“I believe that if you show people the problems and you show them the solutions they will be moved to act.”— Bill Gates
I firmly believe this idea: people want to help others, they just don’t know how. This is why I wanted to spend my first-year post-college as an AmeriCorps VISTA with NeighborLink. AmeriCorps VISTA is a federal organization that was founded in 1973 to help alleviate poverty, through the work of dedicated volunteers. These volunteers, like myself, choose to spend a period of time, sometimes a summer, and sometimes a year or multiple years working at a non-profit or federal agency to help them build their capacity and make a greater impact.
Part of the AmeriCorps program involves, not only serving the poor, but living amidst them and living like them: AmeriCorps receive not a wage, but a stipend comparable to the poverty level of the people we are serving. In my case, that means earning $472 every other week to use for all my needs, such as rent, gas, car expenses, food, and other necessities. I intend to use this blog to reflect on some of my experiences of living on this type of budget and how it impacts my choices. For my AmeriCorps service, I could have gone to live and serve almost anywhere in the U.S., but I felt called to stay locally and work with NeighborLink.
I first learned about Neighborlink during a summer internship and was immediately enamored with its ideals and grassroots, hands-on service model. NeighborLink in many ways directly proves Gates’ opening quote: NeighborLink facilitates service, so people can learn how to meet tangible needs in the community, and in a more fundamental way, people can create relationships and connections. My job at NeighborLink this year is to help expand their capacity to foster connections and encourage healthy neighborhoods. Specifically, I am administering the Homeowner Improvement Program Grants and continuing the research in the ongoing Healthy Neighborhoods Research Project.
So this marks the start of my third week as an AmeriCorps VISTA working with NeighborLink Fort Wayne, and now that you all know what that entails, I wanted to share a bit from my experiences thus far.
I am not poor, and even at a stipend of $33 per day, I am still richly provisioned for. Even though money will be tight for the next year and I feel that it is very significant that I am getting a glimpse into what living in poverty is like, I know that I am not getting the full picture for several reasons
I know that this will only last a year.
I have a middle-class family willing to step in to help with emergency expenses and help with some constant expenses this year. Plus, I have a network of friends and colleagues who support me.
I completed college and know I am qualified to get a well-paying job, and after this year with AmeriCorps, I will actually be more qualified.
I have no debt (college was scholarshipped) and no dependents.
I am choosing to have this experience.
People in poverty usually cannot say the four things I just stated. Many of them are retired or disabled, on a fixed income for the rest of their lives, which creates anxiety about the future and expenses. Poverty is not usually a stable experience with a guaranteed check and time period, rather most people living in poverty have unstable wages, job retention, benefits and housing. Many others in poverty do not have the luxury of a family to step in and pay bills if needed, moreover, they are trying to take care of others. Others have been born into poverty and do not have social connections to help find jobs or assistance. With consumer and student debt at all-time highs, most people start their lives in debt. Nearly 39% of women my age have already become mothers, and I could not imagine attempting to pay for myself and my children with this meager income. But the biggest reason I am not truly poor in this year is that I am choosing this experience. One of the most damaging and demoralizing aspects of poverty, in my opinion, is that those who are poor are actively trying not to be, but cannot seem to alter their circumstances.
2. Fort Wayne has intense pockets of income inequality and segregation, which can harm social mobility and economic growth. Research coming out of Harvard has found that there are several key issues that can inhibit social mobility, including segregation and income inequality. Moreover, as was pointed out in the 2017 Cleveland Federal Reserve Policy Summit talk “Industrial Heartland: Rust and Renewal,” as racial composition changes in the region, if policy does not address the barriers that increase the likelihood that certain ethnicities and groups are in poverty, then the entire region will reduce its economic output over time ( for the full talk- which is an excellent discourse on economic struggles facing our region click here). For the wellbeing of the region and for the good of each person, steps should be taken to increase social mobility and economic opportunity.
One easy way to assess these inequalities is to input Zip Codes into this website, which uses U.S. Census Bureau data to make useful graphics and charts for categories such as housing, income, education, poverty, households, etc. This was a bit shocking for me to navigate and realize that my childhood Zip Code (46845) has only a 3.15% poverty level, while a different region of Fort Wayne, 46803, has a 49% poverty level. That speaks volumes to the types of opportunities I was given, while other people in the same region might not have had those same opportunities. Additionally, 46845 has 91% white residents, while 46803 has a much more diverse population, with African-American residents as the majority by a significant margin. And both of these Zip Codes diverge from the county data, showing that local policies and endeavors can much more nimbly address those in need.
3. Perception is everything. Many people I know who are not familiar with south Fort Wayne fear the area as crime-ridden and dangerous. But if you speak with many of the longtime residents in the area, they would beg to differ. There are good people in the southeast and southwest of Fort Wayne. Since I have come to live and work in the 46807 Zip Code, I have become more and more confirmed in this idea. There will always be more that unites than separates people. Plus, wanting to contribute and help others is a universal desire. So why do people think of certain areas of Fort Wayne to be bad or dangerous? Perception. They have not walked these streets, met the people or listened to their struggles. Already in my work here at Neighborlink, I have seen how data diverges from perception. I have spoken with people, take their claims at face value and then when researching, found that the statistics tell a very different story.
This is why I want to challenge you all to think deeply about your base assumptions about your community and fact check them. Consider it an eye exam to check how well you are seeing the world around you.
These are just a few of the insights I’ve gained, and I’m sure I will be sharing more over the next year, stay tuned! Also check out my weekly vlog, “Bernie on a Journey,” found on NeighborLink's YouTube page https://www.youtube.com/channel/UChi85wxa93aJ7lAD19MWiyw
BERNIE'S WEEK IN PHOTOS
A house in Pettit -Rudisill Neighborhood, showing some repair work and landscaping needs. Also, I’ve come to notice how different some houses are in old neighborhoods; this house does not look like any other house in that neighborhood, it is a unique feature.
This house belonged to a sweet older person who has lived there for 40 years. She never used to take care of feral cats until a neighbor who had taken care of them was moving away. This neighbor promised to take care of one, but soon a whole crew of cats came. Now it’s a neighborhood kitty community center (she does work to get the cats spayed and neutered).
Part of being a good neighbor is listening to others and helping them find ways to take care of issues. My Neighborlink coworkers were able to help me meet some needs for my car, by sharing some car maintenance information with me and providing out of what they had (I ran out of coolant).
This past Friday, a few coworkers and I had some relational time at a local restaurant, Junk Ditch. Part of this year of service is learning how to collaborate and expand the good work already in progress here, thus getting to know my coworkers’ stories and skills helps to understand how to best serve them and ways to collaborate in the future.
This sidewalk was a doozy. Besides being a tripping hazard for most able-bodied people, this could pose a serious threat for those with limited mobility or wheelchairs. This is a perfect example of the need for better neighborhood infrastructure, and how things can fall into disrepair over time.
- Bernie -
Bernadette aka Bernie is AmeriCorpsVISTA ambassador for NeighborLink. Follow her year-long journey as she gains insights as the Community Relations & Research Coordinator. This is part of NeighborLink's comprehensive research project to better understand what makes a healthy neighborhood healthy here in Fort Wayne, IN. We are diving into Hoagland Masterson, North Highlands, Pettit-Rudisill, West Central, and Williams Woodlands neighborhoods. Stay tuned to learn more and hear discoveries from Bernie's perspective and findings.