In Denver, Cities of Service Convenes AmeriCorps VISTA Members to Shape the Future of Citizen Engagement

August 16, 2017

Saundra Malanowicz has just completed two years of service as an AmeriCorps VISTA Leader at Cities of Service in New York. In this capacity, she helped to guide Cities of Service AmeriCorps VISTA members who serve in city halls across the country through the Love Your Block program. She previously served as an AmeriCorps VISTA member herself, working in Philadelphia for Pathways PA, where she focused on financial empowerment services for families.

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ore than any other Cities of Service convening I’ve participated in during my time with the organization, the 2017 AmeriCorps VISTA Convening in Denver, CO, brought the concept of “Impact Volunteering” to life. Impact Volunteering is a Cities of Service strategy that engages citizens to solve public problems alongside local government. During this convening, held from July 31–August 2, AmeriCorps members discussed the ways in which they had been able to successfully use Impact Volunteering to harness the knowledge, creativity, and enthusiasm of citizens to help build stronger cities.

For background, Cities of Service works with the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) and its AmeriCorps VISTA program to implement three citizen engagement programs that target low-income neighborhoods — Love Your Block, Resilience AmeriCorps, and Prepared Together.

Love Your Block helps residents revitalize their neighborhoods one block at a time; Resilience AmeriCorps deploys its members to build and sustain resilience in low-income neighborhoods; and Prepared Together engages citizen volunteers in initiatives that prepare cities for disasters. The Cities of Service citizen engagement model is the common thread that ties them all together.

Convening attendees discuss citizen engagement strategies.

Mayor Michael Hancock of Denver, CO talks with the AmeriCorps members. Photo credit: Cities of Service.

At meetings like this recent one in Denver, Cities of Service AmeriCorps members have the chance to share their experiences, brainstorm new ways to work in their host cities, and build a network of like-minded service members across the country.

Cities of Service provides the resources cities need to implement Impact Volunteering initiatives — such as financial support and technical assistance. Cities of Service also provides cities with the AmeriCorps VISTA members themselves. These AmeriCorps members are the heart of this successful strategy; they are the doers — the ones who serve in city halls, go door-to-door in the community, create project budgets, manage volunteer days, and collect program metrics.

As ambassadors for Cities of Service and liaisons between citizens and city hall staff, they are the next generation of public servants dedicated to strengthening citizen engagement. Some of the AmeriCorps members in attendance at the Denver convening had served for over a year, some were mid-way through their year of service, and some had started in their host cities just a month ago.

With the support of Cities of Service, AmeriCorps VISTA members are able to share their knowledge and learn from one another. Resilience AmeriCorps member Catherine Kemp spoke about her time serving in Anchorage, Alaska. She described how she initially started out by going to established community meetings, but soon realized that it was more fruitful to talk to residents by going door-to-door with her AmeriCorps VISTA member partner Su Chon, often accompanied by the mayor of Anchorage himself. In this way, they were able to hear from many citizens, not just those who attended local meetings, and gained a wider range of thoughts and opinions. After hearing her describe this lesson, other AmeriCorps members took note and may apply this strategy in their own cities.

Tyler Pearson, a second year Love Your Block AmeriCorps VISTA member in Birmingham, shared one of his lessons: “Building trust is building community.” When you listen to people, follow up with them regularly, call on them to improve their community as volunteers, and ask them to be champions of your initiative, the trust you’re nurturing helps build stronger communities.

In his two years with the City of Birmingham, Tyler has seen this principle in action: he has overseen the completion of 37 Love Your Block projects, and has developed strong relationships with neighborhood leaders and city staff alike.

The convening also provided space for AmeriCorps VISTA members to identify and confront challenging situations. To help develop this skill, they had the chance to practice their responses to tough questions in community meetings. As representatives of their city, they can’t be dismissive of the issues and emotions that citizens bring to the table, but they also can’t promise to fix something outside of their purview. Their words and actions can provide a positive breakthrough in building trust with an individual, but a small misstep can deepen a fracture in that trust.

AmeriCorps VISTA members work in pairs. Photo credit: Cities of Service.

AmeriCorps VISTA members hear from a panel of their fellow AmeriCorps members and Cities of Service program staff.

AmeriCorps members identified some interesting situations at the convening, like helping a citizen who has reported a pothole on their block or who worries about lead in their water, and then practiced their responses through a role play exercise. Although they don’t always have the answer, we encourage our AmeriCorps members to speak with community members individually, listen, and connect them to a relevant contact at city hall to help them address the problem.

Looking back on my two years with Cities of Service, I have learned the importance of building trust within cities and between citizens and their elected leaders. By extension, I learned how to apply this trust-building skill to the community of Love Your Block AmeriCorps members that I supported on a daily basis.

I have had the pleasure of supporting the AmeriCorps members in my cohort as they work within their communities, design fliers, navigate mayor-city council relations, create city toolkits, practice job interviews for their next steps after service, and — my favorite — do their taxes. I’ve also recognized them as experts in their work, and have created opportunities to share their expertise. They have accomplished great things and made their cities better, and I’m grateful to have been a part of their community.

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To learn more about the three Cities of Service programs that are powered by AmeriCorps VISTA members, check out Love Your BlockResilience AmeriCorps, and Prepared Together.