From Community Organizing to Teaching: A Segal Fellow Shares her Story of Activism and Service
For the #1of1million celebration in October, AmeriCorps Alums is recognizing alums with unique stories to share. This week, we are catching-up with one of the recipients of the AmeriCorps Alums Eli Segal Leadership Award, Tanika Lynch. Tanika is currently serving as an Urban Teacher in Baltimore, MD.
Congratulations on winning the Alums Segal Education Leadership Award! Out of all your leadership experiences, what was your proudest moment?
I organized in college around private prisons. We were called Columbia Prison Divest (with 10 core organizers and dozens of other contributors) and our goal was to compel the university to divest their stock to the companies that we knew of, and to educate our campus community about mass incarceration. In the beginning when we were goal-setting, we went around and decided what we wanted to see for the campaign by the end of the year. Several other seniors and I said that we wanted to see Columbia actually divest. It was a rough goal, and we weren’t sure it was actually going to happen, but we wanted to see that happen before we left the university.
Right around graduation, I saw the article come out that Columbia had actually divested their stock! We were surprised it happened, especially that quickly! That moment was so powerful. We realized the activism that we were doing actually had an impact! A few months later, I read that the Department of Justice decided to stop using private prisons. It was amazing to know that organizing on my campus could have had an impact in this larger movement.
I understood then that the work I do does have an impact . A lot of times we don’t get to actually see it.
However, the means of getting there mattered more to me than anything else. Making sure that the students within our university knew what we were fighting for, and why, was more important to me than getting the university to actually divest.
Please tell us more about your AmeriCorps service. Why did you choose to serve? How has service experience changed your worldview?
I joined Playworks without knowing it was an AmeriCorps organization. Because of my experience with Prison Divest in college, I realized I can’t do work if I’m not working with the people who I’m impacting in the long run. I knew I wanted to work in education (or education policy one day) but I can’t do that if I’ve never worked in a school or with children. Playworks was that on-the-ground opportunity to learn about how schools worked before I started teaching. The work that I was already doing just happened to align to perfectly with the goals of AmeriCorps.
I’ve learned that it is so important to integrate yourself into the community that you’re planning on serving! A lot of people who are doing service work in general probably come from privileged backgrounds (maybe well-educated, upper-class, or White). As an outsider, people don’t respect you and won’t listen to you. You also can’t do effective work because you won’t know the needs of the community, especially if you’re not trying to become a part of that community. I have learned different ways of integrating, both formally and informally, whether it’s showing up to every event, so that people know you care, or organizing school events.
It’s important to be able to just play. Play is a productive thing, even though many people don’t see it that way. That time is productive and a great way to stay engaged! On the playground, children learn how to socialize, solve conflicts, and how to be leaders, but kids don’t know that it’s happening. Given the right environment, it will happen naturally!
What are some of your professional and personal goals? How will being a Segal Education Fellow help you achieve those goals? What are you looking forward to the most?
My professional goals are murky and I accept that. I know that I want to do some kind of organizing, but if it doesn’t have a larger impact, it’s not doing what it’s supposed to do. However, I don’t want to be in a political office, nor do I want to be behind a desk all day. I think Segal will help me figure out how to merge my interest in education, the justice system, and community organizing into a position that is right for me. I am looking forward to the Segal retreat because there is a session particularly about how to take your broad interests and make the more concrete. I’m also looking forward to learning how to have a successful mentorship!
AmeriCorps Alums has launched a Race & Equity initiative, in partnership with the Annie E. Casie Foundation, in order to reduce racial disparities where we work and serve. What does equity and inclusion mean to you? Why are these strategies important in National Service?
I really appreciate that you use “equity” and not “equality.” Equity means everyone gets what they need.
Equity also requires activism, because in the natural state of things, everyone doesn’t get what they need, while those who don’t need often get more. It requires activism, movement, and intentional thinking about what needs to be changed.
It’s important for National Service because a lot of seemingly altruistic privileged people are doing service and sometimes it’s more self-serving for them. It helps the people who are trying to help, more than the communities they are trying to serve. You get that “feel-good” feeling that makes you happy that you did the work, but did you actually make an impact? Was your goal to serve someone or was it just to do something good to say that you did it? That mindset comes from people who don’t come from the community itself. I think this new initiative to reduce racial disparities is so important because you don’t have to work as hard to become a part of the community if you are from the community.