The Community Leader


The Work of Individuals

By Sarah Burns, 2014-2015 Rochester Youth Year Fellow

Everyone recognizes that poverty exists. It is a fact that we live with, discuss, and something that many people ignore or look past in their day to day lives. We debate what the cause of someone’s poverty is, why it isn’t alleviated, and sometimes, what we can do to fix it. That’s normally where the conversation ends. We went to ACT Rochester’s Report Card event earlier this year based on this premise: What is poverty? How can we help? Unlike most discussions, though, it didn’t end there. The speakers clearly stated that simply attending this event would not alleviate poverty, that those going home thinking they did their part had, in fact, not done enough. We were told that we needed to get out into the community and work; we needed to be the change we wanted to see in our community.

We often hear about the poverty that children are facing. Living in the City of Rochester, where more than 50% of children live in poverty, it’s a concern that should be spoken of prominently and fought to address, but I fear that people sometimes forget to include others in their fight. I have the unique and wonderful opportunity to work at Episcopal SeniorLife Communities which, as it sounds, is a senior living organization. There are many things that make ESLC stand out among their fellow organizations. We provide a range of care, from independent living all the way to skilled nursing. We have several communities throughout Monroe County and are always looking to build new relationships with the community. This brings me to what I see as one of the most unique and forward-thinking things we offer at this organization: our Neighborhood Programs. We currently have five different Neighborhood Programs throughout Monroe County which offer health and wellness courses to seniors at our centers, as well as those in the surrounding community. The goal of the program is to keep these seniors living in their place of choice for as long as possible. Our goal is to keep them from needing our services. We often focus on children and how to help them, something that I fully support and plan to make a career out of, but we forget that those children that have grown up and become seniors still need help. I have seen firsthand the poverty of seniors in the Rochester area. Simply by walking across that bridge from our Mount Hope campus in the South Wedge to the Plymouth-Exchange neighborhood, you enter a whole new world. A world where the first thing each neighborhood association meeting does is go over the crimes that have occurred since their last meeting. These, more often than not, include a couple of robberies and several shootings.

As a VISTA, I am trying to better the lives of both seniors and youth in the community. The program I created, GAP (or the Generations Align Project), works to pair seniors and youth in a one-on-one mentoring relationship. The goal of the program is to be mutually beneficial for both parties and to boost their self-esteem. Creating the basis for the program is truly only half the battle. The program would do no good if there were not people to be a part of it. Each person in the program has so much to offer to the other. The youth can teach the seniors or simply give them that relationship that they might not have with their family. The same can be said for the seniors that participate. They can give the youth a relationship they may not have and can open their eyes to things they didn’t even know about. They work together to improve the quality of life for the other.

Recently, I spoke with the principal of School 19, a wonderful woman who inspired me greatly. She knew the name of each student in the hallway (there are over 400 students) and each student that she greeted showed such joy and respect for her. I can only hope that one day I can be half the woman she is. She is a woman who can change poverty and find a solution through community based leadership. She has worked to partner with over 30 community organizations to better her students’ lives. Each one of those organizations works to find a solution to poverty. I think the most important thing to remember is that my program, her programs, each of those community organizations that are working with the students is built upon individual people. Yes they are a group, yes they may be known as a whole, but they would not exist if it were not for the goodness of community members. Community members who decided that they didn’t want to simply attend an event and listen to the problems our community is facing. Community members who decided they wanted to leave that event and take a stand by joining an organization, by joining a program, by starting something on their own. Everything is based off the idea of one or several people. Many think that they alone cannot make a difference, that they alone cannot find a solution to poverty or even partially alleviate it. Those people have to remember that those huge organizations that seem to have the ability to change the world are built on the work of individuals. By taking a stand, by working with a school, by joining GAP, individuals in the community are working toward a solution to poverty.

Understanding and Solving Poverty

By Rhaia Hull, 2014-2015 Rochester Youth Year Fellow

Poverty is a unique phenomenon. It seems to be something everyone in our country has an opinion on, but yet is only truly understood by those who are living in it and those who have overcome it. For many, poverty is thought to be a one-dimensional problem that can be solved with hard work or living within someone’s means. However, this sort of ignorance puts poverty in a very simple box. People who have struggled to provide for their families, have been evicted from their homes, or have gone without presents during the holidays can tell you how poverty affects your mind, body and soul. It isn’t just the state of your bank account, but an all-encompassing state of mind that you wake up and go to sleep dealing with–a sense of hopelessness and lack of control that adults and children deal with every day. It is details like these that are often overlooked and prevent real effective change from occurring.

It wasn’t until I began my year of service as an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Rochester City School District (RCSD) that I really began to understand poverty. Despite my own personal experiences and my background in sociology, I wasn’t prepared for what I would see in the Rochester city and its school district. I had never been in an urban city before and my perspective of poverty was limited to rural poverty. So in the beginning, my supervisor gave me a tour of Rochester, where we drove around the city and discussed its different problems. This wasn’t like the tour I had taken during orientation, of the different parks and monuments. This was through the toughest and most impoverished neighborhoods in Rochester. He took me down the most barren streets, pointing out abandoned buildings and lots, numerous liquor and corner stores, people waiting in line for different services, and the number of churches and schools littered in such desolation. This eye opening experience weighed on my shoulders; it reinforced my knowledge of poverty as a multifaceted problem that wouldn’t be easily solved. It did, however, leave me inspired to do something about it.

As the months went by, the solution to poverty became even trickier to figure out. Is it the unemployment rate or the lack of affordable and safe housing? Does Rochester need more services for the poor or are our schools too disorganized or inadequate? Considering my position within the RCSD, the relationship between poverty and education left me trying to comprehend the problems that face the district alone. When we consider that 27,829 students are enrolled in the District, 84% of which receive free/reduced price lunch, that District students speak over 84 different languages, and that the graduate rate is 43%, that is no easy feat. When you understand the significance of those numbers and the problems they carry for the district, it’s easy to feel completely and utterly overwhelmed by it all. But my year of service has shown me the other side of the District that isn’t widely publicized or discussed (especially in today’s media): that there are countless people, adults and youth alike, who are committed to improving the schools and the city.

That’s why, when I think of the solution to poverty and the problems that face Rochester, I think of those people: the different teachers, principals, administrators, community leaders, and inspiring teens that I’ve met this past year. It’s remarkable how many of these successful individuals have lived through poverty themselves—people who came from humble beginnings, have experienced homelessness, or were teen parents. But it seems that it is these experiences that make them the best fit for challenging poverty. They are resilient against adversity, pragmatic when thinking of solutions, and empathetic with the impoverished adults and children of the city. They are really who can get things done.

Why Community Leadership Needs to be Included in the Conversation on Poverty

By Lauren Sava, 2014-2015 Rochester Youth Year Fellow

Starting off my year as an AmeriCorps VISTA/Rochester Youth Year (RYY) Fellow, I was no stranger to the poverty statistics in Rochester. For our RYY orientation, all the Fellows were asked to read the 2013 Rochester poverty report, which outlined some pretty terrifying statistics. Rochester being the 5th poorest urban city in the US and Rochester City School District (RCSD) being the poorest urban city school district in New York State were among the most memorable. These statistics are alarming, daunting, and even a little discouraging. However, it’s even more challenging to figure out how to begin addressing the root problem: Poverty.

Over the past year, I have been able to attend a few conferences on poverty in Rochester. Although shocked by the high poverty level, I was pleased to learn that Rochester does host a significant number of conferences, summits, meetings, and focus groups on issues of poverty. If one thing is for sure, Rochester doesn’t lack passionate and educated individuals. Having the will to eliminate poverty is definitely not the problem here. After attending my first conference, I wondered how I never heard about these gatherings before? Was it just because I was in the undergraduate bubble for so long or were these conferences only now visible to me due to my VISTA position? After attending a few more conferences, my curiosity expanded to wondering why none of the refugee community leaders at my organization ever attended these conferences? There was always an expansive numbers of non-profit directors at these meetings, but a lack of representation among teachers, students, or leaders of different minority groups, such as African Americans, Latinos, immigrants, etc.

On my first day at my host site, a small non-profit that serves refugees, I met many refugees who held leadership positions within our organization. The mission of empowering others to lead themselves, as opposed to leading others, was encouraging. Who better to understand the needs of refugees, of low-income families, of African Americans, of students, then members of these same communities or individuals who lived through their same struggles on a daily basis? Outsiders can sympathize, but they can’t understand on the same level. Therefore, it is critical that leaders from these communities are involved in the conversation on poverty in order to truly achieve a comprehensive view of the problem.

Part of my VISTA assignment for the year has been to develop a pilot after-school program for middle school refugee students. One of the writing assignments they were asked to complete was a short essay on what they like and don’t like about living in Rochester. It was inspiring to see how articulate the students were, many of whom wrote about needing to provide more money to city schools so they can have new textbooks and better school lunches.  The after-school program teacher didn’t ask the students to provide steps for how to change what they disliked; however, many of them verbalized this anyway. I see these insightful children as community leaders that should and need to be included in the conversation on poverty.

In order to accomplish this inclusivity, conferences and meetings need to be accessible to community members. This means holding meetings when school is not in session, so teachers and students can attend, and having them at locations easily accessible to low-income community members. Everyone needs to feel welcomed at these meetings, and diverse opinions and ideas should be valued. Hopefully then the conversation on poverty can turn into action steps and solutions.


Why Community-Based Leadership Works

by Taylor Cook, 2014-2015 Rochester Youth Year Fellow 

Rochester, New York – a city notorious for its incredibly low graduation rates and its incredibly high levels of poverty. These statistics that are plastered on the evening news and displayed on front pages of the Democrat & Chronicle, though true, mask much of the positive efforts that are happening in the city.

When analyzing Rochester in its entirety, one can quickly point out the countless struggles the city is enduring. It can be daunting, and quickly overwhelming. With everything that is going on, I do not believe there will ever be one universal solution that eliminates all of Rochester’s issues. One of the issues alone, poverty, is so vast that not even that can be solved with a blanket solution. Instead, it is more realistic to have specific organizations work thoroughly with people living in poverty to not only help them through poverty, but to help them live impactful, meaningful lives afterwards.

With countless organizations working to combat poverty for different demographics throughout the area, I truly believe community-based leadership is an effective model to help alleviate and eliminate poverty. Of course, this won’t happen overnight, but chipping away little by little will have long-term solutions for the groups we work with. I have seen this model be effective during my year at Young Women’s College Prep Charter School (YWCP).

During my year of service as a Rochester Youth Year AmeriCorps VISTA member, I have been serving at Young Women’s College Prep Charter School (YWCP) – Rochester’s first and only all-girls public school. Serving at YWCP has shown me how a small group of people can make a tremendous impact on a specific community. YWCP has a current team of about 35 teachers, counselors, and support staff that are making an immeasurable difference in the lives of 235 Rochester teens. Every single day we ensure that our students are supported not only academically, but also socially and emotionally. At YWCP it is our mission to educate the “whole girl,” so that she can excel through high school, college, and beyond.

Will YWCP be the catch-all solution to all Rochester area girls living in poverty? No. However, it does have the power and passion to be the solution for a future class of 500 Rochester girls and that in itself is incredibly inspiring. I am blessed to have been a part of this school and whole-heartedly believe that its mission is a powerful example of how community-based leadership can be effective and impactful.

While you are busy trying to make a difference in someone’s life, it is easy to get lost in the big picture – wanting your efforts to impact everyone in reach. But don’t get lost and don’t get overwhelmed. It is of utmost importance that all volunteers and all leaders realize that their effort is of equal importance, whether it changes the lives of 5 people, or 500 people. Each effort is crucial, regardless of size or impact and that is why community-based leadership works.

Summer Learning Gains

The following is a guest blog post by UR student MaryAnna Krewson, who serves as a tutor with RCCL’s LEAP program and as an academic coach with TOUR

This summer I had the privilege of working as a teaching assistant in a high school classroom at Wildwood Summer Extension Program in Schenectady, New York. Founded in 1967, Wildwood School exists to provide “comprehensive services for children and adults with autism spectrum disorders, complex learning disabilities and other developmental disabilities”. During my six weeks of employment, the students and staff stretched me, pushed me, challenged me, and allowed me to directly witness and enter into the lives of those impacted by autism. Although some moments brought me tears of frustration and anxiety, the lessons I have taken away from my time at Wildwood have been invaluable and changed my perspectives on what it means to love others. As I love to write in bullet-point format, below is a list of six lessons I learned over my six weeks.

Stay humble.

As a newcomer to the summer extension program, it was both exhausting and embarrassing to keep making “mistakes” while on the learning curve. The first few weeks were emotionally and mentally draining. I felt more of a hindrance than a help as I learned the ins and outs of following behavior plans, staying alert to aggressions, and not taking the students’ behaviors personally. Being shoved, slapped, bitten, and yelled it takes it toll, but my coworkers taught me techniques to stay safe and stay smart. Relying on the experienced staff at Wildwood encouraged and supported me in this position. Never be too proud to ask for help!

Stay observant.

One of the risky aspects of working in this field is the unpredictability. So, I learned to pick up on repeated behaviors and precursors to aggression. For instance, students will display certain behavior or make a particular sound to signal an oncoming aggression. They are also able to pick up on nervousness or inattentiveness and use that to their advantage. One of the students in our classroom would often run out of the room when I prompted him to go for a walk. Since he recognized that I was a new assistant, he capitalized on my not being in control and bolted down the hallway. After several attempts at trying to catch up with him, I learned how to gain control of the situation. Now I stand at the door and wait for him to come to me first before we proceed into the hallway. When he realized I was “in command”, he stopped running (for the most part!) and walked by my side.

Stay empathetic.

You don’t know the stories and backgrounds of some of the kids. In training, we learned about a former home/asylum for students with disabilities where all kinds of abuse–physical, sexual, emotional–ran rampant. Wildwood is a safe haven for those that are different and disabled. While at school, the students are embraced and loved as they are, quirks and all. What happens at home is outside of our control, but we strive to accommodate their needs and idiosyncrasies. The speech therapist in our classroom informed me that parents of Wildwood students have been invited to family gatherings on the condition that “their child didn’t come”. Relatives, much less the general public, are not always understanding of children with special needs. It is not always easy loving this population, but they need our kindness and support.

Stay lighthearted.

The seven students in my classroom were all so wonderfully silly and playful in their own unique way. Some recited movie lines, others twitched and twirled their fingers around for hours on end, and still others danced a jig while naked in the bathroom. We laugh at our friends and family for their silly antics, and it certainly took some humor to get through the day.

Stay grateful.

“Grass is always greener on the other side.” When I first interviewed for the job, we were told we would hear back on the next Friday if we had received the position. No call on Friday. The next Thursday, I emailed the supervisor who told me she was just about to offer me the job. What a blessing! However, my initial excitement and thanks gradually turned into ungratefulness as I thought about getting up early for work and missing my free summer days. Some hours did drag at work, but having a job where I could give back to these students and enhance their well-being has truly been a privilege. It has opened up a whole new world of ideas as I prepare for a future career.

Stay hopeful.

It is easy to be discouraged about these kids’ futures. Who will take care of them when their parents are gone? How will they function in society? While I do not have a comprehensive grasp on all the available services and funding for students with developmental disabilities, it has been a blessing to see the fruit of all the work done at Wildwood to better the lives of these students. The fierce loyalty of the teachers over their students is inspiring: they refuse to give up on these children.

My Fellow Citizens:

The following entry is adapted from remarks given to new students of the University by Glenn Cerosaletti, as the students prepared to embark upon Wilson Day, a day of service, on Thursday, August 27, 2015. 

I greet you as citizens today not with a capital “C,” but with a lowercase “c”:  citizens meaning active members in a community. For regardless of whether you are a citizen of China or of Russia; whether you are a citizen of Spain or of South Africa; whether you’re a citizen of Brazil or of New Zealand; whether you are a citizen of the United States of America, or whether you are an undocumented student; whether you are from Palo Alto, California, or from Pittsford, New York:  regardless of how you got here, we’re all in the same boat now. We are all citizens of Rochester today, and for the days, weeks, months and years to come.

This community needs you to be an active contributor. It needs your energy; it needs your enthusiasm; it needs your intellect and your entrepreneurial spirit; it welcomes your spending money–yes–but also your compassion. It needs your attention and your respect; your curiosity and your inquisitiveness. It needs you to listen to the stories it has to share. Today, it will call upon your effort in all of these ways.

Just as importantly, the converse is also true:  whether you know it or not, you need this community. You need its utilities and infrastructure, its businesses and services, its natural resources, such as its magnificent river and its amazing parks; you need its significant cultural resources (its museums, galleries, theaters, and yes, food trucks); its historical legacies (Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, George Eastman); its wonderful cultural diversity, its people. Without these assets of the community, your education will not be complete; it would not even be possible! So this place matters.

Wilson Day is the longest-standing of the initiatives coordinated by the Rochester Center for Community Leadership, and is a treasured University tradition. We have three goals with Wilson Day:

  1. Bond with hallmates/classmates;
  2. Learn about the community of Rochester;
  3. Contribute valuable service to the community and learn about service as a guiding principle of your undergraduate education at the University.

I hope that, with the help of our community partners as well as your resident advisors, D’Lions and Freshman Fellows, you will reflect on and learn from your experience in the community today. When you return to campus this evening, you’ll have the opportunity to learn about additional opportunities to engage with the community at a community service fair, sponsored by the Community Service Network, and our various student organizations that focus on engaging with the community throughout the year.


Wilson day wouldn’t be possible without the considerable efforts and support of many people and community partners, both on campus and off. These include the UR Urban Exploring Club; our 72 community partners organizations that are hosting today’s projects; UR Dining Services, which is donating water, snacks and ice cream; and the City of Rochester, which is contributing toward supplies that many of you will use in the projects that you undertake today. Thank you to all of these collaborators! And now please welcome the student leader who is coordinating Wilson Day 2015, Rochester’s own Vivica Smith.

Alleviating Poverty–One Person at a Time

by Megan Ryan, 2014-2015 Rochester Youth Year Fellow

There are many people in this world that have thoughts on solving poverty. In Rochester, I have witnessed many individuals in all different positions discuss poverty–where it stems from, how it impacts the community, and what should be done to make positive changes. Our city has community organizations making positive changes every day.

From my experiences I have witnessed community organizations help individuals and families solve problems and take steps to alleviate distressful situations. People working to climb out of poverty are often using several community programs to resolve many different issues. Often people that have multiple problem areas feel overwhelmed and find it easier to give up rather than work to fix the issues. Unfortunately, it is too often that individuals begin feeling hopeless and stuck in a downward spiral.

The organizations with which I am affiliated include Rochester Youth Year (RYY) and the Center for Youth. The RYY fellowship is an AmeriCorps*VISTA-sponsored program that places recent graduates of Rochester area colleges in community-based organizations to create and expand projects that address challenges the city’s youth and families encounter. RYY is one program that is able to cause significant changes in the lives of thousands of people in Rochester every year. The other RYY fellows that I have been working with this year are very determined and passionate about their projects. I feel lucky to know every one of these amazing people, and I know we are all making positive changes in the organizations we are serving.

The Center for Youth is an organization that young people can turn to when looking to explore, understand, and deal with issues of importance to them. The Center for Youth has many programs and services including, school-based, prevention counseling, prevention education, teen court, and residential housing. The overall mission of the Center for Youth states “all Center services are rooted in, and delivered with the knowledge that youth want to, and can, take responsibility for their life choices.” This organization is constantly fighting to end poverty by assisting youth in our community with their voluntary choice to change the current negativity in their lives in order to grow into a better adult. Once they leave their past mistakes and experiences behind the youth can successfully contribute to the community in the future instead of becoming part of the poverty cycle.

The Center’s residential program that I am serving with is the Crisis Nursery. This program is a temporary child care service offered to families that are going through a crisis. We often encounter families dealing with medical emergencies, homelessness, incarceration, mental health needs, domestic violence, and many others. The parents that we serve have no one trustworthy to turn to for help with anything, let alone their children. The Crisis Nursery is the only program that provides free emergency child care in the state of New York. We are helping people become self-sufficient, independent, mentally and physically healthy, safe, and engaged in improving the lives of themselves and their children. While serving at this organization I continuously experience the immediate gratification knowing that I take part in the program’s ability to help those that reach out to us. I witness parents saying that our program is a miracle and a true blessing on a daily basis. Being able to see the sign of relief on their faces when they know their children will be safe is priceless and makes the work I do behind the scenes worth it.

My experiences this year while being involved with Rochester Youth Year, AmeriCorps*VISTA, and the Center for Youth have been truly life-changing. While there are several working plans to end poverty, knowing that hundreds of organizations help those who struggle little by little proves to me that community-based leadership improves lives and fights against poverty.

As long as individuals and organizations continue to provide hope and guidance to those in need it is possible to alleviate poverty piece by piece and person by person. It is understood that there will never be an overnight fix, but with many successes and learning from failures along the way, I do believe that leaders in our community can solve poverty.

Re-defining Leadership Through Employment and Advocacy

by Jillian Latorre, RCCL Student Intern
Transition Opportunities at UR (TOUR) Student

In my opinion, leadership is about being reliable, giving it your best and
advocating others.

It is easy to be my best at Rochester Center for Community Leadership (RCCL)
because of the accepting environment and people, and it continues to be a great
experience working with RCCL. One of the best involvements I have had recently
was working on the “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign. Working
on this project gave me the opportunity to improve my leadership skills as I
guided the RCCL staff and Transition Opportunities at UR (TOUR) students in a
campaign that would build acceptance and respect for all.
I continue to have a meaningful work experience at RCCL while completing vital
office work and acting as a liaison between RCCL and the TOUR program. It has
been meaningful to me because the environment is welcoming and appreciative
of the work I do as well as the person I am. In addition, by working with RCCL, I
have advanced my software skills, become a better team-player, and learned to
be more organized when dealing with multiple tasks.
Most importantly, advocating for others is an important part of leadership, and I
appreciate how the RCCL office accepted me from the day I stepped foot in the
office. I believe that on a daily basis, I am learning more leadership skills as I
follow their example. Above all, I believe that I can advocate for other people in a
number of different ways through my growth and learning experience from RCCL
and TOUR.

Connecting Across Differences

by Evan Burnett, 2014-2015 Rochester Youth Year Fellow

As I sit back and think about my year as a Rochester Youth Year Americorps*VISTA member, I can’t help but think about how quickly it has gone by.  I am so very grateful to have had this experience and share great moments with my fellow VISTAs that I will never forget.

Over the course of this year, I have been a part of countless trainings and events that will be extremely beneficial as I move forward in my professional career.  This whole experience has been eye opening, and furthered the passion in me to help be a part of the positive change that I would like to see in the city of Rochester.  It is evident that community based leadership is an integral part in the process of alleviating poverty. The Rochester Youth Year annual luncheon further exemplified how this kind of leadership is needed in the world that we live in today.

While attending the luncheon, I was able to hear everyone’s passionate speeches about all of the wonderful assignments and the various awe-inspiring stories that have transpired over the duration of our year of service.  Our commitment to change was truly visible and I gained even more appreciation for each one of us that spoke.  It is difficult for all of society to come to an agreement that benefits all if we don’t take the time to open our eyes and use our ears in order to soak in the multitude of attributes and characteristics that all of us have.  At such a young age, oftentimes we are just trying to be heard and I know that we all can make a difference when given opportunities.

A topic of conversation that we discussed as a group at our last monthly meeting dealt with which kind of people are the ones fighting to mitigate poverty. Our consensus was that the majority of the people in the fight against poverty have an open mind or come from areas of poverty themselves, therefore there is a burning desire for those people to seek out change in their communities. If you have never encountered a community outside your own, then that can create a very limited worldview that I believe divides this country. It is imperative that individuals in society need to cooperate with one another so we can admire and utilize our differences in ways that help us understand the people that we come in contact with. It can be difficult to get individuals to buy into ideas that are going to help society as a whole, but I think that it can be done. People are often looking for individual gains as a result of their thinking because that is what they believe is more prosperous for them instead of keeping and open mind.

Community-based Leadership as a Solution to Poverty

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.

To learn more about CITIZEN U and to stay in the loop, visit us online and like us on Facebook!

Click here to learn more about Rochester Youth Year and how to apply!