Katrina – School’s Out Washington

On the morning of December 7, 2013, twelve youth participants demonstrated that young people occupy a leading role in the efforts to support racial equity in this country. Toward the beginning of the For Youth, By Youth Structural Racism 101 training at School’s Out Washington, participants developed group agreements envisioning a space for openness, respect, honesty, anger and risk-taking, which were not forgotten over the course of the day. This air of productivity touched on various questions and topics, laced together by a common thread: change needs to happen.

With a range of perspectives coming into the training, the modest number of attendees provided an intimate atmosphere to effectively discuss the topic of structural racism. Four prepared youth trainers facilitated the 4.5 hour session, and engaged participants through small group discussions, self-reflection pieces, video clips and role playing. Some participants expressed feelings of pain and were overwhelmed by the complex topic, while many were surprised to hear the differences and similarities between personal experiences in different local Seattle neighborhoods. Several had not realized how or if race had ever affected them.

Prior to the training, the youth trainers identified topics that explore these perceptions of race, which would be most applicable to this group. Privilege and disadvantage are firmly entrenched in the job market, schools, social media and communities, where young people are so impacted today. The youth trainers chose these spaces to explore and dissect relevant issues of race. 

The participants demonstrated self-awareness and the fearless acknowledgement that Race and Racism are multifarious topics. This should not be overlooked. This self-awareness then translated into self-advocacy. Near the end of the session the adults left the room and together, the youth articulated what they can do to address racism, and what adults should know and do in tandem with these goals.  For example, a snippet of their discussion reveals propositions such as implementing workshops for youth and adults in the school and work settings according to the group. Arguably, this is a common suggestion amongst adults when talking about racism and youth development.

Another challenge is that youth do notice when and how adults and other authority figures use prejudice or stereotypes, whether this is identified as racism or not. And they are aware that it is often a struggle to get adults to listen. This training was one important step toward embracing the indispensable voice of youth in current racial equity discourse. I am personally very grateful that this was one of the first events I had to opportunity to be involved with as a VISTA at SOWA.  As I step further into the field of youth development, my perspectives on YD and Youth Empowerment will be flexible and challenged. 

Siobhan – Coalition for Refugees from Burma

In August, I celebrated the end of my first year of service with the National Corporation for Community Service as well as my one year anniversary working with Coalition for Refugees from Burma and this beautiful community. I commemorated this occasion by returning to the Annual Karen Wrist Tying Ceremony, the same ceremony I had met the community one year prior. When I walked into the Jefferson Community Center I was no longer surrounded by strangers. The students and families I have worked with for the last year smiled warmly and waved as I took my seat beside a lovely young mother named Doh Doh Paw. Her son has been working with an In-Home Tutor that I placed him with many months ago.

The youth led portion of the ceremony was just winding down when I arrived and youth were inviting the broader community up to the long white table where community elders sat at the front of the gymnasium.

      I stood from my seat and walked toward a community elder who I have grown very fond of in my year with CRB and NCCS. I worked closely with her eldest son during his senior year of high school. He graduated last spring and now attends a community college where he takes ESL classes to improve his English. She smiled as she saw me take a place at the end of her line. I waited anxiously as she performed the wrist tying rights for her daughter and granddaughter.

      When it was my turn, I stood with my right hand outstretched to her, open for the sweets and blessings she would bestow upon me for the New Year in the community. I was silent and reflexive as she spoke softly in Karen. I thought back to all I had accomplished in my year of service, all of the students that graduated high school, the youth who had improved their English reading and speaking, and the parents who had gained the confidence to meet their children’s teachers for the first time. I also thought to the future, the challenges I would face working with newly arrived families struggling to understand a new education system, the triumphs of High School Proficiency Exams passed, and finally to families smiling at their children’s graduation from high school. As Annie finished tying the simple red string around my wrist I felt newly fortified to complete my second year of service supporting this community and my country.

The string Annie tied recently fell off. I shed the tattered red thread like a snake does its skin. At first I was devastated, I thought all of the magic Annie had spun with her Karen prayer would disappear but then I realized “No matter what the future may bring I know these amazing young women and women have changed my life and that will never leave me.”

Erika

“Oh my God, it’s been so busy.” If you work in an American office, you probably hear this – and its companions: “I’m so stressed,” “I only slept for X number of hours last night“ and “I’m just so slammed with work” -a lot, from your colleagues, your boss, and even yourself. Our workplace culture tends to place a premium on stress and busyness, but at what cost to employee effectiveness, happiness, and sustainability? As a VISTA contemplating my future career path, I’ve become aware of the office culture surrounding working overtime and always being ‘so busy.’

According to the Center for Disease Control, stress-related illnesses and disabilities cost employers millions of dollars each year. Stress and overwork make you more susceptible to illness, less likely to have a healthy work-life balance, and more likely to make mistakes on the job. Many of us do important work, and sometimes you’ll be stressed because there’s a lot going on, or you’re on a tricky project, or something has gone awry in your personal life, and there’s no shame in that. What I’d like to move away from is the wide-held belief that if you aren’t stressed and aren’t complaining about how busy you are, you aren’t doing enough. Instead, let’s focus on doing our jobs well and efficiently and letting others do theirs.

So, yes, we’re all busy. But maybe we should be a little less busy, and my New Year’s resolution? To never again tell someone I’m so busy.

VISTA Spotlight: Rachel, EACS

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As the Strategic Initiatives Coordinator VISTA Rachel will make strides in achieving sustainability for East African Community Services (EACS), who, through educational programming and referral services, are dedicated to improving the well-being and quality of life for East African Youth and their families.

After graduating with her Bachelor’s in history and journalism in 2010 Rachel settled into a desk job in the energy industry and traveled as often as she could. In 2012 she traded in her 72” x 72” cubical for a better view of the world, moving to the UK before living and volunteering in El Sauce, Nicaragua. It was here, working alongside local tradesmen to build sustainable housing, teaching English to ELL learners, and in helping start up a backyard agriculture project for youth with a small NGO, that Rachel developed a passion for working with multi-cultural and multi-lingual communities.

Although this Buffalo native is now adjusting to life on the west coast, she can still be overheard speaking in Spanglish, seen scouring restaurants for gullo pinto, and often wonders where all the vacas are while riding her bike to work.

Erika

Last month, I got to help sort flatware and make beds in preparation for a family’s arrival. This month, I sat in a breezy park on a Tuesday afternoon and watched Courtney, our medical case worker, help Bhutanese women compare the amount of sugar in various types of food. Almost all of my work as the Community Engagement VISTA is focused on building programs that will increase our community presence and engage more volunteers. While I do love this outreach work, it is undeniably satisfying to be able to interact directly with the refugees we serve.

The Tuesday afternoon support group was started last year after the Center for Disease Control published a report that noted shockingly high rates of suicide among elderly Bhutanese refugees. Strong neighborhood and community bonds serve as support systems as refugees navigate the often bewildering social, economic, and governmental systems of their adopted country. This group is composed of about eight ‘regulars,’ ranging from elementary school girls to great-grandmothers, and meets weekly. Every week, Courtney has a different activity that is meant to foster conversation and increase their comfort level with their new daily lives. Once she had them make and race paper airplanes, once they practiced the name of the states, and once they took a field trip to ARTvocacy, where they sold knit goods.

I really appreciated the opportunity to spend some time with these women who, instead of throwing up their hands at the difficulty of their new lives, have decided to stake their claim, and make Tukwila home. 

Brie – East African Community Services

When immigrants or refugees come to the United States, they receive assistance with finding employment, taking language classes, accessing social services,  navigating public transportation, and finding  housing.  However, the people who come into the United States, torn from their home countries by war and adversity, lose their federal eligibility for these services after 3 to 5 short years.  What happens when a person still hasn’t learned the language, hasn’t learned to use a computer, hasn’t secured permanent housing, or a job?  EACS faces this question every day.  Yes, a person can become accustomed to a country, but can they learn how to read and write well enough to fill out paperwork? Can they learn English, reading and writing skills, and computer skills well enough so that they can apply for a job on-line?  We at EACS are finding that the answer to these questions is that many people cannot actually access these services.  Almost every day, EACS is asked to help a person search for jobs on line, write a cover letter, and/or fill out an on-line application.  As much as we try not to turn anyone away from our office, we do not have the capacity to sit with a person and walk them through the process of looking for a job.  Many times, we try to direct them to a an organization that can offer them the comprehensive care they really need, but organizations like that are few and far between, or their services are limited to only a few hours per week.   Many times, the process of going to Workforce or an unemployment office is terribly bureaucratic that it can feel like getting stuck in a hamster wheel  – and the people who come through our doors know this.  Can I, in good conscience, refer a person to an organization that even I can hardly get a hold of someone who can answer my questions, even though I’m a fluent English speaker who grew up in U.S. culture!  With significant challenges on the path toward establishing a referral system, I will continue in my search to find a service that will help instead of deter the members of the East African community, whom I have grown to so deeply care about.

Nick – Somali Community Service Coalition

While I worked as an agricultural extension agent in the Peace Corps, I lived in a constant state of fear of bringing certain doom to my farmers’ lives. We worked in collaboration to improve agricultural practices with ‘sustainability’ as the goal. This required experimentation, so we were encouraged by our trainers to use discretion and experimental planting plots when attempting new methods, in the hopes that any failure would not bring financial ruin or worse to a family or community. The likelihood of failure was even greater considering I usually had little to no idea what I was doing. I had many project ideas, but I had to approach them carefully and with the expectation that everything would go wrong.

From my first week at Somali Community Services Coalition, I realized that we needed a new website. The page was disorganized, a lot of the material was irrelevant, and didn’t reflect the current state of our organization and programs. The problem was that the page was controlled by an outside IT person who was difficult to contact and who said that we would be unable to make the changes to the website ourselves, leaving us paying for a service we could not fully utilize. I had no idea how to make a new website. After doing some basic research, I built a practice page and slowly started to become confident that I could handle the process myself. I talked to my ED and told the IT person I wanted to start and complete the process of changing website hosts in the next week, and then waited to hear back from him. A couple days later, I wondered to myself, “Why hasn’t that organization responded to my proposal by the response date…?” Another day passed, and I thought to myself, “Why have I not received email in three days?” Then, I began hearing my coworkers grumble about not receiving any emails. Then text messages begin coming in about our website being down. I felt the tinge of panic in my heart when I finally realized what had happened. Before communicating it to us, the IT person had removed the website, and in doing so had left our email non-functioning. This would have been a problem anytime, but it was particularly bad timing since we were in the process of recruiting volunteers and participants for our summer education program, and I was indirectly responsible for the hindrance of this. I had inadvertently salted SCSC’s fields.

After countless YouTube videos, several miscommunications, many ‘WTF’s, and staring at numbers whose meaning I still don’t understand, I was eventually able to set up the new website and re-start our email. SCSC now has a website that is fully functional, up to date, and able to be utilized by the organization for less money than we were paying for a professionally managed website before. I believe this will further the sustainability and autonomy of SCSC as a whole.

My experience in Peace Corps taught me many things, but I think the most important was reinforcing the notion that there cannot be any success without risks. It’s important to approach things in a well thought out manner, but things will always go imperfectly, especially in the small, resource limited, CBOs, that VISTAs often work in. I failed to make an important consideration and we didn’t have email for a week, but better done imperfectly than not done at all. After all, I didn’t starve a village.

Our new website is at somalicsc.org

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Erika – IRC Apartment Set-up

“Have you run across a rice cooker? How about a men’s razor? And shower curtain rings?” Nick asked, looking up from his checklist. These are just a few of the items the IRC provides to newly arrived refugee families; others include: plumped pillows, silverware, a hot meal, shampoo, a kitchen table… the list goes on. The motto of the IRC is ‘from harm to home,’ and there are teams of dedicated staff members ensuring that every family has not only a house, but a home.

As I organized pots and pans and set the clock on the microwave, I thought about the family that would live here. What would the mother make for dinner? Would it make more sense to have the cooking oil above the stove or right next to it? Where do the potholders go? Should I unwrap the silverware so it is more homey or leave it in plastic so they know it’s new?

This apartment was the first I’d ever set up, but our Logistics Coordinator Nick Brown has organized hundreds. “The process of coming to the United States can be an exceptionally trying and draining process for a refugee. The trip takes many hours, if not days to complete, and once the individual or family arrives they still face challenges in assimilating to their new community. Having a furnished apartment with beds made, the toiletries laid out, food in the fridge and plates in the cupboards can be a huge relief for the weary.”

The IRC in Seattle, on average, receives two to three refugee families per week, and they are all given a furnished apartment. Coordinating this requires an immense amount of organization and community support, but the result, giving refugee families a toehold in their new country, is well worth the effort.

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Siobhan – Kent Youth Program

On a rainy, Pacific Northwest Thursday afternoon 15 students, CRB volunteer Janet, partners from World Relief Kent, and I visited the Green River Community College (GRCC) campus in Auburn, WA. When we arrived at Green River our students were immediately struck by the verdant vegetation enveloping the campus. We traversed small gray pathways in a sea of green until we reached the Zgolinski Welcome Center.

As we entered the building we were greeted by one of GRCC’s Career Counselors, Josh Staffieri. Josh arranged a room in the Welcome Center for us to sit and listen to three encouraging and passionate members of the GRCC “family,” as they put it. AmeriCorps VISTA Marwa Almusawi, took the time to explain her background, her struggles, as well as her triumphs. She also spoke to our students in English and Arabic. Students Gabrel, from the Phillipines and Hani, from Somalia, also presented their stories to the students gathered. They spoke to students about the challenges of coming to a new country, learning a new language, and achieving their academic goals.

A highlight of the presentation occurred during Hani speech. She presented in English while a Karen student from Burma translated into the Karen language, and shortly thereafter, Marwa would translate into Arabic. It was truly powerful to see and hear the diversity of the room; people from all over the world in pursuit of better education… it was a magical thing!

After our youth asked the GRCC students questions about college life, we toured the campus. Students were able to see the facilities, like the Lindbloom Student Center, and classrooms. We visited one particular classroom in which GRCC students were running air traffic control simulations in a state-of-the-art control room. It was fantastic!

CRB would like to thank Josh Staffieri, who was an integral part of organizing the program and we are very appreciative of his assistance. We would also like to thank the three presenters, Marwa, Gabrel, and Hani for sharing wise words of inspiration. Last but certainly not least, thank you to volunteer tutor Janet and World Relief intern Chelsey for helping us keep our students safe on the trip.Image

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Brie- East African Community Services

How has your assignment morphed during your service? Do you foresee any of your current activities changing?

 

After months of accidentally saving documents to my desktop or even to the wrong, it’s once again time to re-organize my files.  The only problem, is that in the last few months, my job has been slowly morphing away from the VISTA Assignment Description (heretofore referred to as the VAD) that was given to me at the start of my term.  As my organization changes, and as I settle into the position, my job description has begun to change.  In the beginning, when people asked what I do, I would tell them: “I’m a grant writer.  I write grant applications for my organization so the organization can get money.”  At the time, that was true: grant writing was pretty much all I did, and also pretty much all that I knew how to do.  The part of my VAD about writing a Fundraising Plan, procuring in-kind donations, running a program, writing budgets, and maintaining the whole organization’s list of contacts frankly scared me a little. 

 

Since then, both I and my organization have grown in really positive ways.  EACS has hired a part-time Resource Development Director, which has taken off some of the weight of the largest grant proposals.  I have seen countless amazingly informative Webinars on everything related to non-profits, been to multiple trainings all across Seattle, worked with visionary mentors to make large strides in my administrative capacity, and just given the age-old college try to projects I previously thought were above my ability.  Now, it’s my fourth time overseeing the hiring process for a new intern/position, and I’m helping the  Executive Director and the Board of Directors plan the Strategic Development Plan meeting to ensure EACS’ strategic progress.  I have become both the Resource Development Coordinator, and the “Strategic Initiatives Coordinator,” which is the VISTA project that will replace mine at the end of the year.  I have even had an offer to be hired on as a part time staff person after my AmeriCorps term ends.

 

But still, the question remains: how do I organize my computer files?  Do I organize them by which grant or what type of resource they are, or do I organize them in regard to which project or initiative they pertain to?  This question of where my job title begins and ends will have to be sorted out as my position continues to morph, especially if I am to be hired on in after the term ends. 

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