Last week marked the 35th Anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Day - a day that honors Dr. King’s mighty legacy and encourages acts of service and love.
When I stepped into the shiny, anti-septic marble lobby of the Marriott that sunny July Tuesday. I had no idea what awaited me. I glanced up from my phone long enough to smile at the receptionist and collect my room key, but then resumed my oh-so-urgent text conversation with my then-boyfriend about the merits of Old Bay seasoning. I grabbed my keys and rode the elevator to my room, not knowing that a few hours later, I would forget that I even had my phone. A few hours later, I would meet Jackie, the Mississippi native with the smooth Cajun accent reminiscent of a summer's day spent at the beach with whom I would spend the next year bonding over our mutual obsession with owls. A few hours later, I would meet Gina, who would become one of my closest friends over the course of the next year.
We were all here to train for a year of service as AmeriCorps VISTAs, which I describe as the American Peace Corps to anyone who asks me what I do for a living. Only instead of building houses or teaching children, we would be working behind the desks of non-profit organizations fundraising, recruiting volunteers, or in my case, managing the organization's social media pages. It had been a year since I had graduated college, and after spending 9 months pounding the pavement and applying for jobs, I was excited to finally start my career and to have a place to go every day that would give me purpose, responsibility, and an overall feeling that I was contributing to society.
Over the next three days, I found out just how much AmeriCorps contributes to society. "I promise to get things done for America," is the opening line of the oath we made as we swore ourselves to a year of service. Though the phrase sounds exactly like a sound bite from a Donald Trump stump speech, the urgency of this call to action evokes the dedication and passion of this group as well as their commitment to making our country better place.
I fully understood the extent of this passion the next afternoon. It was our first full day of training, and after spending three hours learning about the poverty rate in the United States, participating in practice drills in which we brainstormed strategies to raise thousands of dollars for a charity event, and eating gourmet lunch in the hotel's dining room (the napkins were white linen if that is any indication) we were all slipping into our food comas as we trudged back to our designated conference room for five more hours. We were then asked to sit in a circle and discuss our personal experiences with poverty in America. As someone from a white, upper middle class background, I did not feel like I had much to contribute to this conversation, but as other members of my group discussed heart wrenching and brutal experiences, I started to understand that in some conversations, it's more important to listen than it is to speak. After all, there is a reason we have two ears and only one mouth.
About 10 minutes into the discussion, a woman who mentored homeless youth in Oakland described how her comfortable, stable childhood suddenly and drastically turned around when her family lost their home and fell into poverty. As her body heaved and shook as the tears rolled down her face, a ripple of empathy coursed through the room as we relived those painful experiences with her. As others shared stories of their parents having to choose between paying for groceries and paying their electric bill, and worrying about paying for their own children's preschool while making ends meet with a Burger King salary while said children were barely a year old. Still others shared their stories about serving with City Year and how much it hurt to see the kids in their classrooms experience these hardships firsthand when they never asked to be born into that life. I too started crying as I realized that the people who I was supposed to be helping weren't faceless beings living in neighborhoods I was always warned about, but those whose eyes I was looking into in that overly gray, overly air conditioned, overly corporate conference room.
Even more powerful was the group's motivation to fight this vicious cycle of poverty. The woman who had grown up homeless used her experience to dedicate her life to mentoring other homeless youth. She was not crying over pain in her life, but over those she would leave at the shelter as she embarked on her year of service. I had gotten my priorities all wrong! Serving others was not a side perk, it was the job! Though my resume would read "National Communications Analyst," my actual title would be anti-poverty warrior, battling the achievement gap at Citizen Schools. Throughout the year, I had the honor of fighting alongside a caring, tough, and committed army of leaders, grant writers, educators, and marketers who would be my managers and mentors. Though I had limited opportunities to interact with the students that Citizen Schools serves, sharing stories of students conquering incredible odds in middle school to reach college and career success on Citizen School's social media channels, and reading 1000 words shouting joy and excitement in the photos of students building robots with Google or learning the secrets to becoming a millionaire with Fidelity humbled me as I realized the energetic and proactive way that every individual within the organization played their part in addressing a major societal issue.
All the skills I picked up, from SalesForce to WordPress, would be ammunition my fight. Though my army and I would all use different tools and skills in our work, there was one line in our job description that bound all our jobs, and it was emblazoned on the back of our AmeriCorps t-shirts: Make poverty history!
By Elissa Spinner, 2015-2016 AmeriCorps VISTA at Citizen Schools HQ