Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Carla's big goodbye: A year in view as your VISTA Leader

I started off my year by writing a blog post introducing myself, so it seems only fitting that I close with one as well. It seems like such a long time ago that I sat in a UNC Greensboro conference room (on my first night on the job I might add. Chad wasn’t shy about getting my feet wet.) listening to the Executive Director of the Interactive Resource Center speak about homelessness. I still remember what she said that day when a student asked, “but what can we do?”

She replied, “you might think you can’t do anything now, because you don’t have any money to donate, or any time to volunteer, but there are lots of people to do those things.” She told us a story about a group of people sitting by a river and suddenly they see babies starting to float by.

Immediately, they jump into the strong current and form a chain to pull the babies out of the river. It is tiring and the babies just keep coming. But these people are so busy and caught up in getting the babies to safety, that no one has the time or the thought to go upstream and see who is throwing the babies in the river in the first place (no babies were harmed in the making of this analogy).”

This is what a system of oppression looks like. It is so insidious that you can’t see it, and you are so caught up in it, that you don’t realize that your actions aren’t creating sustainable change. She went on to say that what we can do is learn. Keep learning about these systems, grow your passion and thirst for knowledge; get to know people and their stories. And above all, never stop asking why. Because ultimately, “we’re a community of people, not a community of systems.”

That’s hard for me sometimes, because I’m a numbers person. Here are some of those numbers from the past year:

Counted 5,678 volunteers
Reviewed 288 timesheets
Wrote 50 Tuesday mails
Wrote and edited 30 blog posts
Sent over 3000 emails
Put in 1,800 of work

Those numbers mean I accomplished something right? Maybe, but as much as I love bulleted lists and data, it can never tell the full story, because it isn't really the core of the work I did or helped support. The numbers are only a small glimpse at trying to quantify the immeasurable. How can you really count how much community you had a part in building?

I feel confident in saying that not a single one of these NC Campus Compact VISTAs enjoyed my phone calls to remind them of a deadline, or to guide them through editing reports or blog posts, but they humored me, spending hours trying to get it right.

Each of these VISTAs wants to get it right, and that’s what is really at the core. I may have called with critiques, but as I spent hours reading  reports, and signing off on timesheets, I didn’t see the numbers. I saw each of them spending day-in and day-out, weekends and nights, and over-nights, in pursuit of their passions and in pursuit of the change they know is possible.

I saw them worrying about how events would go, or how much volunteers would like them or if they would even show up, or finding the best way to communicate with their supervisors or community partners, or running out of time. And I saw them on the other side of it all, having met new people and gained new experiences, ultimately invigorated by the work that not only they achieved, but by the guidance they facilitated in others to realize their own passions and goals and purpose.

So VISTAs, maybe your accomplishments aren’t the most quantifiable right now. Maybe you feel like a single disconnected cog, or a footnote under someone else’s name. But just because you are only the spark of an idea, that spark brings a light. It has illuminated a way of doing and being present in the world that either wasn’t there before or wasn’t noticed.

We can invent new technology, review spreadsheets, come up with outcomes and improvements, algorithms and quantifiable impact, but each of those numbers is a person and each of those people has a story that is meaningful. Gather them together and share them with others. After all, we’re not a community of systems, we’re a community of people.

I’ve lived in Georgia, New Jersey, North Carolina, Kentucky, North Carolina again, and now I’m off to Virginia to serve as the Operations Associate for the D.C. region Teach for America team. The people I have met along the way have helped shape my path to this point, and it’s much easier to see what it looks like looking backward, than looking ahead, but I suppose that’s part of the journey.

I am so excited to join the TFA team and continue to learn and grow and meet new people. The climate of education in the country is over the burner right now, and education reform is taking lots of different avenues. I am excited to get into the thick of things in the nation’s capital to continue my own education of social justice. I expect that some people will touch my life with meaning, and others will confirm what I dislike about society and stoke my passion for change.

Someone wrote me a letter once, with the best advice I’ve ever gotten. I’d like to share it with you here, because as I wrap up this year of VISTA service, and this period in my life, I am struck by how many people I have met along the way who have reached out when they didn’t have to, or spoken up when they witnessed injustice, or taken initiative to start something new, whether or not they thought it would be successful.  These people continue to inspire me to pursue not just my own passions, but the ability for everyone to have the same opportunity of their own pursuits.

“You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score. 
You do have to be kind. You have to give it all you’ve got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth. 
But that’s all.”