Archive by Author

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.

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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.”

A First-Generation College Student Experience: An Exercise in Pride and Shame

25 Jan

From my personal experience, I can say that the phenomenon of being a first-generation college student is one that is rooted in mixed feelings. As the first person in my family to become a college student, I felt an overwhelming pressure to succeed and to be a role model for my younger sister. My family expected me to do big things and to go to great places, but I certainly didn’t feel capable of being anything more than ordinary. I came from a low-income family in a small, rural town in the hills of southwestern Pennsylvania; I assumed my fate was sealed when I was born into poverty.

Going to college felt like a vital step in breaking the long, multi-generational cycle of social and economic struggle that my family experienced. I thought that if I didn’t succeed in obtaining a college degree, I would be destined to live in poverty for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to be stuck working a job I hated in one of the local factories like so many of my friends had. I wanted to thrive, not just merely survive. Finishing college was my ticket to a brighter future. It was essential in order for me to build the kind of career that would be fulfilling for me.

Although I understood the completion of a college education to be one of my main life goals, it was extremely difficult for me to actually get to university. Knowledge about applying to and paying for college is not readily available to all people, especially socioeconomically disadvantaged folks. The language and the assistance that is available are not accessible to many people. I remember thinking, when I was applying for financial aid before my first semester of college, “What in the world is a FAFSA?!” As a child in poverty, I didn’t have access to other people who had been to college and had been through the application process. One of the most important lessons I learned through my experience that has helped me to grow as a social justice advocate is that you can’t access assistance when you don’t know the right people to talk to or the right places to go to for help.

The other obstacle I encountered when trying to go to college was the struggle to physically leave my home. It was difficult for me to leave behind my friends and family, and I felt like I was betraying my mother by leaving her. I knew that I had to leave in order to better my life, but the values I established while growing up in an all-female household in rural Appalachia were grounded in deep opposition to my life goals. When you are the daughter of a disabled woman in poverty, you are expected to forego your own personal goals in order to stay home and care for your mother. Leaving for college was considered a personal affront and a strong offense to my community and to my deeply held Appalachian values of kinship and loyalty.

What is most unfortunate about my experience (and likely, the experience of many other first-generation college students) is that once I did learn the ins and outs of the higher education institution, it was too late for me; I had already acquired a large amount of debt and ran out of funding just before the beginning of what was supposed to be my last semester of college. Although I experienced several years of hardship after that, I didn’t allow my inexperience and my lack of knowledge of how the system works to destroy my motivation. My educational goals had to be put on the back burner for a while, but with the help of Public Allies, I’m getting back on track again.

I owe my persistence to something I’ve previously mentioned on this blog: the connectedness and support of my family. Without the unconditional love of my mother and sister, I wouldn’t be here today. Growing up in poverty, you learn that your strongest and most important resource is your relationships. The love I experienced and relied upon for strength throughout my life has been one of the biggest motivators for me to find a way to finish my degree and build my career. I want success for myself, but more than that, I want to bring my knowledge and my experience back to my community in order to serve them. Although I’ve faced varying degrees of hardship, being a first-generation college student and an Ally has afforded me the opportunity to learn, to grow, and to utilize my strengths in order to become a better leader and an advocate for other folks who are multiply marginalized. Public Allies has taught me to focus on my assets and to collaborate with others in order to be my most effective self, and in learning that, I have been able to stay motivated to finish my degree and move on with my life.

Opportunity

13 Dec

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For me, opportunity means working with Community Action Southwest to help eliminate poverty in my community. The saying goes, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you may be on the menu.” As a low-income person, I feel so grateful to be in this position. – Meghan Dillie, Ally at Public Allies Pittsburgh

From Poverty to Public Allies: My Path of Personal Transformation

13 Nov

What I remember most about being poor as a child is the unwavering sense of family, kinship, and connectedness. Although I was teased at school for wearing cheap clothing and hand-me-downs, and for eating free lunches, I never felt shame for being poor when I was with family.

I remember having a friend who refused to go with me to the playground I liked because it was “where all the welfare kids go.” When my mother would take my sister and I there, though, I enjoyed myself. I never felt embarrassed or uncomfortable with my family. I knew that even though we relied on public assistance, we always had one another.

When I look back on my childhood, I see that certain doors of opportunity were closed to me and my family because we were poor. We lacked choices in various aspects of our lives. For instance, since we were on food stamps, we could only purchase specific items that were covered by the program. Sometimes, when we didn’t have enough food to feed all of us, we would have to go to the food bank. At the food bank, you don’t get a choice in the food you get. Boxes are prepared for you before you even get there.

Another opportunity I never had as a child was the ability to think about or create a plan for my future. I couldn’t envision a future for myself. All I ever knew was that I had to find a way to be the first person in my family to go to college. My mother constantly drilled this into me because she didn’t want me to end up like all of the women that came before me: poor, struggling, and working long hours at a low-paying, thankless and tiring job.

Although I was denied certain opportunities as a poor child, I was fortunate enough to learn some tools and strategies that perhaps people who are new to poverty or who have never been poor don’t know or understand. I’ve learned that being poor is about making do. I’ve learned how to skimp, scour, and stretch what little I do have. I’ve learned patience and humility and non-attachment to material things. I’ve learned to live in the present and to relish every moment I am given. Most of all, I’ve learned how to leverage my familial connections for strength. Without the love and support of my family throughout time, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

My experience as a poor child shaped my view of what social justice means to me. I have insight as to what it means to be economically disadvantaged and what it means to live a life wrought with hardship, constant struggle, and a lack of opportunity and choice.

As a poor, queer, disabled Appalachian, I am part of a marginalized community. I have learned to be a guarded person. I know how to be evasive when certain topics of discussion arise and to brush off insults and snide remarks. I know to keep my childhood and my culture a secret. Though, it can never really be hidden because it is constantly expressed and identified through my mannerisms, my eating habits, my style of dress and my language.

My working-class identity often precedes me because it is such a huge part of my way of being. However, with Public Allies, none of that matters. I am accepted and respected for who I am, and that to me is the core of social justice.

Being with Public Allies is a wonderful opportunity for me to become a better social justice advocate by affording me the chance to meet new people, have new experiences, and learn new skills. It is an opportunity for me to develop my capacity as a leader by allowing me to bring all of my new skills back to my community to help create positive change for my friends, my family, fellow marginalized folks, and myself.

I am beyond grateful for this opportunity to learn and grow, and I am looking forward to undergoing a great personal transformation during this term, as I serve with Public Allies.

By Meghan Dillie, Public Allies Pittsburgh (an AmeriCorps program) Class of 2013