I joined AmeriCorps VISTA during a real turning point in my life. I had been in 3 graduate programs for the past 6 years. One of them I had the foresight to leave when I knew it wasn’t right; another I stayed for too long. Making the transition from a perpetual student to a member of the workforce was hard, and my confidence was low after months of unsuccessful job-searching. I’m very grateful to now be serving at Nexus Community Partners as the Community Engagement Program Associate through VISTA.
The goal of ‘making poverty history’ can be daunting and abstract, but the work I share with community based organizations in making sure that community members have a say in how the light rail can help them lead healthier and better lives is very real and moving. These voices come from communities of color, immigrants and refugees, migrants, people living with disabilities, low-income communities, and other transit dependent populations. It’s our responsibility to make sure their voices change policies and light rail development throughout a long-term public works project.
My day-to-day work is defined by the 23 community based organizations working in the Blue Line Coalition (BLC) and the Health Equity and Engagement Cohort (HEEC), and the first step is listening and learning. The BLC’s mission is to build community-based power in advancing local and regional equity while promoting healthy, safe communities. HEEC was formed after a 2012 health impact assessment (HIA) recommended there be an entity that engages deeply with transit-dependent populations. The HIA concluded: 1) the light rail could benefit everyone along the projected corridor running from North Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park; and 2) there are currently stark health disparities between geographic and racial/ethnic lines that need to be changed. Working at Nexus has been an ongoing education for me on health equity (i.e. attaining the healthiest state possible by combatting structural inequities); relationships between health and transit; and community engagement. In two months, I have learned a lot about people living in Minnesota. This includes how in African communities, hearing stories about other people’s experiences is important in validating yours.
Beyond listening, my responsibilities boil down to three areas:
1) helping my supervisor coordinate monthly meetings between busy organizations, Metropolitan Council, and Hennepin County to get community input in at every stage of light rail development;
2) using my research skills to authentically capture organizations and their community members’ input and make it easier for Nexus and Hennepin County to act on that input; and
3) from that research, working with organizations to identify gaps and future projects or areas to explore.
In the past year, I’ve started planning events, taking minutes, taking pictures for social media posts, etc. I’ve also evaluated organizations’ experience in BLC and HEEC through one-on-one interviews. I have recently finished combining each organization’s gathered input (e.g. high paying jobs with paid leave, culturally appropriate daycare, and translations on the train so that elders can access it) from their constituents into common themes (e.g. jobs or safety relating to crime) on a single document for Hennepin County. For the first time we can see how organizations representing different ethnic communities and ages can touch on the same theme. In the future, organizations and I are working closer to explore topics like how the health equity frame can better capture mental health issues for people living in the corridor.
Incidentally, a common question I get is, “Is how do I live on a VISTA budget?” The answer is I cheat by also being a server for 20 hours a week. Handling two jobs is stressful, but fortuitously, it helps my work as a VISTA. I can never walk in another person’s shoe. However, community input on jobs, economic development, and transportation resonate more with me now than before since I have my server experience to draw on.
Ultimately, the truth is that for me, being a VISTA isn’t just hopefully making a difference by chipping away at the inequity engrained in our society. My year as a VISTA has also made me more open-minded due to the amazing partnerships I’ve formed and learning experiences I lived through. There’s no other experience comparable to it.