VISTA Voices – Kerry Condon, PFS AmeriCorps*VISTA
Lately, I have been having a hard time finding my VISTA Voice. Whether it’s been drowned out by the work that October seems to rain upon all working in education or whether my voice, along with the rest of my being, is still quaking with anger at a small number of elected officials, I’m not quite sure. However, due to the absence of my own VISTA Voice, I would like to draw on the voice of a former VISTA who just recently completed his second term.
Ryan Dwyer, a veteran in more ways than one, is a rather unusual character. But in the best, most colorful way! A native of Rhode Island; a student who passed through Rhode Island schools and colleges; and one of the shiniest products of the Rhode Island Urban Debate League’s student-led debate program; Ryan devoted two years to the Rhode Island Campus Compact AmeriCorps*VISTA program and worked with RI urban youth and Brown University students while building the capacity of the Rhode Island Urban Debate League (RIUDL). Although not the only exceptionally talented VISTA in my own two-term memory, Ryan served as one of the most easily awed members. In large part, this had to do with his approach to life and to ‘service’. Ryan sees every opportunity as one in which to learn and approaches every person and new challenge as a way to explore and appreciate the world to a greater extent. Hence, upon completing two terms as an AmeriCorps*VISTA, Ryan left me with a couple of resonant lessons that connect to my own potential VISTA impact.
“In your second term, you get a chance to really build on all of the work you were doing somewhat blindly during your first term.”
In month four of year two, I couldn’t find this more accurate. Many of the documents I use on a day-to-day basis and systems I rely on were developed in my first term of service. It’s exciting and motivating to see the continuity and to be able to build upon a foundation that you know well.
“Meetings should not be pulling you away from your ‘work’, but should be considered an integral part of your work. The more intentionally you prepare for a meeting, the more you will get out of it.”
As a VISTA that spends a majority of her time in meetings, this particular lesson has been well learned and continues to enhance my work. I rarely walk into a meeting without thinking carefully about the audience, the history, and what questions I will ask. In a recent meeting, this lesson was hammered home as the person I was meeting with wanted to move things forward and asked me what “the ask” was of her and her organization. I didn’t have an answer for her (as I hadn’t thought about the ‘ask), and although the relationship is ongoing, providing that answer would have meant a deeper level of investment and engagement from her organization.
“Do it in rainbows. Engage students, learners, and people in whatever way works best for them. Meet people where they are.”
In working on several partnership resources for the PK-16 education initiative my VISTA-ship is built around, one of the PFS Standards of Success and indicators of transformative partnerships, “Responsiveness to Community Context,” was directly inspired by a practice I saw Ryan & RIUDL coordinators implement with debate leaguers. When junior and senior high school debate leaguers demonstrated a lack of engagement and interest in sitting and listening to a college access panel in which professionals shared their perspectives on the importance of college, Ryan & RIUDL coordinators responded by re-designing the college access sessions to suit the learning styles of debaters. The result was a round of debates in which debaters teamed up with professionals/community members and participated in a debate over the value of a college education. Drawing on the strengths and interests of the students in engaging in topics through debate, the programming of RIUDL utilized existing assets to create fun and impactful programming. By asking the students themselves to engage with the question of a college education through debate, it challenged many of them to consider seriously the merits as well as the downsides of a college degree and got them on the path to pursuing higher education.