#Outreach, Getting Creative.
My experience coming into the HandsOn Corps family, and more specifically the Neighboring initiative, this past August has been a challenging, yet exciting endeavor. I, like most new VISTA volunteers, was starry-eyed and dreaming of saving the world when I arrived at my PSO in Atlanta. For nearly three full days we were initiated, trained, engaged and then retrained on how best to come into our new lives as warriors against poverty. We all went off to save our respected cities, and I became the Community Organizer with HandsOn Greater DC Cares (HGDCC) for a brand spankin’ new Neighboring initiative in two divergent and unique communities: Eckington and Shaw.
The trouble with bringing new programming into a community (or two) that you have never worked or lived in is that – well, quite obviously – you didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know the culture of the community, the movers-and-shakers, or the best methods to begin engaging community residents. More importantly these two communities, though geographically close to one another, have two specific identities. Shaw, home to Howard University and historic ties to race riots in the 1960’s, is a staple in African-American culture and to the success of the civil-rights movement. Eckington on the other hand, is home to a gentrifying population of active and young professionals, many of whom have never lived in the District or known what it is like to survive in poverty in this city. Still, I did not know these people, what mattered to them, or how best to get them to listen to me.
So, amidst all of my frustration and confusion on how to begin this tedious project of outreach, I reverted back to what I had been doing for six months of unemployment: I Facebooked. That’s right, I said it. On my first day of work, I sat down at a desk and got on Facebook. You know what’s worse? I also opened a Twitter account. I have never used Twitter before and never thought it would be useful to me. But what better way to gage discontent about something than to research what is posted on Facebook or on Twitter? This little tweeting media account was the resource I needed to begin identifying community events in my neighborhood that eventually led to huge resident investment in my neighboring program.
At one such event, which was cleverly dubbed a neighborhood “Tweet-Up”, I met community residents living in eastern Eckington. This included a new pet-grooming business owner, a guy running for ANC Commissioner, a community leader who sponsors and organizes youth basketball teams, a woman who grows and sells produce at the neighborhood farmers market, a Tweeter who warns residents about potential threats within the neighborhood, a representative from a DC-based advocacy group, and many, many more. Each one of these individuals is an outreach opportunity or a potential volunteer leader. They each have unique skills and passions that add value to their community.
Since then, I have been able to explore these skills to better understand different aspects of the community and have asserted the Neighboring Program as something equally as beneficial to residents. I have been invited to many events throughout the city, from a Day of Service at a local high school to a citywide walk for education reform, to speak to people about our program. In the process I have met even more residents with vital skills and connections within their neighborhoods and now feel confident in my ability to serve them.
My point is this: you can listen to as many webinars and attend as many workshops at PSO’s that will fit into three days, but no training session can fully prepare you for the unique experience of coming into a new and diverse neighborhood. It’s about research and exploration, trial-and-error, and getting creative with skills that you already have. Maybe I can’t apply my super Sudoku abilities to work, but at least my obsession with social media has proven useful.
Amanda Moore, HandsOn Corps VISTA with Greater DC Cares