Thursday, December 18, 2008

Six Month Reflection

Saturday will be my VISTA six month mark, and I think that warrants some reflection. I don't know if this is the most important thing I've learned so far, but I've been thinking a lot lately about how to stop treating potential recipients of donations as hypothetical people.

I used to say that everyone at some point should be required to work some awful job in the service industry, maybe even with periodic temporary reminder sessions, so that nobody forgets that people behind counters are real people, too. I'd like to add that everyone should spend at least a day processing charitable donations, because a donation bin is not a dumpster with less guilt. I've treated it that way, and I'm going to stop and think before I donate. There are real live people who receive these things, and real, live people who handle every item.

1) I'm going to stop donating unwearable, unrepairable clothes to Goodwill. Somebody who sorts that stuff will throw it out if I don't. Their dumpster is no better than mine, and it's not like I don't know a million ways to recycle a pair of jeans.

2) Furthermore, I'm going to give thought to where my donations go. I know a VISTA whose position was designed partly because disorganized Katrina relief meant that in response to requests for clothes, several truckloads of winter coats made their way to the Gulf Coast. This was way more than a mere inconvenience for volunteers and recipients.

3) I'm going to follow the rules and write something worth reading when writing letters and greetings through some kind of service. I sorted a ton of Holiday Cards for Heroes yesterday, which involves reading every message on every card, blacking out contact information and sorting out questionable messages. Programs like this is not an appropriate venue for shameless promotion of your youTube channel or fanatic proselytizing. On the other hand, write more than just your name. What would you want to read from a stranger if you were in Iraq?

4) I will never again designate a cash donation. It is not easy to earn unrestricted funds of any kind, and the indirect operating costs (salaries, building utilities) are just as essential as direct expenses (program materials). If I trust and admire an organization enough to donate in the first place, it makes no sense to decide that I know more about what is needed than the people who actually work there.

That's it for now, I guess. Charitable donations can be neither when they're poorly planned, and it's too bad that telling donors that is such a sensitive issue. If you've never waited tables, you may not realize that it's easier to deal with an even $5.00 than a tip for $5.34 (at least in my opinion). If you've never had hundreds of completely useless magazines from the seventies crowding your office, of course you won't think about what happens after you drop off all the stuff you found in the attic of your relative with the hoarding problem. Philanthropy is no good without some logic behind it, and more people need to start thinking about what they don't know.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Pre-SOP: Macbeth was my Star Wars

So, I've decided to go to graduate school. I feel like Dr. Hibbert should hand me an informative pamphlet. Bah.

Anyway, even before Statements of Purpose started looming in the back of my mind, it occurred to me that I don't really know how I got here. Five years ago, I was fairly certain that I would spend my life teaching high school students about literature. Now I am drooling over grad course titles like Inferential Statistics II. WTF? I preach (constantly, to the irritation of my supervisors) that it is important to understand the past to make a good plan for the future. The time has come for me to fix this hypocrisy in myself.

Whittled down, my story is this: Macbeth was my Star Wars.

Or, if you've never seen the engineers on The History Channel's Star Wars Tech gush about how the Light Sabers inspired a generation to start dissembling VCR's, Macbeth was my Vietnam War. Bear with. My sister once interviewed our neighbor, a camera operator at a local TV station, for a Girl Scout badge related to media careers. An astute young interviewer, she asked him how he decided he wanted this job. He said that he was fascinated by television since childhood, but wasn't interested in being a journalist or actor.

He then talked about watching the evening news as a teenager. A reporter was standing in waist-high grass, bracing himself against wind coming off of departing helicopters. My neighbor lamented his shyness. He was missing the adventure. And then it occurred to him that the reporter was not alone. There was someone holding that camera, and he was in on the excitement but out of frame. So my neighbor became a camera operator, and loves it to this day. My story is the same basic structure.

I loved literature classes in high school. The Writers and Readers Advisory Panel was the center of my extracurricular world. I basically lived in the library. I idolized my favorite English teacher.

And yet, I changed my major before I took a single English or Education class. All it took was a 10 minute conversation with an assistant anthropology prof assigned to the unfortunate task of scheduling incoming freshmen. By the time I took a creative writing class as a sophomore, I found writing fiction almost joyless. But that was not the epiphany.

Epiphany is the wrong word, anyway.

I hated that writing class because -- brace yourself -- it was about improving writing techniques! My poor professor fought a constant battle against my attempt to turn the class discussion from subjects like listing technique in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried to topics more interesting to me. I mean, could and archaeologist analyze those lists as artifacts in lieu of digging for material culture? (Seriously, that poor man. My fiction sucked and I was a constant distraction. How he didn't murder/fail me is beyond my understanding.)

In hindsight I started drifting off target in English classes long before that. I mostly blame my junior year combined American Literature and American History block class. So we would read things like The Red Badge of Courage during the Civil War unit and The Wizard of Oz while covering Populism. After that, I was subjected to plain old Brit Lit by a teacher I liked much less.

And I pick Macbeth as my point of no return simply because I remember it best. I was sick to death of talking about rhyme schemes and iambic pentameter. But I do remember sitting in that class, probably waiting for my best friend to write me a note, and feeling awash with this visceral awe because I realized how ignorant I was of my own language until I properly learned Shakespeare. I didn't want to talk about the structural differences between comedies and tragedies. I wanted to trace "double, double, toil and trouble" through history! I could have spent the whole Macbeth unit talking about Lady Macbeth and what Shakespeare thought about women. Oh Lord, I could have spent the whole semester musing on Lady Macbeth.

I like this analogy. In Contact, a young Eleanor Arroway dissembles a broken radio and marvels at the tubes. She grows up to be a radio astronomer. As a young woman, I dissembled Macbeth and marveled at the social power plays. I'm becoming a social scientist.

I'm still working on articulating what this means for my future. In the meantime, where do YOU come from?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

it's another thing to see it on through

The past six weeks or so have been all about realizing how short a year actually is. I love what I'm building here deeply, so it's difficult to cope with the realization that I will have to be satisfied as the architect of the foundation and not the whole skyscraper.

I realize now that I've been coping by being hyper-critical of myself as if being a perfect person and perfect VISTA will somehow translate into a perfect evaluation plan for the next few decades. This sentiment is ridiculous, and I officially acknowledge and release it.

It's okay to be one person. I matter as an individual in lots of ways. That's more important than these trepidation benders.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The post that ensures I will never be linked to in the VISTA enewsletter.

Blog Action Day is here. On Blog Action Day, bloggers are supposed to tie whatever they normally write about to a certain topic to generally raise awareness. Last year it was the environment, so a participating food blogger would have talked about sustainable farming.

This year the topic is poverty, which is sort of weird for me. I suppose that this blog is technically a record of the year I've committed to fighting poverty, but I subject whoever might read this to my external processing on a large-ish, somewhat disjointed pool of topics. (Or I did...)

Side story for just a moment:
My work is in evaluation. I'm building a system for this organization to take an honest look at how well they do what they say they do. At a meeting earlier this week, someone called a nascent evaluation point I'm working on a "dangerous question." This, of course, makes me feel like a real, live researcher.

The point of that story is that in the spirit of asking dangerous questions, I am going to ask myself a dangerous question (or at least uncomfortable) about VISTA and poverty. So here it goes.

VISTA income is below the poverty line, and we are prohibited from having any other employment/income. In training and orientation materials, there are two justifications offered for this. One is that that a more comfortable total income would somehow separate us from the communities we serve. Do I feel more connected to impoverished people in the Indianapolis communities I serve because of my modest living allowance?

Let's start answering this with a financial example.

I live in a pretty nice three-bedroom duplex that costs almost exactly the median monthly rent for the area. My rent is 48% of my living allowance and food stamps income. A household is considered cost-burdened if more than 30% of income goes to rent. About half of Marion County households are cost-burdened, so I'm probably connected to more neighbors this way than I know.

Well, never in my life have I had a complaint-free conversation about rent(not that I would ever talk to anyone my organization serves about housing). Also, I knowingly chose this rent ratio because it means that I live in a safe neighborhood, save gas because it's a mile from where I work, and it's big enough that I don't need to worry about storage. So, I guess I resent that these three fairly simple criteria mathematically indicate that I am somehow living beyond my means.

Is that the basis of a connection between me and impoverished girls in central Indiana? I seriously doubt it. Virtually any example I could use would be this ambiguous. Yes, I went through the paperwork to get on food stamps. But I'm qualified for way more than I would be if I was not a VISTA, and I certainly would never talk about this with the girls we serve.

There are strict limits on direct service where I would have the chance to interact with the girls, but it's probably more important that poverty is not limited to a lack of financial resources. Girls Inc. programs focus on every singe poverty-related resource listed in my VISTA handbook:

emotional stability and control
mental capacity and critical thinking skills
social capital and support systems for times of need
role models
financial assets

Look at that list. Obviously, poverty means more than an outdated math problem. It would be ridiculous to go about connecting with any community through only one of these routes.

And let's not kid ourselves. I won't walk away from this service year with a particularly robust story about a lack of financial resources because I am so rich in other resources. (Thanks for the toilet paper, Mom! Thanks for mailing me your old clothes, Caitlin!)

So I guess the point is that I don't blog much about poverty in my VISTA blog because that subject would make me a big, fat liar. I love what I do, and I believe that I am changing this city for the better, no doubt. But 1/3 of the way through my year of service, I'm the same privileged chick from the suburbs. I just have less money.

That alone does not prevent a connection to any community, impoverished or not. Sitting at a computer all day does.

Edit: I'm worried that this comes off like me making a crass blanket statement about VISTA or the poverty experience of others. I'm not. I'm making a crass statement strictly about my own experiences.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

In response to my Dad, who started reading when I stopped writing.

A simple promise to blog more was the wrong way to go about blogging more.

The main problem is that I've become less excited about the journaling format I started here. I'm hoping to fix that before Halloween, so don't give up on me.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Probably just graph-obsessed.

While I'm not sure that I like being on food stamps better than I would like a higher living stipend, it certainly is enlightening to see that system from the inside.

I got a letter yesterday from the Marion County Department of Family Services, and I was almost afraid to open it. I'm in the process of switching banks and I thought that maybe I had to notify my caseworker and it was going to be a huge headache convincing them that I'm not trying to cheat the government. Turns out monthly benefits are being bumped. Mine are going up by $13. My income is completely disregarded for food stamps, so I get the amount that an adult who makes no money gets. I don't know what the increase is a different income levels.

Federal minimum gas mileage reimbursement (not a social service) went up by about 8 cents in July. Maybe I'm graph-obsessed, but I think it would be interesting to see a layered line graph of how these have increased over time. Is this a typical lag? Throw in a line for inflation and highlight different administrations over time, and I'm in graph heaven.

I finally got an invite to beta test Daytum, if it's not obvious. Click here to see me satisfy my quantitative urges.

Monday, September 15, 2008

I'm back. Promise.

I know I broke my promise to post more pretty much as soon as I made it.

Whatevs. I'm pondering the plural of VISTA. It stands for Volunteer in Service to America, so the full plural is Volunteers in Service to America, right? But the way I generally abbreviate it is VISTAs, which logically is Volunteer in Service to Americas, which always bugs me. I suppose it's less annoying than VsISTA, though. Oh well. I'll be damned before I start using an ugly apostrophe.

Oi. I think I've been spoiled too much these past few weeks to post about anything interesting. Got loaded down with just about my weight in swag and free food at Speaking of Women's Health on Friday. Today our CEO, who I adore for her affinity for (always good) surprise meetings, took the VISTAs for a picnic and hike at Eagle Creek Park. So, it's been a charming few days.