Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Let’s Talk Taboo: My experiences with race and poverty as a NC Campus Compact VISTA

In June and July, North Carolina Campus Compact will be publishing articles written by our VISTA members. These pieces give readers access to first-hand experiences and reflections of VISTAs serving throughout the state. We are excited for them to share their perspectives on community and service with us! 

Please note: Any opinions expressed on the VISTA VIEW blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views, opinions, or policies of North Carolina Campus Compact, the AmeriCorps VISTA program or the Corporation for National and Community Service.

By Shifra Sered
NC Campus Compact VISTA at East Carolina University and the Third Street Community Center

Shifra (Left) with ECU student volunteers.
The AmeriCorps VISTA program was founded in 1965 as “a national service program designed specifically to fight poverty in America.” Throughout our VISTA Pre-service Orientation (PSO) we discussed theories of poverty and were asked to think critically about how to alleviate poverty in our communities. As VISTAs we are asked to build the capacity of organizations to alleviate poverty and are assessed on our ability to do so. Both VISTA and North Carolina Campus Compact have provided us with online and in-person trainings on topics ranging from utilizing social media in our work to creating asset maps for our community.

Throughout PSO and my year of service, I have been struck by the lack of intentional conversation about race in trainings provided by VISTA and NC Campus Compact. As shown by a study completed in 2012, a staggering 34 percent of African-Americans in North Carolina were living in poverty compared to 13 percent of the white population. As race and class are deeply intertwined, I believe that it is counterproductive to talk about poverty in North Carolina without evaluating the role of race. Focusing on one while ignoring the other can, at best, make VISTA's service less effective and can, at worst, run the risk of perpetuating systemically racist power structures.

I currently work at East Carolina University as the VISTA in the Volunteer and Service-Learning Center, as well as the Third Street Community Center (TSCC), a local faith-based community center. ECU and Third Street are both located in Greenville (Pitt County), a city still reconciling a past of deeply entrenched and often racist social norms. As recently as 2013, a court case was brought against Pitt County for school assignments that effectively re-segregated certain school districts. There are 12 members on the board of the Pitt County school system, but only 3 are African-American despite the fact that almost half of Pitt County school children are African-American. This unequal racial distribution, perhaps itself an effect of long standing racist attitudes, is a possible reason why governing Boards such as the Pitt County School Board allows current segregationist policies to stand and in fact continue to pass such policies.

The Third Street Community Center is located in “West Greenville,” an area more defined by its population than its physical boundaries. In fact, it seems to me like no one can decide the physical boundaries of West Greenville, but we can all agree it refers to the black and poor neighborhoods on the west side of the city. When I first moved to Greenville, I was warned to stay away from West Greenville as it was “the bad side of town.” Others refer to it euphemistically as the “inner-city,” despite the fact that Greenville is not a particularly large city. The area of West Greenville, as we try to vaguely demarcate it, is almost exclusively African-American. Poverty rates are as high as 100% in some neighborhoods. Third Street Community Center is very much dedicated to working within West Greenville. That said, the staff (including myself), the original board and the building owners of the Center, are all white. I believe it is important to openly recognize and discuss the potentially problematic implications of an all-white community center staff serving a black community. I fear that we, as a center, are stripping away the agency of the local community by insinuating that outsiders are the only ones capable of making profound, positive change. I fear we are continuing the widespread cultural narrative of the “white savior” who has the ability to “save” a community (see Teju Cole for more on the “White Savior Complex”). I believe this discussion about the ways that race informs our work at TSCC could be fostered with more intent. I do not mean this as an indictment of the community center and I believe that the center has the potential and the desire to do a lot of good in West Greenville. However, if we, as a community center, ignore the role that race plays in the perpetuation of poverty in West Greenville, then we run the risk of preserving the inequality that we are committed to fighting.

From my observations during my year of service, I believe that VISTA and NC Campus Compact need to intentionally include topics of race as part of our training and on-going dialogues around poverty as race heavily informs my work in the community. I believe that it is not enough to attempt to alleviate the effects of poverty; we must also target the root causes of poverty, which include racism. VISTAs do great work by building the capacity of organizations, strengthening tutoring programs, building responsible homeownership programs and creating nutrition programs. However, when schools in African-American neighborhoods are underfunded, racist housing practices lead to segregated neighborhoods, and places like West Greenville continue to be “food deserts,” providing communities with VISTAs is not enough. Our service needs to be evaluated as part of a larger system in which racism, both direct and indirect, is a contributing factor. Without acknowledging the way that racism shapes the experience of the communities we serve and the ability of the VISTA to effect positive change, we cannot create truly sustainable solutions to systematic and complicated issues.

I want to end by saying that I have learned tremendously from my year of service as an AmeriCorps VISTA. I believe that AmeriCorps does important and necessary work that, on an individual level, can make all the difference in someone’s life. I believe it should continue to provide volunteers to strengthen non-profits and engage with communities. However, I also believe that the work of AmeriCorps is not done in a vacuum and must take into consideration the ways structural inequalities work in our communities, in our organizations and within AmeriCorps itself.