By Megan Neff and Susan Bond
Since it’s National Volunteer Week, we’d like to highlight Susan Bond, Next Step AmeriCorps VISTA, and get her take on the value of volunteering.
Susan Bond, Next Step AmeriCorps VISTA
Susan comes from Kingsport, Tennessee. She received a full tuition scholarship from Berea College and graduated in 2008 with a B.A. in Theatre. As a student, she participated in an undergraduate research project studying Bunraku puppetry in Japan and dramaturgy research on gender in Elizabethan theatre in England. Susan received several grants to pursue further academic research, travel and present at conferences. She was a member of honor societies that promote the arts and education, and she co-founded a community service organization for women in theatre. She participated in over 15 productions in the theatre lab in positions ranging from director, stage manager and actor to playwright, design and scenic construction. Susan was a student manager at Media Studies, and was involved in media design, video production and managing equipment.
After graduation she collaborated with Sustainable Berea doing grant research and marketing, and then worked for the Kentucky Environmental Foundation doing fundraising and energy education. Susan then lived abroad for a year, working in Paris, France as an au pair and attending the Institut de Langue Française. Susan moved to Louisville in September 2010 to serve in AmeriCorps with a program called REACH Corps that mentors students in Jefferson County Public Schools and began grad school. She is currently earning her M.A. in English at the University of Louisville and is expected to graduate in spring 2013. While in Louisville, she held an internship with the Democratic Party Reelection Campaign doing social media, research and recruiting volunteers. She has also worked as both a private and public school tutor, and volunteers with Actors Theatre and the English Conversation Club for English learners at the Louisville Free Public Library.
At Next Step, Susan is an invaluable member of our team building capacity around communications, fundraising, marketing and training. She has helped to grow Next Step’s social media presence, expand our resource development strategy with research and grant writing, and will provide support through market research and training development for our Network Members.
Here’s Susan’s perspective on the importance of volunteering and the AmeriCorps program:
This is my second year as an AmeriCorps volunteer. I worked with another AmeriCorps program doing direct service, mentoring elementary school kids. My AmeriCorps VISTA position at Next Step has helped me see the administrative side of a nonprofit. I get to learn about the infrastructure of running an organization, and even better, since Next Step is a startup, I get to see that play out as well. Since Next Step is a national network, I’ve gotten to learn about other nonprofits, travel, attend conferences and meet some very exciting people who share the same values I hope to live up to as well. Next Step works for affordable housing solutions, so I’ve gotten to learn specifically about what it takes to build and finance homes, which is a lot of work. Studying theatre, I had a job constructing sets. One of our sets was a rather ambitious front of a two story home with a roof and porch. That experience helps my imagination and gives me a practical appreciation of the work that goes into it when I see our projects in development. Other parts of my work with Next Step are social media, writing blogs and grant proposals. I’m also going to start working on our marketing and training materials this summer.
AmeriCorps provides nonprofits will lots of support that they otherwise couldn’t afford. Due to budget issues, AmeriCorps programs are probably going to undergo a cut soon, and I think that would be a mistake. Apart from helping nonprofits, I’ve learned so much in my terms, and gotten a lot out of it in experience, skills and benefits. As a student with some debt, AmeriCorps has helped me pay off my loan and have a steady job without the pressures of wage labor. I work in a highly-skilled environment with access to networks, training opportunities and a foot in the door for a job at a nonprofit. One of the biggest benefits offered to AmeriCorps volunteers is the Education Award, so I feel like the program is geared towards students in that sense.
I think some people are turned off to volunteering or to AmeriCorps because it doesn’t pay much. Some people want to do some sort of service before taking a higher-paying job. I try to internalize all the values from volunteering. I know what civic engagement and fighting poverty really entails, which means looking at the job I have now in that context as well. Because AmeriCorps are paid a stipend equal to the poverty level, it’s hard sometimes to see this job as volunteer work. Often “volunteer” work happens part-time on the side for free. On a basic level, people can only volunteer insomuch as they have the extra time and energy to work without pay, so it would be impossible to be a full-time volunteer under those conditions. Still, I think AmeriCorps helps you challenge the assumptions about what you really need and want out of life. Even though I could be lumped into the poverty category in the 10th percentile of earners, I get health benefits, Next Step offers housing assistance, all AmeriCorps qualify for SNAP, and I just finished my M.A. with which the Education Award will be applied. I know that I have some things that people who are forced to live at the poverty level all their life don’t have. Still, since I’ve graduated with my B.A., this is the best job I’ve had in terms of benefits and work conditions in the U.S., which is indicative of the student debt, education and work crisis unfolding from the recession.
Being an AmeriCorps volunteer had really helped solidify the ideals I want to live up to. Your level of profits or personal salary is often associated with your value, because money is how we measure our worth. On the flip side of that equation is how we “rationalize” labor value, or compensation. We tell ourselves that some people work harder, so we “deserve” to buy more things. Our work and reward system is skewed. It also poses the questions of whether or not people really love their work as it benefits the community or the paycheck. We can’t raise everyone’s income and buy our way out of an unsustainable economy. We have to change the things we buy as much as how much we buy. The “standard of living” couldn’t be supported if everyone in the world lived an American middle class life. By using a phrase like distributed consumption rather than distributed income you have to take a look at what the earth’s resources can support, and what humans need to be healthy. That part of the economic equation is overlooked.
That’s the part I love best working at a nonprofit, there is intrinsic value in the work because we look at economic solutions that prioritize the reality of basic needs and rights of the community as well as the individuals who make it up. By taking a vow of poverty while working on skilled projects, the AmeriCorps program embodies that complex system of values that I think is part of the solution. You give what you can to create a sound, sustainable system and challenge yourself to take only what you need. It also promotes creativity and resourcefulness rather than buying so-called solutions. To me, being a volunteer or having a low income isn’t a sacrifice, the alternative is the sacrifice.