Monday, February 23, 2015

Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of AmeriCorps VISTA on February 25th!

AmeriCorps VISTA's 50th Anniversary National Solutions Summit will take place at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC on February 25, 2015.

The National Solutions Summit salutes AmeriCorps VISTA’s legacy of strengthening communities and creating opportunities that lift individuals out of poverty. This event features a retrospective look at VISTA’s achievements through the voices of those who have served and been served, and spotlights the innovative solutions and ideas of tomorrow through social entrepreneurs, thought leaders, policymakers, and grassroots agents of change.

The event will take place from 1:00-5:30 PM in the Rasmuson Theater at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. In order to live stream the event please register here

12:00 p.m. Registration Begins
1:00 p.m. Welcome - Paul Monteiro, Director, AmeriCorps VISTA
1:15 p.m. Wendy Spencer, CEO, Corporation for National & Community Service
1:30 p.m. Poverty in America
1:45 p.m. Voices of VISTA Panel - Then and Now
3:00 p.m. Break / Networking
3:45 p.m. Solutions Worth Sharing - Speaker Spotlights
5:30 p.m. Closing

Make Poverty History!

Friday, February 6, 2015

Alum Spotlight: Monica Palmeira

Monica signing her VISTA oath at PSO!
Monica Palmeira was the first VISTA at the Marian Cheek Jackson Center in Chapel Hill, 2012-2013. During her year of service, she helped the young non-profit improve its organizational systems and strengthen a partnership with Heavenly Groceries, a food ministry serving the Northside community. Through her work there, Monica learned she is “passionate about housing and neighborhoods.” When her term ended in 2013, Monica headed west to Sacramento, California. An internship with Housing California led Monica to her current position at the California Coalition for Rural Housing, one of the oldest affordable housing coalitions in the country. We spoke with Monica recently to learn more about her work and the lessons she took from her VISTA experience.

Before we talk about what you’re doing now, I wanted to ask if you have been back to the Jackson Center lately. Have you?

Monica (first row, far right) with the 
Heavenly Groceries team.

Actually, I visited last fall for a friend’s wedding. And I went by Heavenly Groceries to say hey to Ms. Gladys and they had just gotten new t-shirts so that was really cool. Pretty much every time I go back I’m given some kind of responsibility at the food ministry - I’m required to go pick up food or do something. Whenever I see Ms. Gladys she immediately puts me to work… it’s the best way to be welcomed.

That’s great. So tell us about the work you are doing now.

I am currently working as a Policy and Programs Specialist at the California Coalition for Rural Housing. Our job is to advocate on behalf of our members, which are primarily non-profit affordable housing developers. We try to get policies on the local and state level to incentivize and facilitate the building of affordable housing throughout rural California. So it’s a really cool perspective on this issue, but it’s really a departure from the neighborhood-based work I was doing at the Jackson Center, so the two experiences really complement each other. I’m getting a ton of experience and exposure to issues, but I’m finding myself missing a lot of aspects of my work at the Jackson Center-- like having a strong connection to one place.

What’s your role at the coalition?

At a small non-profit like ours [6 staff], it’s so hard to define roles, but I basically work across all our programs. I host a lot of convening and coalition-building events and conversations, particularly for the policy aspect of things. I plan our annual conference for example. This job has also allowed me to travel throughout a lot of California, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley.

One of the big things I’ve been really involved with: in California we have a pioneering Cap and Trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The money that comes out of the options proceeds is going into this greenhouse gas reduction fund, which can fund other things, including affordable housing. So it’s a really new way of thinking about housing in terms of how can housing be a strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: where do you locate housing so that people drive less? How do you co-locate housing and transit so that people are less dependent on cars? What are the impediments to walking and biking? I get to convene people to strategize how we can do this and design programs especially that address these issues in rural areas. 

How did you wind up working with that organization? 

When I moved out here I knew I wanted to work in housing and -- similar to the way the VISTA program can work, I got an internship experience that let me get my foot in the door. And through that I met the people I work with now.

It’s funny ‘cause my VISTA experience has been a cool thing to talk about. My boss actually moved out to California from Connecticut as an AmeriCorps person, and several of the executive directors of organizations or housing developers we work with-- a lot of them came to California through the VISTA program. So it’s been a fun connection to say we’re all VISTAs and we have a kind of VISTA pride. 

So it’s a program that’s been around for a long time and I think that it has a legacy of plugging a lot of people into nonprofit work.

Yes, VISTA is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Oh yes, and some of the people I was referring to may have been part of some of those first classes! There are VISTAs from a long time ago, and they’re still here and working for some of the organizations they served with.

Wow! Well, what do you like about living in California and what do you miss about North Carolina?

Monica and fellow Chapel Hill VISTA
Sarah-Abdul Rauf at a 2013 Habitat build.
Oh my gosh, I think about this all the time. What I love about California is that it’s incredibly diverse. People are from everywhere, and there are lots of Spanish-speakers, which for me is a really cool thing. My family is Portuguese and growing up [in Kinston, NC], I didn’t know any other kids whose parents were immigrants. But here that’s very normal and in some ways it’s very comfortable to be here.

I get to travel a good bit, mostly south of Sacramento in between the mountain ranges in what’s called the San Joaquin Valley. That region reminds me more of home, especially eastern North Carolina where I grew up. When I go to San Francisco I feel like I’m in a completely different world, but in the San Joaquin Valley I feel like I can navigate the world a little easier. 

I definitely miss the simplicity of life in North Carolina. I miss the warmth of people and how people congregate in like Church traditions. Here there are so many different traditions and a mix of people, which is great, but you miss the sense of unity in some way. North Carolina is very much on the table to move back to, but I love both places as they each have unique opportunities and experiences to offer.

What advice do you have for current VISTAs contemplating their next steps?

Yeah - VISTA is tough because it’s only 1 year, and that deadline can be very daunting. But try to see that deadline as a launching pad or trampoline - try to make the most of that year and think of it as a springboard more than impending doom.

I definitely had a lot of anxiety when I moved out here not knowing anyone. So I just started going to panel discussions and volunteering for non-profits and learning to network which helped me when I interviewed for an internship. So just put yourself out there as much as possible and use this year as an opportunity to push yourself out. 

What’s next for you?

I am looking to doing graduate school in a year or two and getting a master's in city and regional planning. I have a few schools that I am looking at out here but UNC is also a top choice--- and I could even work in Northside again!

Especially having a different perspective now, it would be interesting to go back to school. This job certainly helped but my VISTA experience most certainly helped with that. Studies are enhanced by real life experiences and nothing beats that experience, by doing the work you are able to see where the gaps are and where you want to focus your energy on. I give VISTA credit for helping me realize what I enjoy and what I am passionate about that I can focus on and make the most of any educational opportunities in the future.

This spotlight is part of the latest issue of the VISTA Alumni Network Newsletter