Grassroots Giver, MOVERS & DOERS — 03/Apr/2013 04:18

Black AmeriCorps Volunteers: Strengthening Communities Through Service

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2013 Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service project in Washington, DC. Pictured from left to right: Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education; Jeffrey D. Richardson, Executive Director, Serve DC – Mayor’s Office on Volunteerism; and Wendy Spencer, CEO, Corporation for National Community Service.

In 2011, more than 1.4 million residents of Washington, D.C. volunteered, according to the “Volunteering and Civic Life in America” report done by the Corporation for National and Community Service. Of that number, only 24.8 percent were African-American.

Although that percentage equals less than half of the total amount of volunteers, AmeriCorps has seen an increase not only in efforts to serve urban communities in D.C. and nationwide, but also in the number of African-American volunteers.

For 20 years, AmeriCorps has given hundreds of thousands of people a chance to serve and help strengthen various communities. Throughout that time, the amount of African-Americans who find value in participating in AmeriCorps and other similar programs has increased.

Four African-Americans who have found such value in AmeriCorps in particular are Clarence Fluker, communications and special initiative director for Serve D.C.; Karen Bryson, market support for Jumpstart D.C.; Joy Whitt, staff assistant for the American Medical Association; and Jeffrey Richardson, executive director of Serve D.C. They shared their past AmeriCorps experiences and how their service led to their careers today.

Clarence Fluker

Clarence Fluker grew up in Cleveland.  Eventually, he attended Morgan State University in Baltimore for undergraduate studies and then got his graduate degree from American University in D.C. American University is where Fluker discovered his interest in government affairs and community service.

After working with several nonprofits, he began serving as a commissioner for Serve D.C, where he first learned about AmeriCorps. Now he works in external relations, helping promote AmeriCorps to other organizations and residents in D.C.

What drew him to AmeriCorps was its pledge to a committed and result-driven work ethic.

“It’s about making our community smarter, healthier and stronger … and about getting things done,” he said.

He also recognizes that participating in AmeriCorps programs is not about the money, but the reward of serving others.

AmeriCorps volunteers only receive a small monthly stipend as well as a Segal AmeriCorps Education Award, which can be used to pay off higher education tuition or loans.

Despite what might seem to some as menial rewards for such time-consuming service, Fluker, said AmeriCorps is a valuable program to all participants, no matter their race or background.

“We really try to recruit all types of folks to volunteer in the AmeriCorps program,” he said.

He said Serve D.C. has worked hard to let D.C. residents, which are mostly African-Americans, know that they too can participate and add value to their own community.

Karen Bryson

Karen Bryson realized the value she adds to the D.C. community after serving two years with Jumpstart D.C., an AmeriCorps program whose members serve preschool children in low-income areas of D.C.

After spending most of her life living with her mother in Atlanta, she moved to D.C. where she attended Howard University.There, she discovered Jumpstart and joined because of its mission and work. She said she didn’t even realize it was an AmeriCorps program until after joining.

She spent her sophomore and junior years of college as a Jumpstart core member promoting early language literacy and social skills among preschool students.

“I loved my experience with Jumpstart,” Bryson said. She said her favorite part was watching the positive progression of the children she worked with.

She continues to work with the program today under AmeriCorps VISTA, whose members improve the lives of those in poverty by helping fight illiteracy, improve health services, create businesses and increase housing opportunities, as market support.

She said she appreciates the opportunities, both past and present, afforded by Jumpstart.

“I’m given the opportunity to actually do work,” Bryson said. “I’m not getting paid, so I could easily treat this as an internship, but I feel like Jumpstart gives me an opportunity to do more than what an internship would give me … I feel like I’m making an impact.”

She also said living with less than what she had in the past also makes her appreciate things more and opens her eyes to what those living in poverty experience. Although it’s challenging to live on a stipend, Bryson’s love of the job and the people she works with keeps her motivated.

She said that she and everyone who participates adds value and that other African-Americans should experience that for themselves through volunteerism.

“I think African-Americans should participate for the exposure to good work being done in the community,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to give back and increase unity, self-sacrifice, empowerment, and dedication to one’s surroundings.”

Joy Whitt

Joy Whitt didn’t understand that opportunity until she became a member of AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), a 10-month, full-time, residential program during, which members work on several service projects.

Whitt lived in Battle Creek, Mich., with two older siblings and two younger adopted siblings in a single-parent home. She eventually left home to attend Grand Valley State University, also in Michigan.

While at Grand Valley State, she participated in Alternative Breaks, using her school breaks to volunteer, learn about social and environmental issues and meet new people. That’s where she got interested in service and volunteerism.

But it wasn’t until one of her sorority sisters suggested AmeriCorps that she joined AmeriCorps NCCC, where she spent one year as a corps member and the next as a support team leader.

As a corps member, she and 10 others worked on projects throughout the nation while living together.

“It was a very challenging year,” Whitt said. “Everything was a completely new learning experience for me.”

She said it was challenging because the team was given little space and had to stay together all day. She said they had their problems, but they always solved them.

As a support team leader, Whitt stayed in Iowa and worked with staff and field team leaders as a resource and guide.

Although she specifically worked with NCCC, she said all AmeriCorps service work is vital.

“I think the most important thing to me is how many valuable skills young adults get out of participating,” Whitt said. “There’s not even a price you can put on equipping a young adult in taking on a challenge to prepare them to move forward.”

Those skills helped lead to her career today as the political affairs staff assistant for the American Medical Association. But like most others who’ve participated in AmeriCorps, Whitt still serves AmeriCorps. She is now on the Leadership Board and Social Committee with the AmeriCorps Alums DC and is on the AmeriCorps NCCC Advisory Board.

“I’ve never met anyone that regretted that year they spent with AmeriCorps,” Whitt said.

Jeffrey Richardson

Jeffrey Richardson is no exception to that statement. He served as a camp counselor for young men under Wediko Children’s Services, sponsored by AmeriCorps, in New Hampshire. The camp was a therapeutic treatment program for kids with emotional challenges.

Richardson grew up in Durham, NC and attended UNC Chapel Hill for his undergraduate, where he studied biology. He got introduced to service learning courses after taking a required race, gender and politics class.

Through one of those courses, he worked in a group home, sparking his interest in helping young people. From there, he went from volunteering to working in a group home. After some further research, he found Wediko, which he, like Bryson, didn’t realize was sponsored by AmeriCorps.

His favorite part about being a counselor was bringing light and hope to young people. He said he enjoyed seeing the impact and fruits of his labor.

But his work with Wediko shifted his interest from direct service to helping influence the systems through which young people have to navigate, including education and government policy.

“Some of the most challenging moments have been when I’ve seen policy or failed practice fail people, or young people in particular,” Richardson said.

Encouraging people to participate in programs like AmeriCorps can stop that from happening any longer, especially for African-Americans.

“Participation in National Service programs can help break down the economic and network divides that often serve as barriers for many African-Americans who desire to access higher education and advanced professional training,” he said. “The leadership and professional development opportunities made possible through many AmeriCorps programs can open doors for many African-Americans looking to access higher education and career exploration.”

He said volunteerism among African-Americans adds value in other ways too.

“In addition to the direct benefits for African Americans who choose to serve, I believe there is a transformational residual impact of having African-American’s serving in African-American communities,” he said. “By having more African-Americans participating in National Service programs, we can not only fill gap needs in our communities, but can break the stereotype that we don’t serve and that we are not committed to the revitalization of our communities and our families. Service has been a part of our lived experience as African-Americans for our very beginnings, and we haven’t always needed organizations or national campaigns to do so. But now that these organizations and campaigns exist, we have the opportunity to leverage them to tell our stories of service and send a message to the next generation that service continues to be an important part of our history.”

Like the aforementioned AmeriCorps alumni, Richardson said he now has a responsibility.

“As an AmeriCorps Alum, I have taken on the charge to encourage more of my African-American brothers and sisters to participate in national service programs and I am committed to utilizing my platform to tell our stories.”

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