Confronting My Privilege Means Digging Deeper Than I Thought

Written by Seamus Allman, an AmeriCorps VISTA serving at The Food Literacy Project

I am a white cis man who grew up in a middle-class household in the United States. That means I’m armed to the teeth with privilege. I have actively chosen a path of meaningful but low-paying jobs, in part because of the greater sense of purpose, but also out of a sense of living in solidarity. The latter, of course, is a sort-of fiction. The fact is that I have access to a safety net many don’t (in some part from my own frugality).

Living on a tight budget is not foreign to me—no one goes into farming for the money. Plus, I’ve had several other years (some of them living in intentional communities) where my income was less than the standard deduction for filing taxes. If anyone wants to do some dumpster diving, I’m your man.

I’ve been involved in Louisville Standing Up for Racial Justice (LSURJ) in their support of our local Black Lives Matter chapter and other POC-led organizations fighting for justice and fairness in West Louisville. And with the near-daily reminders of the dangers involved in simply being a black man in this country, I have tried to dig deep and confront the aspects of our racist culture that I have internalized.

All that said, over the last couple of weeks, the extent of my privilege and the bubble, of sorts, that I live in, has really smacked me in the face. As part of our outreach efforts in the neighborhoods surrounding Iroquois Urban Farm, we have started canvassing, to help engage face-to-face with residents and invite them to come to the farm or attend upcoming Food Literacy Project events.

In preparation for our outreach, I had helped collect statistics about the surrounding area. However, numbers on a page do not prepare you for the stark encounter of walking down street after street where a significant percentage of houses are vacant and abandoned. For many in Hazelwood, owning a house is possibly rare, and even if one does, it may be all they can do to keep up with the payments, much less maintain or improve it as needs warrant.

Theirs is not a neighborhood where those with resources come to invest, in the sense of taking a real economic interest in an area. This is a neighborhood where predatory capitalists come to exploit the vulnerability of people who haven’t necessarily had the advantages of college educations, who watch the opioid epidemic unfold from their front porch. Who told me that they feel forgotten by the rest of Louisville, because to a great extent, they are.

Even though I’ve been earning a working-class income for many years, my cultural view is still very much middle-class. When I walk around Hazelwood, I’m, at least to start, a well-meaning tourist. This goal of VISTA service, to assemble a cohort of people willing to live on poverty wages, in order to try to lift others from a life of poverty, is noble and important. What each of us do with the opportunity to further our own personal growth is, of course, up to each of us. Grinding poverty wears people down in a way that those who don’t experience it can never fully understand. But we can try. We can push ourselves to step out of our comfort zones/bubbles, and engage with others and within in ways as honest, open, and meaningful as possible.

I’ll close with a short poem from our commonwealth’s laureate, Mr. Berry:

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings. 


Trust Your Gut: You are Your Resume

Written by Andrea Caldwell, an AmeriCorps VISTA serving at Jefferson Memorial Forest

Last month I had the opportunity to attend our AmeriCorps VISTA In-Service Training in Charlotte, North Carolina. At the time, I was not 100% physically feeling well but I did not want to miss out on this training event – it was more important that my mental state was at 100% to absorb the information and I could work around my physical limitations. Now, for the record, I am not as young as most of you are, I am a proud grandmother to my five-year-old grandson.

At training, we were offered six breakout sessions: Creating and Maintaining Successful Partnerships as a VISTA, Planning and Leading Effective Meetings, Recruiting and Placing Volunteers, Translating VISTA Service to Your Resume and Career, Serve and Thrive: Building Resilience as a VISTA, and Using Resource Development to Bolster Your Work. Although I did not attend the session on Translating VISTA Service to Your Resume and Career during our in-service training, I have worked in corporate reviewing resumes. Also, before I left for training, we had a representative come speak with our cohort at Americana about building your resume. In addition, when I returned, we were presented with another representative about lessons in writing a resume which is why I chose this topic.

Of course, each of the presenters had their own unique style of teaching to appeal to a variety of personalities in the audience. Even at my age, I can still learn a thing or two. I am always searching on Google about the latest business trends, topics, food, senior discounts, where to travel on a budget and the cheapest place to live after you retire, etc. I thought that I knew how to save and spend on a budget until I started going to our cohort meetings and listening to other AmeriCorps VISTAs talk about how they manage month to month on their stipends. It has forced me to reevaluate my priorities and tighten the belt on my budget a little more and I am thankful for that.

So, in return I would like to share some additional information that I received from the AmeriCorps VISTA In-Service Training Manual about Translating VISTA Service to Your Resume and Career. What is a VISTA? “AmeriCorps VISTA members make a year-long, full-time commitment to serve on a specific project at a nonprofit organization or public agency.” Do you know what VISTA stands for? “Volunteers in Service to America.” Do you hear the importance of your work even before it starts? Wow! Why is it unique? “VISTAs specifically work on projects that create or expand programs supporting low-income communities.” What is your project? “Example, for my project, I created a new community garden program for Boys and Girls Club which increased access to healthy food for under-served students.” 

I would like to suggest that you review your VAD “VISTA Assignment Description” and compare it with your actual work on paper. Ask yourself what were the needs when I started? What steps did I take to fulfill those needs? Why did I choose to take those steps versus something else? Who was impacted the most by me implementing these steps? Can this information be documented or reported? How is this program going to be sustainable after I leave? Did I leave instructions for the next VISTA to step in and pick up where I left off?

I hope that by reading the examples above and writing down your own personal experiences, you become more comfortable with translating your service to your resume. Please don’t be too critical of yourself, life is just beginning and you have already positioned yourself to be ahead of the game. There are many resume coaches out there, take what you can use from each one and leave the rest for someone else. On the other hand, there is only one of you and you are the best at telling your own unique story. Good luck and go into your resume writing and interview with confidence in yourself.


Preparing for Life After AmeriCorps

Lift After AmeriCorps VISTA Guide

Sample Digital Portfolio

Non-Competitive Eligibility for VISTAs

Employers of National Service

Ace Your Next Interview

When an ETF Feels More Like a WTF: What is Financial Security Anyways?

Written by Crystal Bryson, an AmeriCorps VISTA serving at La Casita Center. 

My current theory is that Facebook Memories is a tool to keep us humble. How else would I be able to pull up my app every day and be reminded of how wise I used to think I was? I don’t know exactly what I was going through 4 years ago, but I was reposting so, so many pictures of mountain or seaside vistas overlaid with quotes about how “adventure is the true wealth” and “pay for experiences, not things” and the classic “money can’t buy you happiness.”

I mean, sure, but it definitely helps, doesn’t it? Those posts are soaked with privilege and inexperience. It was easy to travel when I was still on mom and dad’s health insurance. And I didn’t mind so much taking out the credit card to help me keep up my habits and lifestyle and living expenses while living in Chicago and living off an AmeriCorps stipend, but boy has it been a tough 6 months of working two jobs to pay it off—and that’s just the first box to check before I have to face a steep tax bill, pay for a surgery and a wedding, face my student loans coming out of forbearance, hopefully contribute in some way to my partner’s dream of owning a home, and still meet the car-housing-insurance-groceries-and-miscellaneous bills that creep around each month. A rainy-day fund, a 10k investment goal by 30, a retirement plan. A singsong of these concepts kept coming up in the “smart finances for millennials” articles that appeared regularly in my newsfeed, and they all felt—still feel—impossible.  So, let’s get a little more honest.

Having shared my failings and anxieties, switching to a position of advice-giver and recommender of apps and bank accounts feels a little forced. It also feels condescending and a little tone-deaf to pile onto the genre of “girl, take hold of your finances” and not acknowledge the fact that I am a cis, white, able-bodied woman who faces minimal discrimination in life and comes from a middle-class family that was able to build wealth via banking institutions, urban planning, and legal systems all designed to help white families succeed at the expense of others. Writers have fought to draw attention to the danger of these flippant advice columns that preach a one-size-fits-all plan of action, the physical toll of poverty on the brain and the body, as well as the threat that a single random event could undo years of hard work and saving. Activists have worked and are working tirelessly to change the systems that have generated massive wealth inequality and poverty. For other VISTAs reading this, these are not unfamiliar realities, and are hopefully acknowledged in our organizations and in the work that we do.

Talking about money is awkward, and heavy, so we generally avoid it, and thus miss out on the chance to learn from other people’s experiences and examples. So just remember: this is more of a diary entry than a guide. For those of us dipping our toes into savings goals and internally debating whether to sit out the demise of capitalism or invest in something, here is my (heh) 2 cents:

My base line: a savings account, a checking account, and another savings account. I have three accounts with 5/3 Bank. The first is a checking account for direct deposits. Try not to EVER sign up for those debit card direct deposit options—if you’re able, try to find an account with a bank or credit union with no minimum balance required. Credit unions generally have no balance minimums, and you get to feel more ownership over your money (banks are typically owned by investors and are designed to make profits—read: will screw over their customer in the name of their own bottom line). The sole reason that I have kept my 5/3 bank is laziness, and because it hasn’t pushed me to the breaking point yet.

The savings account I hold with them is essentially nothing more than a backup for my checking. I had small dreams about creating a rainy-day fund with the recommended 6 months of living expenses, but for the most part I just keep shifting money back into checking when I’m about to pay off a bill to make sure there’s enough in place.

The third savings account? 5/3 has a gimmicky account called “Goal Setter Savings.” You’re supposed to set a dollar amount goal, and then once you reach that goal, you get double the interest on the account, or something like that. I’ve never actually reached any of my goals in it, but it serves an important function: to withdraw from it, or transfer, you have to physically walk into the bank and fill out a withdrawal slip (no ATM withdrawals available). Did I mention how lazy I was? I can’t quickly transfer it into checking to pay a credit card bill; I don’t have the energy to walk into the bank AND INTERACT WITH A PERSON in order to pull it out for a spur-of-the-moment vacation. I slip 10 or 20 bucks a month into it, and then clear it out at Christmas when its time to buy presents for my nephews. Now, I’m planning on using it when I get slapped in the face again with the tax on my Segal Education Award, because I did NOT anticipate how big my tax bill would be this year.

Getting fancy with investing? Some apps and some terms you might like to google.

If you’re interested in investing, have a little cash to squirrel away, but have no idea where to start, I use Betterment. It’s about as user-friendly as you can imagine. You give them a chunk of cash, tell them how risky you want to be with it, and they choose the types of investment (I still don’t really get the difference between a bond, CD, ETF, mutual fund, stock, small-cap, mid-cap) and do the research into the firms and markets and whatever that they are buying and managing on your behalf. There is a small fee, but I’ve ended up making more than enough to cover the fee. I also use Betterment for retirement planning, with an IRA account. Do I fully understand why this is the smartest kind of account to get? No. But I opened it, and I put like $20 a month or so in it, and I don’t withdraw from it because of tax reasons that I also don’t fully understand. Compared to any expert analysis, I am well behind the curve with saving for retirement, but I’m trying to embrace the “better-than-nothing” attitude and just go for it.

Like to gamble and have direct control over what you’re investing in? Try Robinhood. Buying and selling individual stocks through platforms like ETrade or Charles Schwab comes with fees. Robinhood is fee-free, easy to download on your phone, and has handy little tools to show you market research, performance, and trade. I read an article on, of all places, about how the US has gotten better at storing radioactive materials, googled “nuclear stocks,” and paid like $30 to invest in a uranium company from one of the search results, at $9 a pop. They’ve gone up about $3 a share since then, so I’ve made…$9? Then I lost about $20 because I thought a recycling company was going to do a lot better, but this is hardly the political environment for that, so…bust. It’s a gamble, but some people end up being really good at it, so just know that this free app could be a viable entry point into that aspect of the stock market, if you’re interested/able.

Other friends have recommended Acorn. I’ve never tried it myself, but they seem to enjoy it—give it a google and check out the reviews.

Worried about turning over your money to evil corporations? Google socially responsible investing. It’s far from perfect. This is capitalism that we’re talking about, and for-profit enterprises inherently kind of suck because of the drive for the bottom line, and sometimes the improvements they say they’re making are nothing more than virtue-signaling (has Nike improved any conditions in their factories or are they just churning out more products to Kaepernick supporters?). But it’s still nice to read about Patagonia donating billions of dollars to combat climate change or the success of companies with great workplace cultures. There is a mountain of information out there. Fortunately, it’s 2019, and there are people whose job now is to develop standards—whether that is in regards to environmental sustainability, support for human rights, workforce diversity, or others—and then identify companies that are both meeting those standards and are also profitable for an investor. Betterment has talked about rolling out some SRI funds—keep an eye out if this seems up your alley.


Investing is a luxury. It requires a phone with an app, or a computer with Wi-Fi, and a bank account to transfer funds from, and then extra funds to transfer in the first place, and some time to read about what you’re doing, and connections to people that you can ask for advice and ideas. If you can do it, and you want to do it, it’s a smart tool, but how do you want to do it—and do you ethically want to? That also takes research, consideration, and conversation.

And when it comes to saving—same thing. My capacity to squirrel a little away each month is contingent upon an array of factors, not just “well I work hard and I resist the urge to buy Starbucks.” Do what you can, but don’t deny yourself the purchases that allow you to maintain a little mental stability amidst multiple jobs and responsibilities in life.

There is no universal “girl, wash your face” or “stop ordering the avocado toast” fix to the economic burdens that we find ourselves buried under in this day and age. Not to mention—there are important ethical debates over using massive banks and investing in faceless, multinational funds and companies, all within a system generating astounding inequality on the global, national, and even local scales. If I offer any advice, it’s to start more discussions with the people we trust. For other insta-millennials like me: we can’t pretend we’re living a pure, wholesome life of adventure and community while secretly drowning in credit card debt, and we can’t learn about solutions or explore our own ethics and actions without having some of these vulnerable discussions.

Just, for your own sake, don’t do them on Facebook, because the hindsight of a year’s experience is enough to make almost any post truly, deeply cringeworthy.


Use Your Dadgum Sick Days

Written by Janelle Wilhelm, an AmeriCorps VISTA serving at Kentucky Refugee Ministries.

One morning, I woke up with a sore throat.  I thought, Crap, I have a cold, and proceeded to treat it with copious amounts of hot tea.  Two days later, I woke up with a sore face. At that point, I thought, This may be a sinus infection, and I may need antibiotics.  So I texted my supervisor and informed her I would be taking a sick day.

This is not something a younger me would have done.  My third-grade self once stuck out a whole day at school with a fever of 104° (somehow my teacher failed to notice I was falling asleep in my chair).  And for most of my working life, my rule of thumb was that I had to at least be vomiting before I could justifiably claim sickness: coughing, sneezing, congestion, aches and pains, and mental breakdowns didn’t count.

A big part of this mindset, of course, came from cultural expectations: like many Americans, I didn’t want to look like a slacker.  But after thinking it through, I’ve come to believe it really is better to take a sick day when you’re, well, sick.  Here’s why:

  1. It’s literally what sick days are for.

Seriously.  If you’re sick, don’t go to work; go to a doctor.  (You can try The Little Clinic or Norton Prompt Care if you don’t have a primary care provider in the area.)  Get the rest and treatment you need to get over your illness faster.  As VISTAs, we get ten whole days allotted to us for this very purpose.  It would be wasteful not to use that time when you need it.

  1. You’ll be doing your colleagues a favor.

You may worry that by taking a sick day, you’ll be creating extra work for the rest of your team.  But by staying home when you’re sick, you’ll spare everyone at work from catching whatever you have, and that’s just common courtesy.  Plus you may even set an example for the next person to come down with something, so they’ll feel encouraged to take a day off when they need it, too.

  1. You won’t accomplish anything anyway.

If you feel bad enough that you find yourself thinking, I’m going to be useless at work today—you’re probably right.  You’ll be unable to concentrate and more likely to make mistakes if you go to work sick.  And all that time wasted trying to be productive is time you could spend recuperating instead.  It’s not worth it. Just stay home.

  1. Fight the power.

Going to work when you’re sick doesn’t prove you’re tough; it proves you have bought into the capitalist notion that your worth as a human is determined by the amount of labor you’re able to perform.  And let’s face it, y’all: we don’t get paid enough for that nonsense.

  1. You ain’t special.

The work we do as VISTAs is important, absolutely.  But resist the temptation to think it will all go to ruin if you miss a day.  Communicate with your team when you’re out sick and trust them to hold down the fort while you’re away.  Your work site—and your work—will still be there when you get back.

The Importance of Befriending Your Coworkers

Written by Nathan Hawes, an AmeriCorps VISTA serving at the Backside Learning Center

Maintaining a healthy work environment is essential to the success of the organization and the welfare of its employees. You spend hours and hours with your coworkers and more than likely at some point you will have to work together to accomplish your goals. The people you work with can make or break a job, if you like the work and hate the people it won’t work out, but if you like the people and hate the work then you can probably get through it. And there is some research to back it up too! It may be obvious, but having healthy workplace relationships leads to better collaboration between the team, improved morale, and increased retention of employees. There are many companies and organizations that have ideas on bettering the workplace, whether its a pool table, or a gym located on site, or maybe they provide food. All of which are cool things, but none of them come close at to just having friends at work. One article goes as far to say that work friends can increase your happiness at work as much as a $100,000 raise would. However, I am unsure of how legit that increase would be, and how you quantify happiness. It also seems that people report having fewer close friends at work as they age. This steady decrease changes for people in their sixties report having more close friends. This is likely due to advancement in careers that lead to more responsibilities and opportunities.

Another benefit of having a good relationship with coworkers is that you gain a stronger connection to the organization as a whole. I would be a good example of how this is true. I started as an intern at the Backside Learning Center, at the time I needed one more credit to finish school and the internship seemed like an easy way to get it done. But very quickly I learned about the organization and its mission, and now I am about halfway completed with my Vista service. I became a believer in the organization and I want to support it in whatever way I can. Before my experience here, I was not the type to volunteer or do service, but here I am half a year later fully committed to the organization. The attitude of my coworkers has changed my attitude to be one that is ready to work and wants the organization to be successful. The workplace is one that allows us to be relaxed but at the same time productive to do what we must.

Having friends at work is not the only thing that can help the workplace environment, you can also have celebrations. Outside of birthdays and holidays, workplaces do not come together much. There might not be a reason to have a celebration but that is OK, just have fun with it. Go eat lunch with your coworkers, have a potluck on a random day of the week. At the Backside Learning Center we will have seemingly random celebration whenever we have a surplus of food. After our programs are done, we will have a small party and play a game with coworkers and clients. This really allows us to get to know other staff better but also the people that we serve. Sometimes we can take trips with clients to an event around town. There are plays, sporting events, or maybe a movie, that is a great way to learn more about the people around you and to strengthen those ties. If you are interested in learning more about a healthy workplace, you can check out some of the articles below:










Becoming a Fundraiser

Written by Martha Geier, an AmeriCorps VISTA serving at The Food Literacy Project

Fundraising was an activity I never expected or wanted to do.  The thought of asking someone for money was most unappealing.  I have trouble even asking for help.  However, much of my eight years as a volunteer with the Food Literacy Project involved development projects and now I find myself the VISTA Philanthropy Coordinator.  And I have a completely new perspective of development.

First, you have to know yourself.  We just had a community engagement training with the amazing Jennie Jean Davidson of Better Together Strategies during which she presented the intriguing concept of person, role and system.  It’s about self-awareness and how our personal stories affect us in our various life roles in the many “systems” we are part of.  Google it to learn more. I recommend the Myers-Briggs personality type instrument as another indicator for understanding self.

You have to know your organization.  In addition to understanding its mission, what about it affects you most strongly – the general cause, specific programs, specific outcomes, etc.  You need to be able to briefly describe it to others in an elevator speech.  And you may need more than one.  I find I need one for a general introduction to people who are just learning about us, another for a specific program, another for our expansion to Iroquois Urban Farm.  In other words, you need conversation starters.

You have to know your donors.  Ask them about their lives and interests.  Our stories are what connect us.  These connecting conversations help you see what about your organization will interest them.  We find that some of our supporters are really foodies.  They love our annual Field-to-Fork Dinner for its unique courses and once they are full and happy, they are quite willing to participate financially in the silent auction and other fundraising activities of the evening.  Some donors are all about farming and a sustainable food system.  Others about helping underserved children and families lead healthier lives.  There can be differences among age groups.  Older donors may be happy to provide money; younger ones may want to have hands-on involvement. These clues help you determine the best way forward to deepen their involvement.  And getting to know donors is one of the best parts of development.  Some of ours have become my personal friends.

You must thank your supporters sincerely and often.  For a smaller organization like ours, we can get thank you letters out within 48 hours, we can mount thankathons, we can schedule site visits or coffee catch-ups.  You will find ways to connect with your supporters. Most of these interactions are for stewardship rather than making an ask.  Stewardship is critical.

You are not asking for money/in kind materials or services.  You are providing an opportunity for investment in the community, in solving a problem, in changing someone’s life.  You will have learned enough about the donor to know what will most likely resonate with them.

For those who want to continue in the non-profit space, some level of fundraising knowledge is critical even if development is not your specific role.  As VISTAs, we know that we need to be able to speak knowledgeably about our organizations and, in so doing, we are spreading awareness that may lead to donor prospects.  Positive volunteer experiences and really any connection we make with the outside world will have impact.  I recommend acquaintance with two organizations for those who want to explore fundraising in particular and Louisville’s non-profit scene.

Fundraising Executives of Metro Louisville (FREML) is a membership organization for anyone in development, but you can attend as a guest a time or two to see if it is a good fit.  They have monthly programs, provide mentors, have scholarships and a job board.

Center for Non-Profit Excellence (CNPE) offers programs, classes and consultation that are open to anyone.  Your organization is likely to have a membership which reduces any costs associated with their offerings.  They have a job board.

We all have talents that feel natural to us. Some people are born fund raisers.  I was not.  However, I feel such a deep connection with the mission of the Food Literacy Project and am continuously inspired by our staff and board, our farmers, and the youth and families who participate in our programs that engaging our wonderful donors is no longer a challenge.



The Importance of Communication

Written by Katie Norton, an AmeriCorps VISTA serving at Catholic Charities 

I have learned more than I ever expected during the first half of my VISTA year. It has been exciting to work with such passionate people that are doing everything they can to help others in our community. I want to continue working in nonprofits in the future, and this has been the perfect opportunity to learn more about how they work. One of the most important skills I’ve learned is how to communicate more effectively in a professional setting.

When I first started, one of the most challenging things for me was learning how members of my office communicate. Because we have many different programs that serve each of our clients, it’s important that every step is shared with coworkers. We are all working with the same clients, so we need to be on the same page about their progress. However, there are many different communication styles. Some people prefer face to face meetings while others prefer emails and text messages. This can take a little bit to figure out, but once I got to know my coworkers better, I began to understand their preferences.

I’ve also learned that it is common for employees of a nonprofit to be very busy and have a lot on their plate. Because of this, it can sometimes be difficult to get a hold of someone. This is challenging when your projects depend on other people.  I know that no organization could function without good communication. I’ve also learned that there is always a chance for miscommunication, especially when a large portion of conversations take place over email.

I have encountered each of these challenges during the first several months of my service, and they’ve all helped me become better at my job. One of the most important things to remember is to be patient and flexible. We shouldn’t blame the other person because everyone is busy and everyone has a long to-do list. I’ve found that if you take the time to understand how each of your coworkers prefers to communicate and meet them halfway, it will be much easier to get a hold of them and to get more accomplished. It’s important to support the people that we work with and be open about ways to improve communication.

Through AmeriCorps, I have gotten to meet so many amazing people. My coworkers and the clients we serve inspire me every day. It has given me the opportunity to work with people from many different countries and cultures. Open communication is essential to understanding the people I meet. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to serve them to the best of my ability.