things made an impression on me until I really traced the origin of my service days.

FOOD STAMPS, THE BEGINNING OF A HEALTHY DIET: I received my food stamps in the mail the other day, good times. I couldn't believe how relieved I felt! It's a load off to have some help with food, and the ability to really buy healthy food. I've added fancy foods to my grocery list. That night my roommates and I went to get my first food stamp use and we bought ice cream, gingerale, and jelly beans. I promise my blog will not include a list of every item I purchase each time I use my food stamps, this time it just serves a purpose. It struck up conversation between us (all Americorps members) about what people experiencing poverty should be able to purchase, and whether or not sweet foods should be included. Then we thought about why sweets should only be a luxury for the rich, and if they should be sold at all.. We got distracted by the deliciously flavored jelly beans and the brisk fall evening, but it was certainly an interesting topic to think about. It posed another topic regarding class division that i've thought about now that i'm living at the poverty line.

TREMONT STREET BED AND BREAKFAST: On a lighter, less reflective note i've spent my week preparing for the Building Engaged Citizens conference coming up this weekend. Not only am I fan of the name, because its pretty powerful, i'm excited to get to meet all Campus Compact members and facilitate a few training sessions. It has been a lot of work, and much of the responsibility of planning and compiling resources for this training has fallen on me. When you live with 3 other AmeriCorps members (making 6 people in the house total) this also means a house full of service related visitors. This weekend will be even more packed than usual, with a total of 6 extra visitors throughout the weekend. We have turned this into a chance for a pot luck though so that will be a nice change of pace, and we've all come to terms with the fact that our already crazy/chaotic house will take on a bit more character. Overall our Tremont Street house has proven to be quite an ideal living situation. It is a blast having so many roommates with a passion for service yet each with different interests. It has also made meeting people in Missoula a bit easier.

STRUMMING BASS-ICS: The other project i've been up to lately has been developing an after school music program at the Boys and Girls club. I went to visit last week and they have a music room full of acoustic, bass, and electric guitars as well as drums, a piano, and a recording studio. It's a pretty sweet space, and i'm allowed to use any of their resources at any time. My roommate Dan and I spent a few afternoons going around and getting donations for the guitars, tuning and cleaning the instruments, and making the space ready for our lessons. We will be teaching lessons weekly for 12-18 year olds in our own unique style - I have yet to figure out what that means. It will be a great chance for me to play music, work with kids, and get out of the office for a bit. Thanks to Sarah Garnitz (my beloved old roommate from Elon) we have chosen "Strumming Bass-ics" as our name for the lesson - dont worry Sarah you'll get a shout out on our CD sleeve when all of our kids are famous musicians. I'm sure i'll have more stories to report on this weekly. I have a feeling I will be learning more than the kids, but hopefully some pretty sounding tunes will result from our time.

All in all life here is pretty much as busy as it has been anywhere (minus my month of couch sitting in Atlanta this June). I do find myself enjoying evenings without homework to explore different hobbies, sit on the balcony with friends, or go for a bike ride around town.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Food Stamps and Toilet Paper

SEPTEMBER 11: This year was the first September 11th National Service day. There were several projects where leaders set up a moment of silence in the community. Other projects were developed to write to soldiers, or collect materials for the homeless shelter. Overall, Campus Corps was pretty successful with their projects despite the crunch for time all of my leaders felt. I got to participate in two projects, 1 collecting toilet paper for the food bank in Missoula and the other collecting recycling in communities in Dillon. The toilet paper drive seemed to be more successful when people understood what they were donating for. Most people would just walk by our sign and explain that they didnt' need to buy any toilet paper. We spent most of the afternoon trying to explain to customers what we were doing, that we weren't selling toilet paper, and that the food bank was in need. Direct contact and explanation helped, and we collected 800 rolls. It was a small project but was good to be doing service out in the community, getting to interact with all sorts of people in the grocery store (including running into an alumni from my small private high school in Atlanta - small world) and getting to deliver the toilet paper to the food bank. The other project I participated in was picking up recycling in the community in Dillon Montana which is about 2.5 hours from Missoula. The volunteers filled the huge communal bins with recycling, and collected a large amount of food for the shelter. My truck of volunteers was discouraged by the lack of recycling we picked up, but I had a good conversation with them about why people in Dillon don't recycle. I definitely thought that Montana would be ahead of the game when it came to recycling, but most communities don't know that they have recycling if they do. Overall the project was a success and members (the college student volunteers) were talking about what they want to do in the future which was exciting for me to see.

PUBLIC ASSISTANCE: This week I had to go in for my food stamp meeting. In all honesty, I felt hypocritical walking into a food stamp office with my iphone after driving their in my forester. It reminded me of being at a homelessness panel back at Elon a few years ago where I began to challenge my understanding of "homelessness" and what it looks like. Being in the food stamp office was similar because it reminded me that a lot of people on food stamps just need the extra money for food because of all of their other responsibilities. Even though I do have these nice items, I still need this extra money to be able to afford rent, utilities, and those extra monthly purchases that add up. I laughed when the woman told me the maximum income I can have, mostly because my income was $400 less, this threw her off a bit. She didn't quite understand that this was the first time I realized exactly what kind of financial situation I am currently in, because my lifestyle has not really changed that much (if anything i've learned what I dont need). I also learned that having a savings is discouraged for people applying for food stamps. Does this then keep people in welfare for longer periods of time? Is this making people have to choose between food or other expenses and education? These are all things I had never considered before experiencing it. Overall, it was a humbling experience.

A WEEK IN MY OFFICE: My job this week has helped me stay motivated and focus my energy on a few different things. It's difficult when doing constant indirect service, especially in my leader position, to feel like the work I'm doing is important and/or necessary. I have been on the phone checking in with leaders all over the state so it has been a bit more direct work than the last three weeks. I've also been busy planning the training we have for members next weekend which has allowed me to do some extra research on exciting topics like reflection. The most challenging part of my job thus far has really been trying to figure out how to enhance service learning programs in Montana. Elon was so ahead of the game with service, that it's hard to even know where to start. I see the potential in a lot of the universities and colleges but i'm working from the ground up. I never realized exactly how established Elon Volunteers' is. There is no room for student leadership at any university in Montana, staff and Americorps members run everything. It's also a challenge because i'm hours away from all but 1 of the universities, and I'm careful not to step on toes. The challenge is exciting though, and I couldn't have any better experience with an established office so I know where these offices can be in the future.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A New Community, A New Perspective

Although it is September, I'd like to start from the beginning. I moved to Missoula, Montana about three weeks ago. I randomly landed upon the campus corps job with Montana Campus Compact, without knowing what I was getting myself into. Luckily, it's exactly what i've needed and certainly a big step in the right direction. Later entries will definitely be more of my reflection of the service i've been doing, but this first one will hopefully help set the stage so you can understand what I do, where I live, and what kind of adjustments I've been making.

A NEW TOWN: Missoula is a fascinating town but coming from Atlanta, it certainly has been an adjustment. Everyone here lives quite simply. Cars are erroneous. Everyone bikes or walks everywhere. Coming from a smaller town this might not be considered an adjustment, but having lived in a city where driving is mostly parking and it takes 45 minutes to get milk - it took me a while to realize that I dont
have to get in my car to get somewhere. Getting on a bike on a road was also an adventure (one in which my roommate greatly enjoyed watching) but after a few days of swerving and shreeking i'm actually feeling like a pro. I've been spending more time getting absorbed in the town, reading books, and meeting new people. It is easy to get caught up in the community feel here, and I've realized that most of the time i'm in Atlanta I find myself distracted by a consumer society. Here though, free time consists of hiking, tubing, visiting national parks, reading, photography, and in the winter (which will be brutal) snowboarding/skiing. Shopping is a luxury, not a hobby. The mindset here has helped me assess what items are "necessities", and how to really be resourceful. I also really take advantage of living in a mountain town and spend as much time outside as possible. The challenge will most certainly be the weather - it was 38 degrees this morning.. needless to say, I may freeze..

A NEW BUDGET: Being a State and National Americorps Member has meant a change in lifestyle, but out here it is pretty easy to live on a low budget. I share a house with 4 other people who are all living on the same budget and with food stamps. In Atlanta and Burlington there is certainly a class division in grocery stores. Food here is pretty expensive because there is no state tax but every weekend there is a farmers market that sells cheap/local/organic vegetables and fruits. The grocery stores also sell local products which are pretty well priced. There are also tons of resources for people experiencing poverty and homelessness providing access to fresh/healthy food. Community gardens and the food bank work together here to make sure everyone gets what they need. Missoula has the highest number of non-profits per capita so I have learned to get by and learned new skills in the process. I found an old bike and fixed it up at this non-profit that has used bike parts, and volunteers to help you figure out how to build or repair bikes (for free). The volunteer must have known I had no idea what I was doing, because I when I turned the screwdriver to the right to tighten a bolt, he was impressed. Ok so I kept repeating the rhyme "righty tighty lefty loosy", my experimentation with bike repair was in fact successful. I've also been cooking a lot and experimenting with recipes using fresh vegetables that i've gathered from friends and at the market. My next step is applying for food stamps, so I will certainly report on that process next week. I struggled with whether or not I really needed them, or if I should save them for people who have no income. Being that it is a benefit of Americorps, i've been convinced to go through the process.

NEW RESPONSIBILITY: Turns out I'm pretty much a leader (much like being the director of the SLC - Service Learning Community) except for now I lead Americorps volunteers that work in Universities all over the state. -no pressure- EV! prepared me extremely well for this position, and Ive been using all of the same tools that are used at the Compact office for the state of Montana. The most difficult part of the transition has been ACRONYMS! AH! Every sentence I heard was an acronym from something servicey - CNCS, NCS, MTCC, CC, etc - it was like learning a new language. The first week really was just trying to figure out what people were saying, and what that meant for me. The second week I spent trying to figure out how I was going to train people when I had no idea what I was doing. Just like I ended up doing with my last leadership position, I pretty much went with the "fake it til you make it theme". Being part of Americorps has been really exciting, especially because I get to work with leaders all of the state and learn about issues facing most regions in Montana. I've also been learning a lot about Native American reservations, and life on them. I work with four colleges who are affiliated with reservations, and service is done differently there because it has to go through tribal leaders. In addition, my leaders are of all different ages. The differences have had a positive effect on my facilitation skills, and i've also been learning a lot about being a leader and what service means.

The neat part about my job is that I can do up to 30% of my service with an agency of my choice. I'm looking into where I want to serve, and possibly helping start up a music program at the Boys and Girls club. Right now i'm still trying to figure out community needs, and what agencies go unnoticed by university students. It's been a really exciting change, and i'm certainly going to learn a lot about community engagement, leadership, facilitation, and social issues here in Missoula (vs social issues in Burlington).

Hopefully that has caught you up on where I live, what I do, and how i've been adjusting to life in the West. Stay tuned next time for what service means in Missoula, the first 9/11 National Service day for university students in Montana, and my attempt to get food stamps...