Last September I began a year-long commitment as an AmeriCorps Member at an education non-profit. On my first day, I walked in the door armed with notions of grandeur, a touch of cynicism, and a food stamp card. On my last day, I handed in my keys and laptop and found myself staring at an empty apartment, wondering what to do with the colorful rose a student had given me.
Throughout the year I attempted to regularly document lessons learned and observations made, but whether it was because didn’t know how to say what I was thinking or because I didn’t know what to think at all, every time I sat down to write, the words wouldn’t come. (That being said, you can read the thoughts I did manage to articulate here, here, and here.)
I learned about something called ‘Theory of Change’ this year, which is essentially an organization’s articulation of the change they want to see and how they want to get there. Within this articulation there are several questions addressed that help the organization understand what exactly they are trying to accomplish and whether or not they are moving towards that goal.
A few years ago this would have seemed cold and calculating to me, but I’ve learned over the years that it’s hard to tell if you’re actually making a difference unless you’ve articulated the change you wanted to see in the first place.
What target population are you seeking to benefit or influence?
Ever since I recognized the importance of striving for people and not an idea, the words ‘target population’ started to bring not numbers and statistics to mind, but names and faces – individual people whose lives are more valuable and important than any cause or movement.
It used to be easy for me to write about the people I would meet – to over-romanticize their stories, as if my words were giving meaning to their existence. But there’s something about knowing the same people day after day, week after week. After a while you began to see their humanity, and the person sitting in front of you becomes not a hero but a person – and a person is something far greater and more beautiful than a hero ever could be.
How and where are your core competencies employed?
Despite coming in with a self-aggrandizing mission to use my voice to impact the world, I spent this past year being quieter than I expected. I found myself observing more than speaking, and I learned the value of listening and learning to understand.
I observed my colleagues and my students and what I noticed is that what people want more than anything is to be noticed, understood and listened to.
What changed conditions do you believe will result from your activities?
I was reluctant, initially, about leaving after a year. I’ve always been put off by the idea of being that person who comes and goes, just another passerby in someone’s life.
And maybe I’m still not quite okay with it, but I don’t think the negative impact is quite as dramatic as I made it out to be in my head. But I guess no one can really know.
There were some difficult times this year, to be sure, but exhilarating and rewarding moments as well. I will miss working at a place where everyone is genuinely passionate about loving people and making a difference.
I saw myself change, and there were times that I started to see that I was not person I thought I was. Coming to grips with my own humanity, I suppose.
On some days I felt like something inside me was breaking. I could feel small cracks starting to form in what I thought was my hope. I even wrote about it here. There were days that it felt almost pointless to hope in anything, but I was reminded that one day this light and momentary affliction will give way to an eternal weight of glory. The things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
Can you articulate why you exist?
Before leaving my empty apartment that day, I set the colorful rose given to me by a student down on the windowsill. It wasn’t until I was driving away, my car crammed full of boxes with remnants of the year that I realized I had left it on the windowsill.
As I continued to drive, the sun was starting to set, turning my ride through downtown Austin into a portrait of gold and dust. I think about the rose sometimes, and I wonder why I didn’t go back for it.
The driving goes on.