Combating Poverty through Partnerships
Today’s guest blog comes to us from Caleb Jonas, an AmeriCorps alumnus and former director of the City of St. Paul (MN) AmeriCorps VISTA Program. Caleb also served in New Sector’s Summer AmeriCorps Fellowship. He is currently the Program Manager for SamaUSA, a nonprofit that combats poverty by training low-income Americans to earn and succeed in digital work.
The time I spent as an AmeriCorps VISTA member fresh out of college taught me two lessons that have guided my career ever since. The first of these is the enduring truth that anti-poverty organizations are most effective when they work together. The second is the value of approaching an initiative or project with a conscious intent to design, test, and revise it over time.
I began my year of VISTA service on what my supervisor called a “listening tour” of entities providing tutoring services in St. Paul, Minnesota. While my friends in direct service AmeriCorps roles spoke about the rewards of supporting low-income high school students in earning college acceptances, I grew frustrated by the hours I’d spent in church basements and community centers listening to the needs and concerns of tutoring program directors and coordinators.
When I approached my supervisor asking when I might be able to start making a “real impact,” she told me that “we can only push back poverty by building partnerships, and we can only build partnerships by understanding others.” Though I did not find these words immediately comforting, they came to define my VISTA experience and subsequent career in anti-poverty work.
As a VISTA member at the St. Paul Public Schools Foundation, I was tasked with building a coalition of tutoring organizations that would share best practices and coordinate their programs more closely with our local school district. This work proved to be time-consuming and challenging. Each small victory, like a hard-earned data-sharing agreement, was offset by a setback, such as a serious disagreement between coalition members. I found solace in my supervisor’s reminder that “listening, trying, and revising” were each critical phases of our initiative’s growth. By the end of service year, our partnership members had agreed upon a common set of research-validated best practices and built stronger connections with the school district. I’m proud to report that the Tutoring Partnership continues to provide critical resources to its members and to low-income and high-risk students.
As a VISTA Program Director, I found that I could best serve the 25 organizations that hosted our members by repeating this process of listening, testing, and revising. Based on feedback from Corps members and community partners, I focused on ensuring that new partners understood the benefits and constraints of hosting a VISTA member. Together, we ensured that each volunteer’s experience could best serve that organization’s needs. I also connected our members with other national service volunteers in the community to provide them with a larger set of peers who could serve as resources and colleagues.
In my current role, I’m responsible for helping my organization reach and benefit more low-income Americans by establishing and maintaining partnerships. At SamaUSA, we use the “Lean Impact” approach to our work, which asks us to apply a cycle of “learning, building and measuring” in everything we do. I see this approach as a more formalized process of the way I learned to think during my VISTA service.
I’m deeply proud of the change I was able to affect during my year of service, and grateful that my VISTA experience taught me a set of skills and ideas that still help me fight poverty on a daily basis.