By Matias Piva ’14, who currently serves as an Americorps*VISTA member with the Rochester Youth Year Fellowship program. This is the first in a series of guest posts by current Rochester Youth Year Fellows.
When I read the words “community-based leadership as a solution to poverty,” I, as an AmeriCorps*VISTA, immediately think of the two main roles of the AmeriCorps*VISTA: Capacity-building, and Community Empowerment. According to the VISTA Member Handbook, “the principles of collaborative, grassroots, and sustainable development…are at the heart of AmeriCorps*VISTA’s anti-poverty mission.” This is a resounding commitment to community-based leadership if I ever heard one.
Of course, these are only words; it’s all too easy to pay lip service to grassroots leadership without following through. One would expect that in a program touting community empowerment as an integral part of its identity, community empowerment would be integrated into every strata of the model.
Is it? Consider the following:
- Ask any AmeriCorps*VISTA about the very beginning of their service and they’ll tell you that they spent a very large portion of their pre-service orientation covering community empowerment and how to do it. I remember learning about systems development and execution, about volunteer recruitment and management, and more all with a focus on how to make the victims of [state-created] poverty the dynamic centerpieces of the solutions. Already at the absolute beginning of the year of service, AmeriCorps*VISTA intentionally impresses upon its newest recruits the importance of community empowerment.
- My AmeriCorps*VISTA-sponsored program, Rochester Youth Year (RYY), enlists graduating seniors from 4-year Universities in Rochester to stay in Rochester to take on a year of service after having spent 4 years benefiting from all Rochester has to offer and becoming part of the community. In other words, RYY enrolls local talent to solve local problems. Community empowerment.
- Furthermore, RYY regularly empowers me and my RYY colleagues to fill our roles ever better at least once per month by hosting meetings and professional development trainings to talk capacity-building and community-based leadership within the context of our city of Rochester and our host sites.
- At my host site, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Monroe County (CCE-MC), I have begun an alumni engagement program, enlisting consenting alumni of a positive youth development program called CITIZEN U to help facilitate the success of the program by empowering them to transfer knowledge to, to lead community service projects in conjunction with, and to mentor the current CITIZEN U youth. Put differently, I’m recruiting the former recipients of an excellent program to support the students who were once in their position. In addition, with youth voice a cornerstone of the program, the asset development curriculum solicits feedback about, and caters to, the wants and needs of its at-risk youth who will do anything they can to succeed but who’ve been deprived of the support, knowledge, skills, attitudes, and opportunities needed to flourish.
If that isn’t community empowerment, then I don’t know what is. What I’ve been trying to help the reader to understand is that the mantra of community empowerment is part of the DNA of AmeriCorps*VISTA, and that the result is the infusion of community-based leadership at every level of the system. From the top-level administration at the Corporation for National and Community Service right down to the VISTAs and host sites themselves, the model of recognizing locals (like me and my youth) as assets and giving them nontrivial control over the solutions to poverty – and, ultimately, their destiny – is making tremendous impact here in Rochester despite the depressing statistics. To wit, look no further than our impressive 100% rate of CITIZEN U graduates advancing to college with partial or full scholarships.
Click here to learn more about Rochester Youth Year and how to apply!