The Healing Power of Resilience through Service

1 Jul

Before my service with Public Allies, I was complacent about my future. My defenses were strong and impenetrable, as I learned early in life to keep my hopes and dreams and my lived experiences a secret. I learned to protect myself from suffering by hiding my personal identity and my cultural heritage. This has often been a precaution I’ve taken in order to avoid violence and discrimination, but it has also caused strain on my relationships and eventually developed into social anxiety. I thought that by keeping myself hidden away from others, I would keep myself safe. But what I’ve come to realize through my term of service with Public Allies is that living such a guarded life in fear and shame means living a life devoid of true connection.

My experience with Public Allies has been the nexus of what, to me, has arguably been the most important lesson I’ve learned about service leadership, and that is that leadership is about building relationships, not just making connections, and storytelling is a suitable conduit for that process. In sharing our stories, we invite others into our lives by showing our humanity. Personal stories of survival and resilience can be sites of healing and liberation for the both the individual and the collective community, as they cultivate a sense of belonging for people. We, as individuals, are the sole authorities of our own stories, and by sharing them with our communities, we gain the knowledge of our capacity as leaders and the power to realize that we are not alone in our struggles. Through telling our stories, we create a shared sense of purpose and can better collaborate toward common goals. This form of storytelling promotes authenticity and transparency in our service because it affords us the opportunity to be real with one another.

Over the last ten months, I’ve had the chance to tell my very own story many times to many different people. I entered this program as a social phobic, a person who couldn’t even call the local pizza shop to place an order for delivery. I was living in all-encompassing poverty, and I felt incapable of ever being anything more than a social failure. What I didn’t realize was that I was worthy of receiving compassion, love, and support just exactly as I was. I didn’t need to wait until I was deemed successful by society’s standards to be valued as a person and to share my story with others.

If my story has impacted you on some level, I hope that you will be inspired to take action in your own life. I encourage you to take an emotional risk, and share your story with someone. Your story can serve as a source of affirmation for yourself and for others who may be experiencing hardship or silent struggle. I ask you to make the choice to show up and be real with others. You will find that each time you do this, you become a little braver. I urge you to make yourself visible (where it’s reasonably safe to do so), to bear witness to your lived experience, and to be the bold authority of your own story while maintaining your personal boundaries. Embracing vulnerability does not mean that you have to become a doormat; you can abandon your fear of rejection and judgment by choosing to share your story with folks you can trust to meet you where you are with compassion and kindness. Lastly, if you happen to be the person with whom someone else has chosen to share their story, I hope that you will simply be present and listen, as you have listened to my story here.

I feel so very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to serve with Public Allies and to write for the Ally Snapshots blog. I never before imagined that I would ever have the resources to move out of poverty and to overcome my social anxiety. Before I became an Ally, I was struggling with severe depression and battling suicidal ideations. Through becoming involved with such a wonderful program and committing myself to serving my community, I have found my way back to my own path. Public Allies has not only changed my life; it has saved my life, as well.

Thank you for reading.

From Washington, PA to Washington, D.C.

21 May

As a child, I often told my mother that it was my dream to go to the White House and talk to the President about how I wanted to “change the world by helping people.” I was very young, but I understood at an early age the true power of the presidency. I knew that if I wanted my story to be heard, and if I wanted to make change happen, I had to go directly to the source of political power: the President. As I grew older, this dream grew distant, and I became apathetic about how I was living my life. Until recently, I had completely forgotten about this dream of mine.

On Friday, April 12th, my dream was revived as I joined 11 other AmeriCorps and CNCS members in walking through the gates of the White House. As I took my seat in the Roosevelt Room and then, as I shook President Obama’s hand and introduced myself, I felt a surge of energy and immediately recalled my long-lost aspiration. At that very moment in time, I was living my dream. I was participating in a roundtable with the President, where I and other service volunteers had the opportunity to share our personal life stories and our experiences of hardship and success in our volunteer work. I was invited to tell my story to people with true political power, people who have the ability to change lives in a very real sense. President Obama thanked me and the other volunteers for our service and spoke about the importance of volunteering in our communities. He encouraged us to stay motivated and to persevere when faced with setbacks.

After the roundtable had ended, President Obama took us on a private tour of the Oval Office, where we had the chance to see the Emancipation Proclamation, the Resolute Desk, and the Presidential Seal on the ceiling. When President Obama had to leave to tend to other matters, he sent us with top White House officials through the West Colonnade and the Rose Garden, where the flowers were in full bloom. We then walked to the South Lawn, where we met with White House Executive Pastry Chef, Bill Yosses. Bill guided us through the First Lady’s garden, which includes a bee hive and compost bins. There, he shared with us a story about the organic heirloom plants (including sea kale) whose seeds had been passed down from Thomas Jefferson’s gardens at Monticello. We were even invited to pluck fresh mint leaves right off of the plant to taste them.

Spending the afternoon discussing service at the roundtable with the President and the other volunteers was an invigorating and rejuvenating reminder of why I serve: to decrease suffering, to benefit others, and to make a difference in my community. Since my trip, I have been overwhelmed with gratitude for the great outpouring of kindness from others. My community has supported me in every way possible. A brand new business suit was donated to me for my trip, as I couldn’t afford to purchase one on my own. My co-workers threw a Stars and Stripes themed surprise party for me and made a lovely little card for me, as well. Public Allies staff walked me through the process of forming my narrative and helped me to gain the courage to tell my story. My close friends and fellow Allies all gushed with excitement and pride over my achievement. It was truly a wonderful experience to receive such support from my community.

I was most touched by a message my sister sent to me just after I arrived in Washington, D.C. She said: “I’m so proud of how far you’ve come, Meg, from the first day when you were nervous and not thinking you were going to make the cut all the way to being one of 12 volunteers chosen to do what you are passionate about. I can’t tell you how honored I am to be your sister. You’ve made awesome leaps and bounds this past year, conquered your biggest fears, and you never once quit. Even when it became overwhelming, you still put your sweat and tears into everything you did. And now, doors are beginning to open to what you thought were unimaginable opportunities. I have so much faith in you and know you will excel in absolutely anything you do. You have the drive, determination, and passion to move mountains. I love you, and I’m so very proud of you.” I was moved to tears by my sister’s message, as I knew that I had become a source of inspiration for her.

After I returned from my trip, I had the chance to tell my story many times to many different people. Volunteers told me they were honored and proud to have me represent them at the White House, and clients at the agency where I am placed were excited to hear my story and pressed me to tell it over and over again until it felt real to me. Sharing my story with so many people actually became a source of strength for me; I used my vulnerability to make connections with others. I overcame the fear and shame I experienced about my life and my personal experience in poverty by making myself transparent. The authenticity and honesty transmitted through my message encouraged others to open up about their experiences, as well. Since I have started to share my story, I no longer feel shame about my past, and this has influenced other folks in my community to come forward and tell their stories too.

The impact that my trip has had on my personal life, my professional life, and the lives of others who have heard my story has been simply phenomenal. When I was a child, I thought that the only way my voice would ever be heard was if I got to tell my story to the President. Now that I’ve met President Obama and shared my life story with him and other folks in the federal government, I know this to be quite untrue. The real power in my personal narrative came from sharing it with my neighbors, my friends, my family, my co-workers. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to tell my story at the White House, but the real success came from me learning to share my story with my community.

This experience has been both humbling and empowering for me, and I am deeply honored and grateful for the opportunity to share my story with so many wonderful people. My life’s journey from Washington, PA to Washington, D.C. wasn’t exactly an easy one, but I couldn’t have done it without help. So, thank you to those who have offered me unending support and kindness, especially over the last few months. It really means more to me than I can ever truly express.

-By Meghan Dillie, Public Allies Pittsburgh Class of 2013

Someone Like the Rest of Us

9 Apr

At Community Action Southwest, the partner organization where I am placed, I co-facilitate a class where clients investigate and examine their personal situation in poverty. The class involves learning how our society and economy work, analyzing one’s personal history, assessing community needs and supports, and developing a plan for building personal resources in order to create a more stable life. During last week’s class, clients were discussing their economic class stories. I was invited to open up and share my own economic class story, as well. I talked about growing up in rural generational poverty and living in more extreme poverty as a young adult. I talked about hunger, illness, depression, chaos, fear, and shame. I agreed to tell my personal story as a way of illustrating that living in poverty means living in instability.

After class, one of the clients pulled me aside, hugged me, and thanked me for sharing such a personal story with the class. She said, “I had no idea you had been through all that. I just saw you as my teacher, but now, I see you as a real person, someone like the rest of us here.” She expressed happiness at my opening up to the group and appreciation for trusting them enough to share my story.

This experience invigorated me because it validated my own experience with poverty as a totally legitimate reality. It also solidified a lesson I’ve learned through my participation in the Public Allies program: leadership is about building relationships, not just making connections. These deeply personal conversations serve to engage others and to encourage collaboration towards common goals. I’ve learned that being a leader means becoming less guarded and using your vulnerability to open the door to real conversations and strong relationships with the people you serve. It means softening your heart, breaking it open to others, and showing that you’re “someone like the rest of us.”

An Interview with Nakeisha Neal Jones

3 Apr

In honor of AmeriCorps week last month, I had the opportunity to speak with the Executive Director of Public Allies DC (PADC), Nakeisha Neal Jones. Nakeisha completed the Public Allies  program in Washington, DC. in 1997 and led the same program’s re-launch in 2010. As someone who has experienced being an Ally as well as a staff member, Nakeisha offers an inspirational perspective on the value of AmeriCorps.

Why Service Matters

“Service can build relationships between people that you wouldn’t otherwise meet,” explained Nakeisha. “From my own experience, it can also help you learn more about a community. When I got to college, I decided to volunteer to get off campus. I think it was really good for me because I felt like I lived at Duke and not in Durham.” Similarly, service has the power to change the individual as much as it improves the society. For instance, volunteering taught Nakeisha that “we’re all linked” and enabled her to “use that (philosophy) as a routine way to live. That gift is more valuable than some of things that I’ve done.”

Public Allies’ Assets

Nakeisha believes that PADC can help solve the challenges currently facing our nation’s capital.  Too often DC is divided between the “haves and the have-nots,” lacking a space for “unusual suspects to come together to solve local issues.” By engaging diverse groups that otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to work together, PADC builds sustainable solutions to community problems.

Public Allies’ Values

The value that Nakeisha uses most is “continuous learning,” or “the ability to question assumptions and beliefs, understand strengths and shortcomings, and commit to continued growth within a community context.” As Nakeisha explained, “it’s important for us to know why our actions are successful” as well as why we repeat the same mistakes. As change agents, we must study our errors and be open to altering ingrained habits.

From Ally to Executive Director

When Nakeisha was an ally, PADC challenged her “because there were many opportunities for me to reflect on what I valued and why. I realized that some of the beliefs that I held really weren’t as important as I thought they were. The group challenged me to deal with diversity, authenticity and community on a much deeper level that I had experienced before Public Allies. It was wonderful, but the change didn’t always feel good.” Nakeisha returned to PADC to rebuild an organization that shaped her own life path. Her experiences as an ally inspired her to “live the values, do what’s hard, and learn from mistakes,” philosophies that influence how she directs the program today.

The Future of Service

The goal for PADC is to imagine our community in 2023 and to ask ourselves, “What can we say that we had a hand in creating?” Hopefully, we will have built a “healthy, vibrant, relevant, and sustainable leadership pipeline for social good” that is ultimately using Public Allies values, tools, and relationships to solve long-standing community problems.

Final Thoughts

AmeriCorps and other service opportunities help generate a community-oriented culture where it is “normal to give time, talent, and money to other people or causes.” After all, “there’s a role for everyone. We all have strengths. If you’re doing something that’s helping to build a community that’s larger than yourself with whatever time you have, then I’m happy.”

~Angela Miller

Kick-Off and New Beginnings

26 Mar

After some unexpected set-backs, my service project with my fellow Allies is finally coming together. My group co-hosted a community event with our partner organization, the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society (IMAS) on the North Side of Chicago. The organization’s mission is “to foster the well-being and self-sufficiency of Iraqi refugees and immigrants in the Chicago-metro area: easing their transition to life in the United States, forging connections between Iraqi and American society, and facilitating the preservation and exchange of Iraqi culture”. With the Iraqi community in Chicago growing, IMAS  is eager to expand its programming and our project focuses on helping the staff build the infrastructure for new youth programs.

My service project team.

Our kick-off event was a great opportunity for interface with the community. Personally, I had very little knowledge of or experience with refugee groups from any background before partnering with IMAS. The opportunity to learn more about Iraqi culture and the refugee experience makes this project even more exciting. The journey began for me at the event, where I had an enlightening conversation with a community member. She approached me to ask for more information about Public Allies and my personal background. After a 40 minute conversation, I walked away feeling like I’d just met one of the most courageous women in the world. She has only lived in Chicago (and the US in general) for about 5 months, but has managed to find a new home and family here after losing her entire family in Syria. IMAS, she said, helped her come back to life. The people she has met are her new brothers and sisters. Of everything she said, one quote will probably stay with me forever:

“When people ask me how old I am, I say 5 months because when I came here 5 months ago I was reborn. It was a new beginning.”

Her attitude towards her experiences is inspiring. Personally, it reminds me to believe in the power of hope and the strength it can give you to start over.

Wisdom from my Coworker

7 Mar

As my coworker Martha and I got on the bus together one morning, a tiny old woman in a big overcoat sitting at the front of the bus waved at Martha. She waved back, smiling wide. The woman said something I didn’t catch in Spanish and Martha nodded vigorously, saying, “Yea, yea, yea!”

“I don’t remember who she is,” she muttered to me a few moments later, and I laughed. As we exited, another person waved and then a tall man in a puffy blue jacket stopped to talk to us on the sidewalk. Martha hugged him and asked about his mother, the Laundromat she runs, and the hair salon that he runs. We got stopped on the street two more times this way on our way back to the office.

Martha knows everyone, or knew everyone at some time, or treats everyone like she knows them. After 17 years as a housing counselor at St. Nicks Alliance, it is no wonder that she knows so many people in the neighborhood, and that she can’t keep track of them all.

What’s more, she adores strangers. When we call to order pizza for a meeting, she banters with the pizza man as if they’re old friends, then admits she has never met him. She flirts with the cab driver and gives her dinner to him, pollo y arroz con gandules, wrapped up in styrofoam. She spends an extra minute at the bodega counter as we buy ice, checking on how the worker’s week has been.

One evening in October she told me something simple that still sticks with me. Walking out of the office together, Martha waved at three men who always hang out on a certain stoop on Powers Street, cursing and smoking. They all waved back, calling “Marta!” fondly. As we got out of earshot, she told me:

“Kelly– always be friendly to everyone in your neighborhood, even if you don’t know them. You never know when it will save you.”

She told me about a time that she was visiting the tenants in a building across the street from the bodega where we buy ice. As she left, the landlord confronted her on the stoop, yelling at her about talking to the tenants about their rights:

“He was two inches from my face,” Martha said, “and raising up his hand as if to strike me, and the man at the deli saw and came out to the sidewalk, and yelled, ‘HEY! What’s going on!?’ And the landlord went inside real quick, you can bet.” She laughed.

“People usually won’t go that much out of their way for strangers– they won’t get involved. But if they know you, it’s different.”

I laughed with her, so proud to be walking beside her in a world of people that seem to love and need her so.

Image

Martha at our office holiday party.

Empowering college students to empower youth!

21 Feb

As an ally placed at the City of San Jose, I’m learning how to navigate institutions and try to make change from within. Most of my day consists of me working at my cubicle and I often miss the face-to-face interactions with community.

That’s why one of my favorite aspects of the Public Allies program is Team Service Project. This year, Public Allies Silicon Valley/San Francisco received many great project submissions. My team, Team Synergy, had the opportunity to create and facilitate a training about Political Education for De Anza Community College students. The goal of the training was to give the students the knowledge and tools to be successful as mentors for high school youth.

Through the Power & Privilege Bead Activity, mentors had the opportunity to reflect on their own power and privilege and how they can consciously bring these aspects of themselves to youth mentorship.

The training was Team Synergy’s second training with De Anza! We still have around 3 more trainings to tackle in the remaining months. I’m excited to see the mentors grow through the trainings and the impact that they will have on their youth. But I’m also excited to see how Team Synergy will grow through collaboration with De Anza. For myself, I definitely learned a lot about my facilitation style and what aspects I want to improve on. My Team Service Project  has also taught me what it means to build the capacity of other leaders and to keep our movement(s) sustainable.

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