Thursday, February 26, 2009

My Southie Story

For one of our recent Member Development Friday’s I helped facilitate a discussion about educational equality and bussing as one attempt at achieving that in Boston today. We watched the Boston bussing section of the award winning Civil Rights documentary Eyes on the Prize, and discussed our reactions to that film. We were shocked by the violence that occurred, some of it directed at children who were just trying to go to school, white parents throwing rocks and hurling obscenities at young black children in Southie. It was especially surprising to think about how recent these events were. Many of the older adult volunteers who serve at our schools were living in Boston during this time, touched by these events. It was a pretty dark era in the history of South Boston (know to the locals as “Southie”).

But let’s back up a bit, to how I ended up discussing educational equality with fellow Americorps members at Generations Incorporated. I guess it started as graduation neared senior year of college. I often thought to myself ‘what now?’ I knew I wanted to be an educator, but was not sure if I was cut out to be a teacher. I heard about Americorps, a year long service opportunity, and with extensive community service and nonprofit experience, it seemed that spending another year in service was a fitting next step. When I came across Generations Incorporated I was struck by the uniqueness of their mission to bring together youth and older adults through literacy based mentoring. I was excited about the chance to explore my interest in education, while also working with diverse populations, diverse in all senses of the word. Many organizations that Americorps members work with engage low-income communities, but with Generations Incorporated there is also the element of diversity in age.

Generations Incorporated (GI) places volunteers in schools and afterschools across Boston and Revere, so when I got my placement at a small school in South Boston, I was a little surprised. With great-grandparents who came over from Ireland with the last name Connolly, I wasn’t expecting too much in terms of diversity in my placement, based on what I had heard about South Boston. I wanted to learn all I could about the area, and I started by reading Michael Macdonald’s All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, and was struck by the images of the racial and class struggle of the 1970s during Boston’s bussing crisis. As my year of service progressed, I craved more background and history of the area . I read J. Anthony Lukas’ Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families, a compelling depiction of urban life in Boston in the 70s, including an in-depth look at exchanges among different ethnicities in the search for educational equality. Some Bostonians developed community schools that tried to bridge the education gap. While some of these succeeded, many proved insufficient, so communities reached out to the Boston Public School Board and eventually the courts for a fair chance for their children to receive a quality education. The bussing that resulted produced mixed results. In many neighborhoods integration occurred peacefully, but some featured significant violence. I was so struck by this decades old debate and the injustice that occurred right here where I serve today. I have also seen that the volunteers at my site have not forgotten the events of that time, and for many it is still a raw, emotional issue. I saw the relevance of the issue to our older adult volunteers and felt the urge to share some of this story with my fellow Americorps members, and that is how I came to facilitating the discussion.

So what’s it like in Southie today? That’s what my Americorps State team members wanted to know after our discussion. Well, it’s not like in that video, I can say for sure. Walking the streets of South Boston near my school, The Perkins Elementary, you’ll find people of just about every skin color, age range, ethnic background, and religion, and that heterogeneity is reflected in the student body of my small school. Of course it’s not all happy harmony, but for the most part, it’s an atmosphere of relative accord in the neighborhood. The people of South Boston have worked hard to put the past behind them, and it shows today. It means something that most of my fellow Americorps members had no idea the kind of racial violence that went on around educational issues in these neighborhoods not so long ago. The neighborhood has come a long way. But there’s still a ways to go. I’m happy to be a small part of an organization that does something to bring older adults from neighborhoods across the greater Boston area to work with students who may not be like themselves. I couldn’t ask for a richer experience for my service year.


Kelly Connolly is an Americorps State Program Coordinator. You can email her at

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Curious Thing

During my two years of AmeriCorps Service at Generations Incorporated I have found member development training to be an enriching experience. At GI we are surrounded by helpful and knowledgeable individuals who are constantly willing to share their experience. What I believe enriches the program the most, however, is the constant invitation to AmeriCorps members to enhance the program as they see fit. This is one of my experiences doing just that.

Let me start by saying that I am a 23 year old gay man. I have never felt unwelcome or unwanted at Generations Incorporated, and I have never felt anything but encouragement regarding my ability to express myself openly.

It wasn’t until the end of my VISTA year when I was cleaning out my desk, and found some evaluations of a training on LGBT diversity that had been presented to AmeriCorps members a few years ago, that the thought of such a training even crossed my mind. The evaluations of this training were to my surprise almost universally negative. I did some research and contacted a member of the corps from that year who confirmed that the training had been unsuccessful. You can’t blame anyone really. Sometimes trainings work, and sometimes they don’t. As VISTA in charge of volunteer training last year, few are more familiar with this phenomenon than I. Nevertheless, I took the opportunity to collect some constructive feedback while I had this former corps member on the phone.

Fast forward to about 3 months ago, in the middle of my second year of service as an AmeriCorps Lead. I decided I would take another crack at LGBT diversity, but this time with an important twist.

In my VISTA position last year I learned a thing or two about presenting information to groups of people. One thing that I picked up on was that especially where diversity is concerned, you need to give your audience a stake in what you’re presenting. I know it’s wrong to assume, but I feel safe in assuming that those who sign onto a year of AmeriCorps with Generations Incorporated expect to be exposed to youth issues and older adult issues. LGBT diversity doesn’t have to be dealt with separately from those things. This progression of logic led me to the following Google search: LGBT aging Boston.

This search brought me to the website of the LGBT Aging Project. A non-profit organization in Boston that provides resources and hosts social gatherings for LGBT identified older adults. I called the volunteer contact there, who informed me that they would be excited to host our corps at one of their weekly lunches in February. I emailed the corps to gauge feasibility and was met with such an outpouring of interest that I actually had to start a waitlist, because they could only host 10 of us.

We just got back from the lunch, and not to seem overly gay, but it went fabulously. Before the guests arrived the assistant director of the Project gave us a short orientation to the issues that face older adults today. Namely their sense of alienation from the movement that our generation has chosen, their inability to function socially among their straight-identified peers because of their generation’s widespread lack of acceptance, and also the differing issues faced by men and by women within the community, and how to serve one group without alienating the other. It was great to hear about these issues from someone with such firsthand knowledge.

After we had helped set up and the guests had arrived, we sat with them and chatted them up. One of the guests at my table was English, and one of the AmeriCorps members at my table had lived in England for a time, so they had a wonderful conversation. It was great to hear about their various experiences and their differing areas of expertise. We were even able to jot down some names of prospective volunteers.

All in all it was a great start to my mission. Today’s event started a meaningful and productive conversation among our corps, now the challenge will be to continue this conversation, keeping it productive while constantly giving it new meaning.

Garen Nigon is an AmeriCorps State Lead at Generations Incorporated. You can e-mail him at

Friday, February 6, 2009

Why Service?

“WELL WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?!?” my mother shrieked into the phone when I told her I had decided not to apply to graduate school. I was still in college and had just come from a meeting with my advisor who had told me quite bluntly, “Don’t do to grad school just because you don’t know what else to do.” I was stunned. How had I not realized that that was what I was doing? I felt that a great weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

So when I called my mom with a sense of joyful relief, the panicked scream I got in reaction was not quite what I’d hoped for.

But then, as mothers so often do just when you want to be mad at them, she had made a good point. What was I going to do? Searches for jobs for anthropology majors generally counseled me to use my new-found understanding of human behavior to try to sell people stuff, answer telephones, or try to sell people stuff over the telephone. I found these options uninspiring.

Lucky for me, a different, less talked about option existed: full time service. Admittedly, I stumbled across the Americorps option because I didn’t know what else to do, but that isn’t why I chose it. It takes more than a “why not?” attitude to make a person decide to pack up, leave home and dive head first into a position she might not yet fully understand and pays almost nothing. You have to see a need you think you can meet, a challenge you are excited to overcome, an opportunity that you think will leave you a better and stronger person than you were before.

People have said a lot of very moving things about the value of doing service, but I won’t quote them here. Honestly I don’t feel like my life is that grandiose. Like working people, I sometimes get worn out and have to deal with things I’d rather ignore. Not to mention that I spend too much time on public transit to pretend that service is all about nobility and greatness. But there are more than enough incredible moments to make up for all that.

I get to see the fierce love our volunteers have for their students. I get to be inspired by their dedication and the way they unequivocally reject the idea that somebody else’s children are somebody else’s responsibility. I get to join in the pride a student feels when she reads a book she couldn’t have gotten through at the beginning of the year. I get to work with a Corps of really fun and motivated people who care about a lot of the same things I do.

I guess all that is a little addictive, because here I am in the middle of my second year of service at Generations Incorporated. Sure, we all have days when we look at our stipend check and wish there were a little more left over to buy that cute pair of shoes… but in the end I feel very privileged to be an Americorps member. The trust the staff gives us allows me to challenge myself ad I get far more support in figuring out and preparing for what I want to do with the rest of my life than most entry-level jobs would give me.

Since I can’t stay here forever, that pesky “Well, what are you going to do?” question will come up again soon. For now though, I know that choosing service was the right thing. Let’s just say I’ve never once wished that I had gone the telemarketing route.

Emily Schlosnagle is an AmeriCorps State Lead at Generations Incorporated. You can e-mail her at