Do I frequently wish that my AmeriCorps service year paid me more money? Absolutely. I work a full time job teaching basic computer skills at the Roseville Library and make less than $6.00 an hour. But when I start to feel like my situation is unfair, I have to remind myself that my service year is a personal choice that I can—quite literally—afford to make. Unlike many of the patrons I serve through the AmeriCorps Community Technology and Empowerment Project (CTEP), I drive to work everyday in a car my parents gave me and have a degree from a reputable college. I grew up with technology at my fingertips and I never thought twice about my ability to type a Word document, let alone purchase the Microsoft Office Suite. As a white, degree-carrying woman from Connecticut, the system has favored me. My EBT caseworker (the person who reviews my food stamps application) told me she knew I was doing an AmeriCorps year from the moment she first met me. I do not think she shared the same niceties with the black man behind me in line.
I must be honest, I do not really know how to begin or lead this discussion. I questioned if I was the right person to discuss privilege in the first place. There is even inherent privilege in having the platform to express myself and expect that people will listen. But ultimately, I gamble little in this composition. And while I never intend to speak for others, I know that there are people who may risk losing a job or even physical harm if they were to bring up such topics as whiteness and power in their place of work. The unfortunate reality is that white people listen to white people, and it is crucial that we begin to hold each other accountable for the work we are doing as AmeriCorps members.
We must not only recognize how privileged we are to choose a service year, but we must also engage in the (at times) uncomfortable conversation of how our whiteness is implicated in the work we do. I do not mean to assert that all AmeriCorps members throughout the nation are privileged white graduates (in fact, many are not). But for those who are, how can we possibly create systemic change if we cannot even acknowledge our own identities and how those play a role in our service? I believe I cannot adequately do this job if I do not first acknowledge that I grew up in a town where all my friends received iPods for Christmas in seventh grade and we embarked for college with laptops in our backpacks.
In many ways, I think that one of the most important things we can do is listen. I did not grow up in the community that I serve and I do not automatically know the specific needs of the patrons of Ramsey County Library. So I must stop talking and start listening. Many of the people who seek out the library’s services come from backgrounds and experiences that I cannot fathom. So for me, my service year is an attempt to combat the systemic racism, classism, sexism, and ageism that excludes and discourages many people from gaining basic technology skills.
Though often we become consumed with making our program (and ourselves) look good to potential funders and future employers, we have to take a step back and reevaluate the true purpose of our service. Who is this about? I truly believe the CTEP program does great work to empower people with technology skills that can help them get jobs, communicate with family members, gain citizenship, and learn more about our world. And when we can level with our patrons and acknowledge that we grew up with computers simply because of the color of our skin, we begin dismantling oppressive systems. By no stretch of the imagination are we anywhere near racial equality, but our service year is an incredible opportunity to work towards closing systemic gaps. To all the white AmeriCorps members out there, let’s take a moment to check our privilege and reevaluate the implications of our identity on our service year.
Consider asking yourself:
- Why did I choose a service year?
- What are your goals for your service year?
- How are you alike and different from those that you serve?
- What have you learned through your service year?
Your answers may allow you to gain some clarity about your own relationship to AmeriCorps.
This blog post is reprinted from SPNN: http://spnn.org/blogs/201404/considering-the-intersections-of-privilege-and-digital-literacy