Over on the Americorps Alums archive page of the Hands On blog, I found this revealing, year-old post from Charlotte Gulley that could prove relevant to this year’s new crop of Americorps:
Another thing about my experience–for the first time in my life, I was an ethnic minority. I grew up in a town that was almost painfully homogeneous. In my AmeriCorps experience, I experienced for the first time how it feels for someone to see your skin color before they see your face or hear your name. For the first time in my life, I was “white” before I was “Charlotte,” and it was eye opening. I was immersed in black culture for eleven months, and gained a lot of perspective on plurality. My culture is not the only one worth knowing about, and my experience in life is by far not the only one worth consideration.
Depending on the person, joining Americorps can be like stepping into the Total Perspective Vortex from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. This infernal machine was designed to instill a true sense of perspective by “show[ing] its victim the entire unimaginable infinity of the universe with a very tiny marker that says “You Are Here” which points to a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot.”
Welcome to Americorps. If you are not coming from a background of ethnic minority, poverty, inner-city grit or one of the other demographics that Americorps-served organization often serve, or aren’t intimately familiar with them from some other history of service, you’re in for a great big whop upside the head with the clue-by-four.
Given that a majority of Americorps members tend to be middle to upper class white kids taking a break year before college or between degrees, this is likely to be the case.
Here are some fun things you will get to experience in your Americorps service:
- You may end up, quite likely for the first time, as an ethnic minority. Welcome to the world of judgment based on color first, person second (if ever)
- You will get to see what it’s like to try to eat a balanced diet on food stamps. Hint: if you want organic and fair trade, you’ll either need another job or a vanishingly small appetite.
- If you handle your money unwisely (and mom and dad don’t bail you out) you may get to see what it feels like to make the quintessential poverty-line choice between heatin’ and eatin.’
- Depending on your service assignment, you’ll learn what a long, hard day of manual feels like. For a whole year.
- You’ll learn to love “refreshments provided” events. You will also learn to say “Yes!” quickly when someone asks if anyone wants to take home the leftover food from said event.
- You’ll learn to watch people fall through cracks over and over again, through no fault of their own, that no one in your normal sphere of contact ever has to worry about. You’ll see firsthand that poverty isn’t the poor person’s fault, and that below a certain level of income the safety nets and support services society enacts to help actually work against you (can’t get a job because you would lose benefits that keep you fed, doctored, housed and clothed and that the added income wouldn’t even begin make up for, etc). This means that you’ll have something else to worry about during tough times later in life that never would have occurred to you before Americorps.
- You will learn what it’s like to persevere even though it appears that you’re getting nothing done. Eventually, you’ll burn out. The next week, something will happen to show you that all your hard work was completely and utterly meaningless. Then – maybe a week later, maybe a month later – something will happen to prove that you really did make life better for someone in a real, tangible way – that you changed someone’s life in a way that nothing can ever take away. And that difference will be something that you have always taken for granted in your own life. That’s when you’ll suddenly feel like a whiny, privileged git for being so caught up in the need to be patted on the head for your work that you failed to note how pointless your own whiny, privileged discomfort was compared to what those you serve would lose if you were to quit. Kick self, rinse, repeat.
- Slowly but surely (unless you are very lucky), you will find that some of your old friends seem increasingly more shallow and hard to be around, especially when they start making those homeless-guy jokes you used to think were so funny.
- During your term in Americorps, you’ll quite likely discover something new about yourself pretty much every week or so that you never knew and that is uncomfortable to know. Navel gazing will take on a masochistic air. You’ll get over it. But in the end you won’t leave Americorps as the same person who joined it. If you do, you weren’t really paying attention.