It has been a life-changing year. I’m two months away from the end of my VISTA service with the civic engagement team at Michigan Nonprofit Association in Lansing, MI. It has been amazing to serve public needs and to have an intensive learning experience along the way. The year has been a combination of academic reading and grassroots practicality, and I have learned a lot about how different corners of public service work together.
When I last wrote in February, we at Michigan Nonprofit Association had just begun to meet with Refugee Development Center about a youth arts project to be held at Gardner Law, Leadership, and Government Academy in Lansing. Gardner is one of the schools at the center of Lansing’s refugee community, which numbers some 13,000.
The students painted hallway murals that represented the cultural background of students in the school, but the project was about a lot more than decoration. Back in April just as today, there was a lot of discussion in media and politics about alienation within refugee communities. The project was designed to reduce the disconnection often experienced by refugee youth by involving them in leadership. Research tells us that refugee and immigrant youth feel more a part of their new community when their culture is a bigger part of the school environment. It was profound and rewarding to be able to support the kids and show them we care, even if our event could only be a brief one in their lives. They were the sweetest kids, and we are glad they are here in Michigan.
One of our main goals in this project was to follow best practices as outlined in professional literature on refugee youth and their needs. Following this research, we kept the project small and (relatively) calm, we had a high ratio of adults per student to allow for personal mentoring, and we responded to needs for meal service and transportation. We chose a project that would reinforce curricular goals, and we prioritized student leadership over perfection. Some of the reading that I did for this project was from the engaged-scholarship sector of humanities, and I was glad to show respect for this work by applying this research within a real-world project.
One conclusion that I have drawn from my VISTA experience is that reading about best practices is too often left out of community projects. I have heard volunteers say on occasion that they are about people, and not about school. In my view, if we want to design a good project for people, we need to listen to people who already have worked with people. In one of the VISTA webinars earlier in the year we discussed Courtney Martin’s article for The Development Set, “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems.” Martin suggests that the nonprofit projects might be more effective if we gained a deeper understanding of the complexities of public service and invested more time in long-term study and training. Surely our projects are most effective when we learn before we do.
Now in August, I am hard at work for Michigan Campus Compact, finishing up our yearlong project on Michigan student success programs. I came to VISTA wanting to serve the students of my home state, so it is exciting to see this project progress to the point that it can have direct impact upon students’ lives. Student success programs provide broad support to the student, offering a one-stop shop for everything from housing support to academic aid to cultural fellowship. These initiatives are viewed by the research community as having the strongest impact upon graduation rates. So I have done months of work to collect information about every one of the 500-some success programs in the Michigan Campus Compact network. I’ve co-authored a statewide survey and produced a database of programs, and now I’m putting together a white paper that will introduce this data to campus officials and college access organizations.
The database of programs is one of the best things to come of this project, because access counselors will be able to use it to guide students to a program that will be the best fit. Before starting this project, I assumed that this information was already available. But surprisingly, it can be difficult to find online. So many new programs have emerged recently that it is hard for even guidance counselors and student support deans to know what options are out there. And school counselors actually have very little time for college access advising – most of their time goes to student crisis situations. Instead, it is up to service organizations like Americorps and Michigan College Access Network to try to fill the gap with access counseling. This leads to challenges in communication. Indeed, a 2015 Michigan House Appropriation Subcommittee Report, Reaching for Opportunity, lists improved access to information as its first recommendation for improving college success rates. Our student success work is designed to be a step toward this goal.
One thread that runs through all of these projects is that good things happen when grassroots and leadership listen to one another. Refugee youth and at-risk college students need love, but they need sense, too. They need the emotional support of direct engagement, but they also need projects informed by educational research and legislative reports. Likewise, legislators and researchers can’t form an accurate understanding of public need without seeing how things are working on the ground. This combined experience was what I was looking for in joining VISTA, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity. It is hard to make a system work, but kids like this make you want to give your best effort.
Each blog post was written by one of our VISTAs!