Three Lessons from a Peer Leader Whose AmeriYear is Swiftly Coming to a Close

As I write, we have less than a week until our service year is over and I have a lot of emotions about this all of which are waiting to be processed until we get everything officially finished up.Mean Girls gif featuring woman in red shirt crying and saying, That said, I decided to recycle some material for this final blogpost in the form of my capstone presentation. One of our final deliverables of the year is the capstone presentation, in which VMCs and PLs give a 3 minute speech on what their service year has looked like, what they’ve learned, and what they’ve accomplished. It’s a big task to narrow 6.12 million seconds down to 180, but we all did it, and it was easily one of my favorite training days.

For my presentation, I decided to share three lessons that I have learned this year. I hope they’ll be of use to anyone else who might be joining Volunteer Maryland, another national service program, or just interested in reading my carefully meditated reflections.

(I left some of my stage directions in this blogpost so that you get the ~full effect~ so that’s what’s happening when you see a non sequitur in brackets.)

Lesson #1: Being supportive means something different every time

When I first introduced myself to the VM 28 Class in late September, I described myself as a support person, but, to be honest, I didn’t really know what that all entailed. As a Peer Leader, I have been able to explore the importance of support and unravel the meaning of support—and frankly I’m still unraveling.

Modern Family character pointing to camera and giving thumbs up.Because sometimes, support for VMCs meant asking “How are you doing?” and listening. For some VMCs, support meant letting them do their thing and giving a jovial thumbs up [demonstrate especially jovial thumbs up] when good things happened. For other VMCs support meant working 1-1 together to learn a design program.

So… this year, I’ve learned about how incredibly important support is to getting things done at VM and beyond, and I’ve also learned that being supportive means something different every time.

Lesson #2: Collaboration is awesome… and hard, but mostly awesome

I summed up a lot of my feelings about this in a blog post, because that’s what we do at VM, but I just wanted to reiterate this, because, through collaboration, I’ve learned a lot about things I would not have otherwise learned about.

Amelia and Chelsea in a field holding bouquets of kale.
Chelsea (right) and I with our curly kale bouquets.

Now, I’ve worked with a lot of different people over the year, but, as most of you already know, I’ve mostly worked with my fellow Peer Leader At Large, Chelsea, and let me tell you… [hold for dramatic pause] it’s been really fun. Albeit, we challenge each other often and it’s really hard to maintain balance, we’ve also laughed a lot and made some incredible discoveries. And seeing the fruits of our collaborative labor is just really exciting, so… Collaboration is awesome and hard, but mostly awesome.

Finally #3: Everything is a learning experience if you think it is

Cat stuck in a flip-flop.
Sometimes you’re stuck like a cat in a flip-flop.

I say this, because sometimes we look back on our negative experiences, [begin shrinking and slumping] and we dwell and feel bad and sink into a rut,  BUT [spring back up] I propose we, if we’re not doing so already, look at these things as learning experiences.

A personal example: last spring, I experienced [dramatic, deep voice like Alan Rickman saying something grave] “The Dip” that VM always talks about, but you never really believe them until it happens to you. I acknowledge that I wasn’t at my best in those times, and in order to get myself back to my best, I had to learn about what I needed to do to feel motivated and energized at work.

So… when you look back on your service year, remember that Everything is a learning experience if you think it is.

[take a breath]

Section literally called, “BRING IT ALL HOME,” in my notes

This year, I’ve learned about the dynamism of support, about the challenge and joy of collaboration, and the positiveness we sow by thinking about the past as a series Lof learning experiences. These lessons and all of the other things that we’ve been talking about today, are ones that we have discovered together through incredible resilience and drive. It has always been so inspiring to support you, collaborate with you, and learn with you. So thank you for sharing your service year with me.

Silly class photo of VM 28
This year’s AmeriCorps graduates! We’re professionals!

Instagram #Inspiration: Benefits and Tips for Service-Oriented Organizations

Social media has been a driving factor for the marketing departments of many businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies. People are on social media more than ever before. In 2015, 76% of Internet users in the US had at least one social media profile. So naturally, marketers go where the people are. For both non-profit and for-profit businesses, social media is a way to gain more resources. Whether it’s through advertising the next big thing in subscription-based deliverable goods or boosting support for a local fundraiser, social media is crucial for development.

Parks and Rec gif of Tom Haverford saying, "Every day I start by hitting up Facebook, Twitter, tumblr, and Instagram."

So, how can AmeriCorps and other service-oriented programs utilize social media in a savvy way to promote volunteerism and the awesome work they do?

Well, I could speak about the benefits of every social media platform out there, but I won’t. Instead, I’m going to focus on a little Peer Leader Pet Project that Chelsea and I have been working on since way back in September 2015, when we first started at VM: INSTAGRAM! First, I’m going to introduce why VM has an Instagram, and then I’ll follow that with some general tips for success!

Instagram by the numbers: InstaWHOA

Now, I am personally drawn to Instagram, because I’m a creative person and I really like visual interpretations of people’s worlds, but let’s look at some of the numbers: Instagram is the third most-used social media platform, capturing the attention of 28% of Internet users (following Facebook and Pinterest). On June 21st, 2016, Instagram announced that they had hit 500 million users, more than 300 million of which use Instagram daily. In addition to this, Instagram reports that 80% of their users are from outside of the US.

Nina Garcia saying, "This is such an Instagram moment."

Instagram has a huge, global pool of users to connect with, which means organizations have the potential to reach a whole bunch of people–whether they’re potential AmeriCorps members or just want to find a place to volunteer in their hometown–that they would not have reached otherwise.

“Don’t tell me–SHOW me.”

As I mentioned before, Instagram is unique from other social media platforms, because it’s focused on images and videos. This allows for a compelling, creative method of telling your organization’s story. And to VM, storytelling is important. For Chelsea and I, the VM Instagram is a way to show off the cool stuff our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators are doing. We like to focus on the interesting, not-your-everyday-job type of activities (like hanging out with horses that are older than you, see below). This material not only gives our followers a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on during a Volunteer Maryland service year, but it also shows how much fun we have during our service year! Our current AmeriCorps members get to feel proud of what they do, potential AmeriCorps members can see a glimpse into a future with Volunteer Maryland, our partners get more air time, and other organizations can see what we’re up to.

Happy #AmeriFriday from Freedom Hills! VMC Valerie, her volunteer Katherine, horse DeeDee, Program Manager Nicki, and Peer Leader Chelsea enjoyed some time in the #sun today after a successful final #partnership meeting. Thank your for your #service to #veterans and the #disabled Valerie and Katherine! (And DeeDee!!) Fun Fact: Katherine and DeeDee will soon compete together in a Dressage show for their Century Club Award, available to a horse and rider team whose combined age is 100+ #AmeriCorps #ServeWithMe #NationalService #AmeriCorpsPride #AmeriCorpsAlums #VolunteerMaryland #VM #horses #farm #equinetherapy #volunteer #volunteers #Friday #easternshore #PortDeposit #Maryland #MD #vets #rehabilitation #dressage #seniorhorse #DeeDeeis30

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“Follow4Follow?”: Connecting with other programs

Many AmeriCorps programs are currently on Instagram! The Corporation for National and Community Service, Points of Light, AmeriCorps Alums, City Year, the Choice Program at UMBC, and Arizona Conservation Corps are all awesome accounts to follow, because they always have interesting posts and they demonstrate effective Instagram usage. We can also connect with any organization that has a public account, and we can even repost each other’s content. For example, AmeriCorps Alums liked one of our group photos and reposted it on their account to show off some AmeriPride, which also granted VM a bigger platform (see below).

Love this proud #AmeriGrad picture from @volunteer_maryland #americorps graduation!

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Tips for InstaSuccess:

Follow others, especially organizations that are doing awesome stuff like you!

When we first made the VM Instagram account, we immediately set out to follow all of the organizations that were like us, and then we branched out a bit. So follow all of the accounts linked above, but also check out the  Maryland State Archives and Maryland’s Office of Tourism (incredible use of Instagram by some of our own state agencies), as well as Baltimore City Rec and Parks, Maryland Food Bank, and ALL of the National Parks Instagrams (and there are so many), but especially the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Hashtags. Use them. All of them.

Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake yelling, "Hashtag!" in unison, while creating a hashtag symbol with their fingers.For every picture we post, we use the AmeriCorps hashtags (#AmeriCorps #AmeriCorpsAlums #gettingthingsdone #servewithme, etc.) and we also try to make use of other popular hashtags like #tbt/#throwbackthursday or #wellnesswednesday. Get creative and make your own hashtag for a weekly activity, but don’t forget to…

Post consistently.

Pretty self-explanatory, but but don’t abandon your Instagram for long periods of time and get disappointed that you had no new likes or follows. We generally try to post 1-3 times a week. Nonprofit Tech For Good recommends to post at least weekly and has lots of other good recommendations in this. 

Infographic describing the best and worst times to post on social media.

Mix it up

Instagram allows you to post photos, videos, and (if you have good apps) collages of anything you want, so mix it up in terms of content and layout! Post selfies, landscapes, action shots, some Boomerang videos!

Farming for Hunger

Our guest blogger is Rubab Azeem! Rubab is the Volunteer Maryland Coordinator for the Maryland Food Bank of the Eastern Shore. She works with the Farm to Food Bank Program to recruit and manage volunteers who participate in a process called gleaning, which involves collecting produce that is left in the field after a farm’s harvest.

Normally, rain on the Eastern Shore of Maryland is unpredictable and is something one just has to adapt to. But this spring, it has frustrated many for multiple reasons, mainly farmers who tend to plant around this time of the year. In the past few weeks, continuous rain has prevented farmers from properly planting crops that

Variety of produced gleaned during harvest season.
Variety of produced gleaned during harvest season.

will most likely delay harvest season. The consequences of this delay are unclear, as of now. However, for the Maryland Food Bank’s Farm to Food Bank Program, it’s a major concern as it works closely with farmers to feed the hungry.

The Farm to Food Bank Program

The Farm to Food Bank Program partners with a network of farms across the state to provide hungry Marylanders with fresh, local produce. Through a combination of field gleanings, donations and contract growing, these farms help the Maryland Food Bank supply good, nutritious food to food-insecure communities across the state. Since the program’s inception, in 2010, it has procured close to 5 million pounds of produce to feed the hungry. It is one of the fastest growing programs of the food bank.

Hunger in Maryland

A long line of food insecure individuals patiently waiting on a hot day to get food at a MD Food Bank’s partner agency in Denton
A long line of food insecure individuals patiently waiting on a hot day to get food at a MD Food Bank’s partner agency in Denton

Despite continued efforts, hunger continues to persist in the state. According to the Feeding America’s 2016 Map the Meal Gap Report, more than 750,000 Marylanders do not have enough to eat. It’s estimated that 1 in 8 Marylander is food insecure. These Marylanders needing food assistance are the homeless, seniors, children, and working families. Given today’s stagnate wages and rising cost of living, some individuals working full-time are struggling to put food on the table. Some don’t qualify for federal or state assistance as they earn too much leaving them to rely solely on the food bank and other hunger-relief agencies as they struggle to meet their basic needs.
The Farm to Food Bank Impact

The Farm to Food Bank Program provides locally grown fresh and nutritious produce for the food insecure. It gives the hungry access to fresh produce that otherwise would be too expensive for them to purchase. Last year, the program procured 1 million pounds of various produce to help feed the hungry. This would not have been possible without partner farmers and volunteers who helped glean various produce. However, this year’s delayed crop planting makes feeding the hungry a little more difficult. Usually, the food bank has fresh strawberries for partner agencies to distribute at the end of May. That has not been the case, this season. Apparently, strawberries are very delicate and require constant care. They don’t like too much sun and rain.

In unpredictable times like these, the food bank relies on donated non-perishable food items to feed the hungry. Though these items get the food-insecure through tough times. They don’t necessarily provide the most balanced meal. It is frightening to think what these individuals would resort to if the food bank and other hunger-relief agencies did not exist. What’s more frightening is how unaware the public is about the extent of hunger in this country. Many have a misconception of hunger only existing in Third World countries. While hunger does persist in those countries, it also exists in the developed world. The only difference is that in the developed world, individuals going hungry are very difficult to spot unless they live in extreme poverty. In the United States, there was a significant increase in hunger as a result of the financial and economic crisis of 2008. Since then, many individuals have struggled to provide for their basic needs.

Amazing young volunteers of the Farm to Food Bank Program
Amazing young volunteers of the Farm to Food Bank Program

Food insecurity is a multifaceted problem that requires multifaceted solutions. One of the multifaceted solutions to this problem is the Maryland Food bank with programs like the Farm to Food Bank Program that works toward providing nutritious food for individuals struggling to meet their basic needs.

Self-Reflection as a Professional Practice: Looking Forward to Looking Back

Currently VM is in a state of transition. We are moving into the end of the 2015-2016 service year, and starting to put together the 2016-2017 team. VM has also been moving out of our Baltimore office and into the Crownsville office we called our first home. All of this change has really made me think about the past year: what we have accomplished, what challenges we have been able to resolve, the new friends we’ve made, the skills we’ve strengthened.Reflection like this is good. It’s good at any time in the year when we want to take stock and look at where we’ve been and what we want to do next. Although reflection is not often associated with professional development, nor is it a task we are assigned to do, it’s something that can help us grow in the professional world, because it allows us to examine our experiences. We can find out what it is that makes work fun, we can find out what to avoid in the future, we can find out what we need to work on to make our next project even better. Reflection is all about being future focused on the past.

So for this blog post, I’m going to list some ways you can go about reflecting on your professional experiences. Some are more formal than others, some require more planning than others, but I hope there’s an idea in this list that you can utilize to start your own self-reflection at work.

Volunteer Maryland Coordinators have this one covered! Since the beginning of our service year, we have been completing monthly journals that detail our accomplishments, challenges, and the ever-changing data most of us manage. A professional journal could look similar to monthly reporting, or it could just look like a daily list of
Google Tasks that have been completed or delegated (that’s me).

A new fad right now is the bullet journal which involves a simple system of customizable bullets, completed tasks, and short notes. Check out Buzzfeed’s fun guide to starting your own bullet journal (I’m starting mine now!). Another article I recently read suggested separating journal entries into positive work situations, negative work situations, and work-related tasks. Here’s the article for more information and resources.

Reviewing Completed Projects

Look back at your calendar and look at all of the things you’ve gotten through! Re-discover the narrative of your professional life! Think about what led to the completion of each project–be it brainstorming, budget creation, writing a report, reserving rooms, etc.–and what you learned or experienced through that process. Focus on the new skills (including soft skills like teamwork, adaptability, critical observation) that you have gained or ones that you have always had, but strengthened.

Strategic Questions

Craft a list of questions that are important to you! For example, if you find satisfaction by being challenged in your work, think of some questions that allow you to reflect on the challenge that has gone into your work so far. Here is an example of some questions from a professional dietetics association; most of the questions in that list are general enough that you could actually work straight off of the worksheet.

Group Talk

Gather your peers or your co-workers together for a sit-down, and just talk about your experiences. This conversation could range in formality from being a staff meeting with an agenda or it could just be a talk over lunch. For some of the extroverts or external processors out there, talking with a group can be a great way to better understand your experience as well as everyone else’s.

The Avengers group talk all the time! Especially after nearly apocalyptic situations are averted.
The Avengers group talk all the time! Especially after nearly apocalyptic situations are averted.

Three Days of Conferences, Four Highlights to Share, High Fives All Around

gif of clown spinning and changing into wonder woman
Actual before and after of me this past week.

Do you ever come back into the office after a few days at a conference and feel like people won’t recognize you because you’ve learned so much and you feel yourself changing all the time and you’re actually a new person now? That was me last week and again this Monday.

Last week, I managed to attend three days worth of conferences. Two were with Chelsea at the Light City U Social Innovation Conference and one solo day at the Maryland-DC Campus Compact’s Service Learning and Civic Engagement Conference. You may have seen our live-tweet feed on the Volunteer Maryland Twitter! If you didn’t (and even if you did, really), I’m going to be using this blog to highlight and unpack some of the best things I heard. 



The Purpose Economy and Volunteer Programs

Aaron Hurst, CEO of Taproot

Our morning speaker for Light City U’s first day was Aaron Hurst who spoke about the ways in which our economy will shift its focus from information onto finding purpose, what he has dubbed the “Purpose Economy,” and how this shift will influence Baltimore’s economic landscape. To Hurst, purpose is about enhancing relationships, doing something greater than yourself, and personal growth and experience, and people will be looking for that more and more in their lives.

It’s a pretty interesting and exciting idea (and I encourage you to watch the video below and learn more), but how does that translate to our work at Volunteer Maryland? It means that we have to strive to make purpose a focus of volunteering programs. This means that volunteers and potential volunteers want to be able to build relationships with others, they want to hear about the impact that they are making, and they want to know more about how they fit into the mission of the organization they are working for. So start planning those socials, sharing those statistics, and getting your directors involved in the volunteer program, because that’s what people–particularly millennials–want more of.


Thinking Better, Doing Better

Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, III, President of UMBC

As a UMBC alumna, President Hrabowski will always have a special place in my heart as the college president who walked the campus while waving at students, most of whom he knew by name. His presentation at Light City U certainly did not disappoint (especially since I got a picture with him beforehand). President Hrabowski told the story of his own journey to social justice and creating change in his communities, and he inspired us to embrace the struggle and never never never give up.

By the end of his talk, President Hrabowski had the whole of the Columbia Center standing up and chanting, “Thoughts become words, words become actions, actions become habits, habits become character, character becomes destiny.” This mantra is so important, because it means that change comes through the simplest means: thought. All we have to do is be open up our minds and we can change the world.



Skill Sharing, Just Do It!

D. Watkins, author of The Beast Side and professor with the University of Baltimore, in conversation with Lance Lucas, Founder of Digit All Systems

D. Watkins and Lance Lucas had a sort of fishbowl conversation at Light City U, where they discussed skill sharing. Both men have made their way by doing so. D. Watkins as an acclaimed columnist and author is the founder of the BMORE Writers Project, which aims to teach writing to the Baltimore community and thereby empower Baltimore to write its own story. A profile on Lucas and Digit All Systems by Baltimore describes, “a nonprofit group on East Lexington Street that offers computer certification courses, Microsoft certification, programming courses—even a class in Lego Mindstorm robotics.. Digit All Systems is providing a pathway out of poverty for unemployed Baltimoreans, one A+ computer programming certification course at a time.”

Though both of these men have spent much of their time building up industries and programs around skill sharing, they also agreed that skill sharing is simple. All you have to do is have a skill and teach it to someone who wants to learn. For volunteer programs, this might mean creating opportunities for volunteers to do some skill sharing with other volunteers, clients, or staff. When we are able to share our skills, we not only learn more and thereby increase the scope of work we can do, but we also create relationships with people further enabling that purpose-driven economy.


Asset Mapping and Building Foundations Among One Another

Alice Murray, business administration student at George Washington University

At the Maryland-DC Campus Compact’s Service Learning and Civic Engagement conference, I was able to participate in a workshop by Alice Murray, a business administration student at George Washington University, who was also volunteering with Lift, a national organization that is working to break the cycle of poverty. Inspired by her time as a volunteer coordinator with DC Engage, Alice presented a set of best practices for asset-based volunteering, community organizing, and service learning. Although asset-based approaches are nothing new, Alice’s discussion was incredibly enlightening and offered insight into how the theory can be put into practice.

Alice explained that the difference between asset-based and need-based approaches are that need-based approaches focus on filling in gaps, and asset-based approaches are founded in looking at what we already have and building from there.yarn tangle To demonstrate this, she led all of us workshop participants through a session of asset mapping, where we stood in a big circle and would throw a ball of string to people we had connections with. For example, someone might say, “I served as an AmeriCorps VISTA; who else has served as a VISTA?” This person would then hold onto one part of string and throw it to one of the VISTA alums in our circle. Then the VISTA alum would think of another fact about themselves, maybe, “I live on the Eastern Shore of Maryland,” and then throw the string to another person in the circle. The object of the activity is to connect everyone in the room with the string and and thereby create a web among us. Alice also noted that instead of getting overwhelmed by the literal gaps between each of us (needs-based approach), we create a foundation through the things we share (asset-based approach).

For a volunteer program, this means leveraging the assets that we have. For example, a small non-profit might not have a lot of money to do a big volunteer recognition event, but it might have a lot of connections among people with resources that could be used in other creative ways. A community theater might give some free tickets to a dress rehearsal, a local caterer could sponsor and donate some food. The coworker with incredible crafting abilities could create some recognition gifts.

When we employ an asset-based approach to our volunteer programs, we do what  Aaron Hurst, President Hrabowski, D. Watkins, and Lance Lucas, all champion in some way. We are creating an opportunity to share our skills among others, which further entails becoming open with others and possibly changing our thinking. Further, we are creating purpose-driven opportunities for people to grow in their communities.


Diversity 101: Four Steps for Encouraging Diversity in Your Organization

Diversity graphic with lots of different colored human figures

A popular topic these days is diversity. It is one of increasing importance in politics, education, entertainment, science, etc. It’s also a word that is especially relevant to nonprofits as they seek to create opportunities for those in need. Subsequently, it is also a goal that many of our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators strive towards as they build great volunteer programs. Many of our VMCs are working in organizations where diversity is a key value and a guiding principle, and they want to build up a volunteer program that reflects this.

A key thing to recognize about diversity in volunteer programs is that it is a process and not necessarily an end result. In other words, it’s not about reaching a quota, but about ensuring that our volunteer programs encourage people of different racial backgrounds, sexual and gender identities, national origins, abilities, religions, ages, etc. to join your group and make positive impacts. That said, I wanted to share some first steps for encouraging diversity in your volunteer program:

Do your own research and be ready to listen

The first step to creating a space that encourages diversity is to do your research. Know what sort of diversity you want to see in your organization, and see what already works in organizations that are like yours. If you or a colleague knows of a stellar program that has had some great successes in recruiting people of different abilities, for example, look into what they did to create that. This might be as simple as looking at a blogpost another volunteer coordinator wrote, or it might be about reaching out via email or phone and inviting them to a lunch meeting. Sometimes it can also just be about your own journey to become more sensitive to people different from you–this can involve readinglistening to Podcasts, etc. 

Keep in mind with this work that you don’t want to turn into what blogger, Vu Le, calls an, “askhole.” This is someone who always asks others to solve problems rather than taking the next steps to create their own solutions. In striving for diversity, be conscientious about what you’re asking others to do for you. Vu Le references his own experiences as a person of color that is repeatedly asked by his peers to speak in a committee and counsel them on how make their organizations more racially diverse. Although these askers are ready and willing to listen, they’re also not paying attention to the work that has already been done by other organizations, the books and articles that have been written, the models that have been created, etc. So before you start making your asks, know what’s already out there by doing the research.

Build partnerships and create a network

A great way to build up diversity is to create a web of mutual support among communities, groups, businesses, and other organizations. If you want more women to volunteer, consider reaching out to some women-owned businesses in your community. If you want more kids and their families volunteering, consider reaching out to a school nearby (and really playing on the need for students to complete service learning hours for their school AND for clubs they might belong to). Maybe you need more college age kids–well, most colleges have a service learning office. By building partnerships, your are (hopefully) creating a mutually beneficial system.

Keep up your relationship

Honor the relationships you forge as you to create your diverse volunteer program. Whether you’ve partnered with another organization, a colleague, a community, or maybe you’ve recruited a new volunteer, keep up that relationship by crediting their contributions and remaining receptive. For example, if you are specifically interested in recruiting more young women of color as mentors, consider creating leadership trainings (or sending them to some that already exist). In doing so, these mentors will expand their leadership experiences and also feel valued by your organization.  As with any relationship, the ones you make while you try to encourage diversity take some upkeep.

Do it

Coming back around to Vu Le’s article, we often get stuck thinking that we have to start from scratch to find solutions to our diversity problems. We can get so caught up in the problem that we don’t necessarily do the research, build up our partnerships, and keep up with our new (or old) relationships. Once we’re able to create clear and accessible deliverables and design a focused plan for achieving these deliverables, we need to start implementing them. The journey to diversity can’t stop at good intentions! We have to do it!

Some final thoughts: Encouraging diversity is about being proactive, rather than reactive. In other words, go into your diversity strategic planning with lots of your own knowledge, a willingness to adapt, and a diligent attitude. Also, sometimes the work we begin in encouraging diversity does not see tangible growth for a while, but as long as you continue to learn and make your organization a more accepting place for all people, you will be creating positive changes–and that’s really the ultimate goal, right?

Peer Leader X 2: Four Tips for Successful Collaboration

When I accepted Volunteer Maryland’s offer to become a Peer Leader, I was keenly aware of the fact that I would be one of two people working to support the next class of Volunteer Maryland Coordinators. Chelsea had already signed on for VM 28, and I had briefly emailed with her, but I still had no sense of how we would work together. I remember the trepidation I felt my first day. It was a new office with a new staff and a very new learning curve, all things most people are anxious about on their first days, but I was also going to meet Chelsea, and we were going to have to figure out how we would be working together for the next 11 months.

Chelsea and Amelia
Chelsea (left) and I giving conflicting messages at the Governor’s Service Awards.

It turns out, we work well together. See, Chelsea is an incredibly powerful, passionate, and knowledgeable person. She is committed to making the AmeriCorps experience as great as it can possibly be for VM. She has a constantly expanding library of thoughtful ideas (often indispensable when we’re problem solving at VM HQ or with VMCs). She is constantly exuding an immense amount of positive energy that she puts towards helping others. Chelsea exemplifies the greatness of Volunteer Maryland, AmeriCorps, and humanity in general, and she inspires me to be great all the time.

The collaborative relationship that I have with Chelsea has been something that I have been grateful for everyday I come into the office. We work together closely on many things whether it’s planning a statewide networking event for AmeriCorps members or drawing up a little graphic for our newsletter. In working with Chelsea, I have learned some important lessons about collaboration and teamwork that I want to share.

Keep an open mind and really listen

Open mind gif“Keep an open mind” is a phrase that crops up in every “how to teamwork” manual that has ever existed, but I think it’s important to reiterate, because it’s something that doesn’t come easily to everyone. I also added “really listen,” because collaboration is not just about sharing ideas, but also about working hard to understand another person’s ideas. In brainstorming sessions, Chelsea and I will often come together with preconceived notions of how we want a project to go. I will insist on fajitas and Chelsea will insist on sushi platters.  I’ll be thinking panel presentation and she’ll be thinking hands-on workshop. When we work together, we don’t just announce our ideas and then butt heads until the winner comes out on top (mostly because Chelsea’s scrappy, and I don’t think I’d win). Rather, Chelsea and I go into conversations looking for a couple of things: (1) to learn from one another about each other’s ideas and (2) to work with one another to create a dynamic, creative, thoughtful thing. To do this, we are always ready to keep an open mind and to really listen to what we each have to say.

Challenge is productive

Gollum conflicted gifThis can probably be intuited from the above, but Chelsea and I often challenge each other with different ideas. Although it can be frustrating for both of us in the moment, I find that the project we’re working on can grow more from our differing ideas. It’s also a good way for Chelsea and I to grow as a team and as individuals. In working collaboratively, I’ve learned how to effectively take in feedback, how to explain my ideas in concise ways, and how to compromise. Getting into challenging conversations with another person can be nerve-wracking in the moment, but, ultimately, it’s good to have your ideas challenged, because challenges can sometimes create opportunities for growth.

Balance and accountability are crucial

Hercules balance gifAnother rather obvious part of collaboration is the idea of balance or mutuality. Chelsea and I share many responsibilities and projects. Because of this, we often have to delegate tasks to each other in a balanced manner. When we’re planning out the cohort meetings, for example, one of us will create the handouts and materials, and the other will do the actual presenting. One of us will reserve the space, and the other will work on informing the VM 28 cohort. We divvy up these tasks as we see fit, and most of the time it goes well. But sometimes we each have a lapse in productivity and more work can shift to another person. Hey, it happens. What’s important in these moments, is that we hold each other accountable and ensure that we work to either restore balance or make sure we’re each okay.

Fun is nurturing, fun is productive

Steven Universe go have fun gifOne of the biggest benefits of working with VM is the amount of fun you have, and Chelsea and I have really embraced that. I’m often guffawing embarrassingly at my desk because of the funny stories Chelsea is retelling. One time soup came out of my nose (the sign of a TRULY fun atmosphere). Although fun can seem like a distraction from your work, it doesn’t have to be. Fun rejuvenates us and gets us energized for the next thing on the to-do list. Fun makes coming into work easier and… well… fun. Working on a team can get tense, working in an office can get dull, but when you have fun–the state cafeteria food tastes a little better and the sun shines into your office cubicle a little brighter.

Collaboration is Hard. Capital “H,” Hard. It involves a lot of trusting, a lot of flexibility, and a lot of communication, and it looks different for everyone. But once you’re able to get it going, collaboration is a beautiful thing that helps us learn and create better. Thanks for being in this collaborative relationship with me, Chelsea!

Same Page-Ing For 2016

At our December training, Patrice led us through an activity she called, “Same Page-Ing.” It was a fairly literal session, in which all of the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators, the Site Supervisors, and the Support Team were wrangled back into their handy-dandy, standard issue Volunteer Maryland Tool Books and onto the same page. Patrice went back through the schedule of deliverables and upcoming trainings and made sure we were all following a similar trajectory in the VM World. Admittedly, this is a pretty routine event for any organized group, but ever since Patrice dubbed the word “same page-ing,” I’ve been using it non-stop (as some VMCs and Site Supervisors might be wearily aware), because I like this idea of consistently re-aligning ourselves with a core mission.

People on the same page
Look at how empowering same page-ing can be! Especially when taken literally!

I was recently reminded of how much I like the idea of same page-ing by Vu Le’s blog post, “15 lessons for the nonprofit sector we learned in 2015.” The list begins with “1. An organization not built on strong values will crumble like dried hummus.” Truthfully, the whole blog post has me nodding and snapping my fingers in agreement, but it’s this first one that really rings true for me in the coming year, and not just because crumbly hummus is gross.

See, I’m a person who looks to (read: worries about) the future. I think about what comes next, and then what comes after that, and then after that, and then after that, and then when I die, what should they do with the body? This obsession with trying to see into the future is always exacerbated during this transitionary period between years. My mind starts to fly far from where I am now, and I forget the importance of presence. The reminder to get on the same page, reflect about who we are right now, and remind ourselves of the overarching mission (whether that be our personal mission, our organization’s mission, our family’s mission, etc.) is grounding. It simultaneously stems anxiety and keeps us conscious about what we are doing right now.

Leslie Knope GIF
In the new year, I hope we can all do some same page-ing. I hope that when we’re catapulted into 2016 we will remember the mission that motivates us to act and to be. Maybe that involves some sitting down and clarifying, perhaps editing, and maybe a gentle cutting of bits and pieces. Maybe it involves a discussion with family, friends, co-workers, etc. Maybe we should Google a template for mission drafting. Either way, let’s remind ourselves of the values that found our motivations, and let’s be led by them. 

As we step into the new year, whether with trepidation or a bold leap, let’s get on the same page with our core values and our mission, and let them be the guiding lights into what is most assuredly going to be an adventure into the unknown.  

Re-imagining Leadership and the Audacity of Kindness

Would you call yourself a leader?

I know I have trouble finding the gumption to describe myself so boldly. When I do talk about myself as a leader, I often subconsciously couch it with, “I’m a leader, but only insofar as…” or I might be more passive in my delivery, saying, “I worked on this project, and a leadership role was given to me.” On a drive back from a site visit, however, I was inspired to rethink the way I understand leadership as it applies to both myself and those around me.

Slogging along I-495 and entrenched in rush hour traffic, I was listening to a TED Radio Hour Podcast on the topic of “Disruptive Leadership.” One of the speakers  they featured in this segment was Drew Dudley, an organizational leadership educator and consultant. In his talk titled, “Have You Changed Someone’s Life Without Realizing It?,” Dudley beckons for us to do a rather radical rethinking of leadership and how it applies to our lives.

In the beginning of his talk, Dudley talks about how we have made leadership into a title that is only attained by doing something huge, something that changes the world. He worries that, “we spend so much time celebrating amazing things that hardly anybody can do, that we’ve convinced ourselves that those are the only things worth celebrating. And we start to devalue the things that we can do every day.” Dudley then tells the story of how he, through a simple, everyday act of kindness,  fundamentally changed a new university student’s life. Four years after this incident, upon Dudley’s graduation, this same student walked up to him and thanked him for that little gesture that had so powerfully inspired confidence and belonging at her new university. Though he had long forgotten the whole interaction and admitted that he had had no idea who the student was, it was an event that reminded him of the impact we can make through interactions we initially perceive as unexceptional.

In his conclusion, Dudley also reminds us, “as long as we make leadership something bigger than us, as long as we keep leadership something beyond us, as long as we make it about changing the world, we give ourselves an excuse not to expect it everyday from ourselves and from each other.”

When you get caught up in the daily grind, it can be hard to see the impact you’re making and it can be harder to keep sight of yourself as a leader. If we do as Dudley compels us to, and understand ourselves as leaders with the responsibility of sowing good, then we can change the world. This new framework also led me to rethink the kinds of criteria that make a leader. We often associate leadership with presidents and Nobel prize winners and famed entrepreneurs, but what about the people who were courageous enough to act with love? What about the people who acted with compassion, integrity, and hope? What about those people who are all around us that inspire us to come in to work or volunteer or simply be happy?

When we re-imagine leadership as something that is accessible to all those who simply inspire good, we all have the potential to be leaders, and that’s an incredibly powerful idea.

Emma Ravdin, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Prince George’s County

IMG_1664Emma Ravdin has a big heart that she’s ready to share with those in need. Emma is the Volunteer Maryland Coordinator with the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Prince George’s County, and she is thrilled to work with this organization during her year of service.

Having just studied abroad in India, Emma came home to realize that the poverty and other social issues she witnessed during her trip were also present in her own backyard. She graduated from Goucher College this past May, and stumbled upon the Volunteer Maryland Coordinator position with CASA of Prince George’s County. Emma says that, “If I did not apply, I would regret it for the rest of my life.”

Emma recognizes the privileges she has grown up with, and is passionate about helping children who have not been as lucky. With CASA, Emma hopes that she can “dedicate my life to helping others in need.” In addition, Emma hopes to learn more about the nonprofit world, develop her leadership skills, and leave behind her self-doubt.

Emma is an outgoing person who enjoys meeting people and having new experiences. She says, “I am proud of where I am in my life right now. I am proud to be an AmeriCorps member and to be doing something I care deeply about with CASA.”