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Living as a Seed of Hope during and after AmeriCorps

March 12, 2015

sondra samuels headshot 400 X 400Today’s guest blog comes to us from Sondra Samuels and originally appeared on Huffington Post on March, 11, 2015 in partnership with The Franklin Project at The Aspen Institute. This post is also part of AmeriCorps Alums’ REALTalk series on race, equity, and AmeriCorps alumni as leaders. Sondra serves as the President and CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ). She is leading a revolutionary culture shift in North Minneapolis, focused on ending multigenerational poverty through education. Sondra served in AmeriCorps in 1994 as part of the Justice Department’s Weed-n-Seed Initiative and is also a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. She recently received an AmeriCorps Alums National Leadership Award in recognition of her commitment to a lifetime of service.

Today, the economic, educational, political and proximity gaps between the haves and have nots is widening. Far too many low-income people, who are often people of color, are isolated and disconnected from opportunities for upward mobility. Who is accountable for improving the lives of low-income people of color for whom the American dream has been denied?

Of course each individual is responsible for his or her own success, but we cannot do it alone. We need each other more than ever now.

Students who are furthest behind receive one-on-one support from a scholar coach at NAZ.

Students who are furthest behind receive one-on-one support from a scholar coach at NAZ. Photo by NAZ.

In 1994, after finishing my Peace Corps service in Botswana, Africa, I came home and joined the first class of AmeriCorps. It was an exciting time. AmeriCorps was a new movement with enormous potential to bring about real change, and finally, I was bringing my passion for justice home. While overseas, I committed to serving my own country by focusing on one neighborhood for one year. That neighborhood was Norris Square located on N. Howard Street in Philly.

A largely Latino neighborhood, Norris Square was ground zero for our work. It had a long history of violence, crime, drugs, gang warfare, failing schools and poverty. Though many of the activist neighbors I worked with had no shortage of hope, sometimes the situation seemed hopeless — like in so many inner-city communities.

I served as an AmeriCorps leader in the neighborhood’s Weed-n-Seed initiative. Our mission was to weed out crime and violence while planting seeds of hope. However, it takes more than a good heart to become a seed of hope. I realized quickly that to have real impact in the community and to allow the community to have real impact on me, I needed to not only work there but to live there and become a part of it. Living on the block actually increased my accountability to the neighbors of Norris Square and theirs to me.

Children and their parents graduate together from NAZ Family Academy classes.

Children and their parents graduate together from NAZ Family Academy classes. Photo by NAZ.

This is what authentic community means. It’s about the mutual care and responsibility we take for the well-being of our neighbors grounded in the understanding of our intertwined and shared destiny. If my brother or sister is not well, I am not well. When accountability is at the heart of community, outcomes count — it actually matters if things get better or worse.

I learned to live as a seed of hope and joined other seeds of hope in that community. Together we marched for peace, planted gardens, ensured the safety of children and worked to stem the tide of the drug trade destroying the neighborhood.

Yet, this sense of accountability and hope is something we have to build back in to our communities. In 1968, with the passage of Fair Housing legislation ending legal housing discrimination, there was a mass exodus of whites followed by many middle-class families of color. I call it the “great hemorrhaging.” Middle class folks abandoned the inner-city and our less privileged neighbors for better schools, safety, convenience, and the status of the suburbs. This exodus continues today. In our flight, we take our economic, social and political power.

The unintended consequence of our actions has been the creation of racially concentrated areas of poverty (RCAPs), where at least 50 percent of the population are people of color and 40 percent live below the poverty line. In Minneapolis, for example, there are 38 RCAPs. Over 50 percent of the total number of RCAPs are located where I live in N. Minneapolis, (a community very similar to N. Philly) although the area it accounts for only makes up 15 percent of the city. RCAPs are characterized by disproportionate crime, violence, school failure, high mobility, single-parent homes, and a lack of jobs, thriving for-profit businesses, or access to healthy foods and meaningful transit.

During the summer of 2014, more than 400 North Minneapolis children attended full day academic programs.

More than 400 N. Minneapolis children attended full day academic programs in Summer 2014. Photo by NAZ.

I live in North Minneapolis with my family to continue the AmeriCorps tradition as a way of life. We returned over 18 years ago to join our neighbors in the daily joys and struggles of living and loving in the inner-city.Together we are creating and attending block club meetings, engaging in politics to ensure equitable representation, planting gardens, advocating for better schools and more businesses and marching for peace.

Although living as a seed of hope in a neighborhood in need is not the only way to bring about justice and restore the health of community, I do believe that the powerful transformative potential of such an action, grounded in a loving sense of responsibility, is both compelling and undeniable.

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