Happy AmeriCorps Week to service members near and far! Here in Solid Ground’s Community Food Education (CFE) program, we’re feeling particularly celebratory, because our AmeriCorps team has grown from three to six in the last few weeks.
In October, Pam Lim and Annika van Leynseele were welcomed to the team as Food Education Coordinators, primarily coordinating Cooking Matters class series and demos. I, Emiline Chipman, also began in October as a Food & Garden Youth Educator, conducting nutrition and gardening lessons during preschool and afterschool programs. Now, Lindsay Matteson and Jordan Van Hoozer join CFE in classrooms along with Leah Levert who will also coordinate Cooking Matters courses.
While our member number has doubled in size, our energy and capacity as a team has grown beyond measure. We are so fortunate to have as many service members as we do, especially ones who are so thoughtful, motivated, and dynamic. I’ve asked each of my five team members to share their ideas about service:
- What service means to us and those we serve.
- How Solid Ground’s mission guides our service.
- What impacts service can make.
- Why someone should consider an AmeriCorps service term.
Why we serve
Some of us were introduced to service through interfacing with service members in our own communities. Leah, for instance, had career-inspiring conversations with some service members in her most recent home in South Carolina.
“I met a few AmeriCorps in my final semester of college, and they were doing really admirable work that I was really inspired by,” she says. “And I was also looking for something to do after college, because I wasn’t quite sure what field I wanted go into. I didn’t see a lot of corporate positions I was excited about, and then I looked into AmeriCorps and I found a lot of positions doing work I was very interested in.”
Most of us describe discovering the position listing on the AmeriCorps portal as “finding exactly the thing we didn’t know we were looking for.” The position combines some intersection of passions and studies – different for each of us – with service as the keystone holding the two together.
Back in August, as I began planning to step away from the place I called home for 21 years and move into a new community, I knew the way to understand it best was to be in service to it. My life experience told me that all around us are support networks large and small, which constitute communities. These communities are made of experts specializing in our neighborhoods’ needs – and these experts have always been my teachers.
When I asked Lindsay why she sought and accepted her position, she too cited the functional role service plays in building community. “Time is the biggest thing that anyone can give, especially when you consider what a valuable resource it is; we all only have so much of it. And for me, being in a spot of transition and ability to give time, this seemed like the right thing to do in this moment. I think the best way to figure out what you want to do is to give time and service to other people and learn their stories.”BACK TO TOP
Connecting to Solid Ground’s mission
Service is a relationship built on an exchange of resources. In my case, I input time and energy providing services that a community values and requests in exchange for a menagerie of professional development, personal connections, and experiential education. That is not to say a service exchange is automatically equal, however. Our anti-racism and anti-oppressions focus at Solid Ground reminds us to reconcile our current service positions with the history of service.
Historically, social service programs have been practiced with a marked power imbalance wherein members of a dominant social group have the leisure time to do volunteer work, and so make the decisions about what kinds of services they will provide. Often this is done to advance an agenda of the privileged group which fails to ask for or take into consideration the perspectives and ideas of those “being served.” As a result, communities being served may actually have their own flow of resources disrupted for the sake of providing “enriching experiences” to the volunteers.
As Lindsay says, “The ability to give time is a privilege. Often it’s a privilege for dominant categories of people, whether that’s white, or cisgendered, or whatever. So to be able to give time to serve communities that don’t often have the time for their own communities, I think, is really important. The way to kind of undo oppression is for a lot of resources to be input into a system in a way that corrects the balance of where resources have historically gone.”
To be in service to someone else requires that I understand how to be in service, which requires that I listen and seek to understand the concerns of those I serve. It requires that I put the concerns of the community first, and use my knowledge and skills to support those concerns. As AmeriCorps members at Solid Ground, it’s really important to us that we have evidence that we are positively changing the narrative of service.
We all shared the thought that our in-the-moment serving is put into balance by the systemic framework for understanding it. As Pam puts it: “Our mission puts service in context. To frame the work we do in a systemic way makes it really meaningful. I think that helps me, and the volunteers, and whoever is doing service, to do service for good reasons.”
She goes on to say, “It’s not that I feel the need to address racism because Solid Ground’s mission is anti-racism – it’s the other way around. I already think about it, and I have gut feelings when situations don’t feel right. Knowing that we have the agency’s support and knowing that [anti-racism is] the agency’s goal helps motivate me to do something about it.”
While, as an agency, Solid Ground has a history of community investment and trust, we as individuals are temporary and, except for one of us, transplanted here. We recognize the tenuousness of that connection, and the complications that brings to building traditionally-defined community. Nonetheless we feel the effects already radiating out; Solid Ground’s mission makes our service stronger, and that’s something we’ll take with us wherever we go after our AmeriCorps Service Term.BACK TO TOP
In our interview, Annika explained how she witnesses our service positions support an empowered relationship between us as service members and those we serve.
“I think the emphasis we come in with – about recognizing the skills and knowledge that people bring with them – is really valuable, because they end up bringing so much to class. I feel like that’s why our classes are effective; because we’re not up at the front of the classroom saying, ‘This is the way and this is the only way, you should do this, and should not do this,’ but we’re saying, ‘Here is some information. You can make some informed decisions that make sense for you and your lifestyle.’ And that makes it more of a discussion, which is really valuable.” She goes on to say, “I can visibly see the difference we make in people’s lives, because in class they say things like, ‘Wow, this tastes so good,’ ‘I didn’t know it was this easy,’ ‘I didn’t know I could do this,’ ‘I can’t wait to try this at home.’ So it’s a very tangible effect.”
Each AmeriCorps member I interviewed commented on the tangible impact that comes from exchanging information and building skills together – and subsequently on the balancing impact of Solid Ground’s mission. As the foundation for doing any service, we all know that addressing inequities in the food system is impossible without addressing racism, poverty, and other oppressions.
As Jordan puts it: “All of these systems have interacted to lead to this moment – these people, this class, and us – in this space with these resources and these ingredients. So, then, how do we make something that will make the students feel good about what they’re eating and be able to recreate that at home?”BACK TO TOP
Why do AmeriCorps?
Team members had such a variety of answers to this question. There were some common threads amongst us when it comes to what we think are the biggest benefits of doing a service term. Jordan commented on the practical life lessons a person learns in the midst of service: “The assessing and implementation of changes that are needed … it works for teaching, it works for lesson plans, but it’s also a really good skill for life.”
Leah added to that how helpful it has been to be in a strong, supportive team, albeit in a different way than she’s used to. “I’m learning a different way of interacting with teams. I’m used to sports teams, and there’s a different way to rally a team like this one here.” There’s a healthy balance of challenge and support from this team, and that makes it one of the top reasons we’d recommend doing a service term.
Lastly, we feel our work has a lot of meaning, not only to ourselves, but to our department, Solid Ground, and the communities we serve. “More and more, cooking has become a way for me to connect with people in this really intimate and unspoken way. Eating is something that we all do, and it’s a very personal thing, but it’s also a very easy thing to share with people. And I think it’s a really special and powerful way to connect with people who are different from you. These classes are such a cool way to break down those barriers and find common ground.”
We’re very grateful for the opportunity to serve, especially with Solid Ground and all the people who contribute to Solid Ground’s mission. Thanks from our AmeriCorps team to all of the service members across the country, to all of the volunteers who serve with Solid Ground, and to all of you experts who serve your community every day in ways large and small.
If you’d like to learn more about the work each of our service members do, or what other service members do at sites around Washington state, check out their Stories of Service webpage. Have you served with AmeriCorps, Washington Service Corps, Solid Ground, or another food justice initiative? Or do you work with someone who serves? If you have, we’d love to hear your story. Comment on this blog below, or share your story on social media and tag us!
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