Welcome to the Poverty + Racial Injustice Stories Project. Our nation is experiencing an awakening, and for some, an introduction to the injustices that Black people have been facing in this country for decades.
We are dedicating this project to the stories of AmeriCorps VISTA members whose work goes beyond the VISTA mission to eradicate poverty. These stories will show how their work in tackling this mission intersects with combatting racial injustices in the communities they serve.
Our hope is that 1. VISTA members will be seen and celebrated for their work, 2. The stories will provide a blueprint for others to follow, and 3. By sharing stories from areas including housing, literacy, and nutrition, readers will get a glimpse into just how far reaching the effects of racial injustice can be.
Kurtis Edwards can’t recall how he found the AmeriCorps VISTA program, but after almost two years of service, he feels lucky that he did. In addition to serving in communities and combating poverty, Kurtis joined AmeriCorps because he wanted to build his management and leadership skills. As a “white person, who is also male, who is also gay,” he wanted to have legitimacy in the mission he felt called to: to talk to other white people about the systemic racism steeped in this country.
As a Navy brat, born on a Hawaiian base, and having lived in a number of different places, these experiences informed Kurtis’ desire for a career in antiracism, working in interracial dialogue, specifically speaking to white people about white power structures. As he completes his second year of service, he is even more resolute in his determination to “work tirelessly at a career in human service and community building.”
Kurtis Edwards Washtenaw Literacy Ypsilanti, Michigan. Position: Program Coordinator from Aug 2018 – Aug 2020
Two observations made while serving in a national program of service to reduce poverty. I am currently still within service.
Two thoughts keep popping up in my head throughout my time of service. Poverty is so encompassing to those of us within it that focusing on education, workforce, or college access can feel trivial at times. But any social condition of oppression is so massive of a problem mending it requires the daily grind of those who serve. It can be so challenging to hold on to that broader mission within some of the mundane, small impacts we have in our daily work. It can be easy to fall into old troupes of self-doubting your work on one hand or even wearing the social-justice warrior cape a bit too tight on the other. We have to keep at the daily grind and not doubt or over-estimate ourselves because the forces that put us in poverty will never cease. If it’s a constant drip of bad, I’ll try to be a steady stream of good. Grappling and accepting the daily grind has helped me hold onto the mission at hand while serving.
The other thought is we code urban and rural terms in many different ways, and we’re often made to question the other. However, poverty isolates individuals both urban and country. It’s almost like both areas tunnel to poverty from opposite ends yet still meet at the same point of isolation. In the country there is so little resources it’s a game of connection. With so little ‘noise’ and so much space, something has to be loud enough to hear. In the city there are usually so many resources it’s a game of connection, too. With so much ‘noise’ we might not be able to hear those who need us the most. One has to build up those connections loudly, the other has to break down silos quietly, but both are building relationships. Understanding those similarities between urban and rural and all the coded meanings within the two will continue to help me serve the people of Michigan.
The people we serve often live a life of one step forward and two steps back. To me, that is a daily grind like no other and one I have experienced. I realize more and more throughout service that I must help that one step be on the best possible foot. But I also have to hope that even if I can’t see the other foot, I’m helping it too. My daily grind means I’m there, I’m consistent, I don’t selfishly seek the big wins, and I always care. My daily grind also means to understand when I have to be loud, or when I need to hear the faintest of whispers. Poverty creates isolation in any community, and that feels like it’s always cloudy, but remember some of the most beautiful flowers grow in the shade.