Welcome to the Trenches

18 Feb

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Fresh from the classrooms of Butler University, I moved to DC this fall to participate in Public Allies. I was partnered with Metro Teen AIDS, where my job involves facilitating Spanish-language comprehensive sexual education workshops in DC Public Schools. On my first day, a school social worker pulled me aside and declared, “Welcome to the trenches of reproductive health. When you enter that classroom, you’re truly a foot soldier, so prepare to get your feet dirty. Are you sure you can handle these students?” doubt inscribed into the lines on her face as she sized up my small frame and bright, eager eyes.

At the school of the skeptical social worker, I led a game called “myths and facts” with my class of 30 Latino students. One of the most common myths the students believed was that, if a woman has an irregular cycle, she is definitely pregnant. I asked them to recall our previous lessons and to brainstorm other reasons why a person might skip her period. One young female raised her hand and responded, “Ooh I remember! When we were learning about STIs, you told us that it can be a symptom of Chlamydia and Gonorrhea!” Immediately upon hearing this fact, a 19-year-old male student in the front row began shaking and shot his hand into the air. “Ms. Angela, Ms. Angela!” he exclaimed, “I haven’t gotten my period yet! Does that mean I have Chlamydia?” Several students laughed, others looked equally concerned. My poker face intact, I calmly explained the basic concept of menstruation and its link to reproduction. He seemed reassured, but my conception of common knowledge was shattered.

My mission for my Public Allies’ year is to empower DC youth by giving them the information they need to make responsible life choices when it comes to their health. Every day, this task is challenged by the complex realities of our nation’s capitol. My students face a multitude of barriers- from a lack of resources to stressful home lives to language differences- in their quest to climb out of the trenches and to reach adulthood safely. However, these obstacles only solidify the importance of organizations like Public Allies and Metro Teen AIDS. For students in DC, the partnership between PA and MTA embodies the audacious belief that youth from all backgrounds have the agency to live productive and healthy lives.

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As an International Studies major, I was accustomed to discussing critical issues. I could rattle off alarming statistics, such as that “three in ten teen girls in the US will get pregnant at least once before age 20” (www.itsyoursexlife.org). MTA has given me the opportunity to work with the youth behind these statistics and to put my critical thinking abilities into practice. For young professionals, the PA year represents an opportunity to learn about vital topics through an immersive experience. When combined, my undergraduate degree and my PA experience have endowed me with the skills required to succeed in today’s complex society. After all, the real world is much messier than any textbook (or blog post) could convey.

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~ Angela Miller

Photos from top:

Despite snow flurries, Jamal, Angela, and Mike give condoms in the Eastern Market neighborhood of DC.

Angela, Mike, Ona, Charlie, Januari, and Zoe hand out condoms outside the Anacostia Metro Station.

MTA’s testing van enables youth to get tested anywhere in the city.

A Lesson in Teamwork

7 Feb

As the Robert Burns poem, To a Mouse,  famously warns,  “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.” (The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry).  While I’d like to claim full acceptance and understanding of this, it’s a pretty difficult reality to digest.

We go through our lives being taught the importance of time management and planning ahead. Consequently, failures and problems are often blamed on poor planning or scheduling. As an avid planner, I was excited to begin working on a team service project with some of my fellow Allies. In my mind, as long as we ironed everything out from the start, the project would unfold beautifully.

Unfortunately, life is a bit more unpredictable than that and I experienced the value of something more powerful than any agenda or time task plan: teamwork.

As the Chicago site prepared for the launch of team service projects, my team was having communication difficulties with the organization we planned to work with. Eventually we received news that our project was no longer needed by the organization. After months of work, we found ourselves worried and discouraged.

This was a critical point in our team service project experience because the situation could’ve gone in multiple directions. The worst-case nightmare scenario involved unproductive meetings, bickering, and finger-pointing, but our reality was the complete opposite. Within a week we were contacting new possible partners and arranging capacity assessment meetings, while maintaining the lighthearted optimism I love about my team. Now, we are on our way to finalizing a new project plan.

This experience is a perfect example of why I have no doubts about completing a service year with Public Allies. Serving with amazing individuals on my team service project and within my class in general is changing my perspective on how things get done in an unpredictable, dynamic world. So, I challenge Robert Burns: The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry…Unless you trust the power of teamwork and collaboration.

You Get What You Give… and Sometimes Even More

6 Feb

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Let’s be honest. There are some days when we wake up feeling drained, tired on every level, and wondering what we’re doing with our lives.

I had a few of those days as I re-transitioned into my placement location after being on break for 3 weeks over the holidays. My position as the Health and Wellness Fellow at Eagle Rock School is a bit of a black sheep in relation to the rest of the fellows who are mostly teachers. Sometimes it’s difficult to communicate what I do with my time as my schedule is inverse of most of the staff. While they’re teaching, I’m making phone calls to parents, making appointments with therapists and learning centers, and checking in with my supervisor to ensure all bases are covered. While they’re making lessons plans, I’m with my students in one on one and small group conversations finding ways to help them cope with their emotions and whatever issues arose through the course of the day.

Sometimes it becomes frustrating when the majority of evidence of success is intangible, physically immeasurable, and frequently confidential because of the nature of the position.

That all said, without fail, my students show me every day why I accepted this position. They are love embodied. Unexpectedly, I find notes in my mailbox, messages on facebook, random texts, and emails telling me how much they appreciate what I do and they know that so often no one else sees what’s happening behind the scenes.

Before coming to Eagle Rock, I wondered how I would maintain my own grounding with no close friends nearby as I poured out every bit I could of myself to and for the students. Now that I’m here, there is no question that the love I give is the love I receive and more. They add incredible depth and meaning to my life, and any moments of frustration are rapidly dissolved by their transparent affections.

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Celebrating Unsung Heroes and Sheroes

5 Feb

Celebrating Unsung Heroes and Sheroes

Public Allies Silicon Valley San Francisco had the opportunity to attend the Fred Korematsu Day Celebration, organized by the Asian Law Caucus and The Korematsu Institute. The event honored unsung heroes and sheroes in the Asian Pacific Islander community.

January 30th is Fred Korematsu Day, a day in celebration and honor of Civil Rights hero Fred Korematsu. Korematsu was one of many Japanese Americans who resisted internment during WWII. He believed that the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans was wrong and a serious violation of civil rights. He brought his case to the U.S. Supreme Court and in 1983 the court overturned his conviction for evading internment. We celebrate Fred Korematsu for his life long dedication to civil rights and social justice. His legacy continues today with The Korematsu Institute, founded by his daughter, Karen. The Institute tells Korematsu’s story in K-12 classrooms across the country.

Korematsu’s story resonates with me because he didn’t resist internment with the intention of someday being called a hero. He was an everyday man who stood up for what he believed was right. As Public Allies, I think we’re all (s)heroes in our own ways and that everyone and anyone can lead.

Reflecting back on MLK Day

4 Feb

The highlights of the month of January for me were the activities surrounding the commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day at both my placement site, Project Plase as well as for our Maryland Public Allies Service Day.

I’m accustomed to participating in community service projects on MLK day. Having gone to Temple University in Philadelphia where I was very active in the the community outreach endeavors of the school, I always participated in the service activities sponsored by the school in his honor. But on Friday January 18th I attended my first memorial service in celebration of the day. Project Plase’s memorial service was held at nearby St. Mark’s church. The ceremony commenced appropriately with the reading of the sacred “I Have a Dream” speech. It was complete with musical selections of inspirational hymns and remarks from various Plase staff members about their connections to King Jr’s legacy. The moving celebration concluded with all those attending standing hand-in-hand and singing the enduring civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome”.

painting!

painting!

storage room after

storage room after

storage room before

storage room before

library after

library after

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The most exciting part of the event for me however was seeing my supervisor Muriel Stone Nolen, the manager of the Men’s facility at Plase take to the podium. Listening to her story of growing up in pre-civil rights Kentucky and not only joining the movement to fight for her own rights but also advocating for the rights of others bore in me an even deeper admiration for her than I had developed just from working with her. What I took most from her words regarding Minister King’s legacy is that instead of living an idle and aimless life, we should all strive to live a life of demonstrated purpose. Amen.

A few days after Project Plase’s MLK Day festivities I joined the rest of my Public Ally class on Monday January 21 for our day of service. In line with the Americorps philosophy that MLK Day should be a “day on” to serve one’s community as opposed to a day off from work, we all deployed to James McHenry Elementary-Middle School in Baltimore. There we met and partnered with Oasis (Organization of African American Students in Social Work), as well as parents, staff and even a few students from Mchenry to work on the school’s neglected library.

Armed with trash bags, brooms, gloves, paint, sheer will and determination and every other necessary tool you can imagine needed to transform a dingy unused space into a vibrant and inviting learning environment, we achieved just that. It was difficult to really gauge the difference we made within the space initially. But once I saw the photos of the before and after results I realized that our teamwork efforts truly paid off. It felt great to get back to my roots of what community service traditionally meant for me: hands on labor. I dabbled in a little bit of everything that day. I’m no artist by any means, but they actually trusted me to paint a door. I also removed piles and piles of trash that had accumulated in a storage room over the years. Working side by side, we truly revitalized the library for Mchenry’s deserving students. I only wish that we could have seen the looks on the eager children’s faces returning to school to discover their newly cleaned and organized library space. Nonetheless the opportunity to take part in the event undoubtedly made me feel like I was living with a purpose.

Challenging the “Decline of Movements” Meme

31 Jan

During debrief for  Public Allies Silicon Valley/San Francisco’s Martin Luther King Jr. Service Day training I gave my perspective on the nature of movements and the persistent dead social movements meme.

So often I hear conversations about the lack of “a movement.” Despite the important work that all of us engage in, whether it happen in our full-time non-profits or side hustles/volunteer time with advocacy/justice organizations, there is a predominant narrative that society doesn’t care any more and activists aren’t doing enough to make them care. The presumption being that, if activists (whoever those are) were doing good work, society would care about the work they do.

As I say in the video above, I think that premise is fundamentally flawed. What’s more I think the question isn’t why aren’t more activists, organizations, policy-makers working to confront the injustices that face our  national, local, and global communities, but rather why do we as individuals know so little about all of the work that is constantly being done. Rather than trying to pick out what others are doing wrong, I think it is useful to turn towards self and examine the dynamics at play in my (our) own life that contribute to this problem.

I think it’s useful to take both a top-down and bottom-up approach to understanding this issue. Therefore I think two questions can guide this reflection.

A) What forces obscure this justice promoting, inequality fighting work from the public consciousness?
B) How do individual media literacy skills and information gathering practices inhibit the discovery of news about the good work getting done?

I know for myself it wasn’t until I began to proactively search for social justice organizations like Public Allies or the Applied Research Center that I began to get a sense of the network of professional activists that work on issues I care about. It wasn’t until  I took classes on the history of the Black Freedom Struggle that I questioned my preconceived notion that the only people who count as “activists” are those whose full-time, day job includes working for an advocacy organization. Real activism had to look like sit-downs and protests and marches. There was no space in my mind at the time for recognizing the activist, justice work being enacted daily by teachers, parents, and title-less community leaders.  Finally, it wasn’t until I began to search out blogs like Racialicious that interpret media through the lens of racial justice, that I understood how biased the news coverage I’d become so disenchanted with, truly was.

What I gather/learn/believe about the two questions I posed is this:

  • Corporate media often doesn’t cover social justice work in a sustained and consistent manner, it is not the primary place to find information about justice promoting work
  • Often we only identify certain types of people doing certain types of work as real activism; we miss out on the other important work being doesn’t fit in that box
  • We must all cultivate and constantly renew our media literacy skills to sift through the multiple types, sources of media we expose ourselves to since it is often tells biased narratives of a society that has eclipsed injustice based inequality and place the blame for inequality on the shoulders of those most harmed by it; in such a society acivism and social justice work  is often deemed out-dated and stuck in the past

United in Service

30 Jan

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“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

On Saturday, January 19th, the city of Washington came together to honor Dr. King. Public Allies led a day of service, bringing together 250 volunteers from a variety of backgrounds. Our community that day included 125 Public Allies staff and corps members from Chicago, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Washington, DC. We were joined by over 100 high school students and teachers from Anacostia and Friendship Collegiate Academy. Our special guests for the day included Chelsea Clinton, chair of Inaugural National Day of Service, Paul Schmitz, CEO of Public Allies, Senator Harris Wofford and Bill Basil, current AmeriCorps Director.

The day was divided into three units: Let’s Serve, Let’s Move, and Let’s Lead. In the Let’s Move station, Playworks corps members invited teenagers and adults to embrace the benefits of exercise, swirling hula hoops and running around the gym. In the Let’s Lead room, allies facilitated a discussion on the legacy of Dr. King, brainstorming how his teachings can shape our lives. The Let’s Serve unit focused on a number of hands-on projects, ranging from a mural painting to a food drive.

My team had just entered the Let’s Serve station, located in the school’s cafeteria, when Chelsea Clinton arrived. We gathered around the lunch tables as she gave an inspirational speech about how her upbringing emphasized the importance of community service. Her father, former President Bill Clinton, established AmeriCorps under the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993. After sharing her personal story with us, Ms. Clinton said that she was eager to lend a hand. She joined our group, helping to put together 600 bags of food for Bread for the City. Beans, noodles, and tuna fish were passed along an assembly line as we all joked and chatted, getting to know one another. The high school students on our team opened up, confiding in the former first daughter their goals and aspirations for the future. Several stated that they wanted to join AmeriCorps, others wanted to go to college or to join the military. All seemed encouraged by the message of the day: “We Still Have the Dream.” In other words, we, as a community, will support you as you pursue your dream.

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In my experience as a recent transplant to our nation’s capital, DC remains segregated by ward, class, and ethnicity. There’s Congress, and then there’s Congress Heights. Living here, it often feels as though there are multiple cities, intersecting only at crowded metro stations as strangers impolitely bump against each other in an attempt to quickly get out of the tunnels. Through events like the National Day of Service, Public Allies connects people from different worlds. For four hours on a Saturday morning, we were united by the idea that we all have the power to be change agents in our communities. But the effort has to reach beyond one day of action. I plan to continue working to bridge the gaps in DC, and I hope that you will join me.

As Dr. King argued, “we must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

For more pictures of the day, check out the Public Allies Flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/publicallies/sets/72157632576862845/