Fund the Corporation for National and Community Service: My AmeriCorps story

I grew up in a working class family across the street from a steel mill. I have been working since I was 15, when I got my first job in a video store at the mall. I’ve done a patchwork of things: bookstore clerk, church secretary, childcare provider, jack of all trades at Target, even web designer.

My parents worked hard so they could send me to college, and I’m the first person in my extended family to earn a college degree. But I graduated in 2009, smack-dab in the midst of the Great Recession. There weren’t any jobs, especially not for 22-year-old writers with only very thin files of published clips. Newspapers were laying off staff and closing left and right.

As my college graduation date drew ever nearer, panic settled over me. I thought about joining the Army, and even went as far as taking the ASVAB–I was one step away from signing on the dotted line. I thought about the Peace Corps, but wasn’t sure I’d be able to handle a remote position with my new diagnosis of chronic migraine. I looked at Teach for America, but didn’t feel passionate about teaching.

AmeriCorps Logo

The true problem with all of these options was the same: I wanted to write. And I wanted to get paid for it. I’d heard of AmeriCorps, part of the government agency the Corporation for National and Community Service, and knew there was a position working with the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council. I figured that was as close as I was going to get to getting paid to write, but when I searched AmeriCorps’ job openings, I found a staff writer position at a community newspaper in Pittsburgh called The Northside Chronicle.

I applied. I interviewed for the position. I nailed it. And there I was, a 22-year-old writer with hardly any clips, getting paid to write. True, it was less than $12,000 a year and I had to rely on food stamps and LIHEAP (a program that helps with your heating bills), but even so. I was getting paid to write.

This was a dream come true for me, and without AmeriCorps I likely would have had to move back in with my parents and work a crappy job at Target for lack of better options. Instead, I got to do work that was important to my community and helped me grow as a writer and a person.

If you cut funding for AmeriCorps, you put people like me–people from working class backgrounds, the people our current president claims over and over again he supports–in dead-end jobs while we wait for Baby Boomers to finally retire.

That first job taught me a lot about working as an adult and about being a writer. How to deal with difficult coworkers. How to not only take editorial feedback but seek it out. How to negotiate. How to write on a deadline. How to copy edit and proofread, and the difference between the two. How to be professional even when someone is screaming at you because they don’t like what you wrote, and so much more.

The most important lesson for me, though, was that it was possible to get paid to write.

That experience helped give me the confidence to apply to the MFA program of my dreams at Chatham University. It undoubtedly helped me get accepted. The educational stipend I got as part of my payment for my service helped pay for it. And the lessons I learned as an AmeriCorps volunteer at The Chronicle continue to help me when I’m doing an author interview or review, or even when I’m writing a blog post against a ticking clock.

a view of the Pittsburgh skyline

A shot of the Pittsburgh skyline from a neighborhood dog walk.

I’m not stupidly wealthy. I’m not internationally famous. But I’m employed full-time doing what I love–editing and writing for my public library’s daily blog and helping people find their next favorite book at the public service desk. I own my own home. I make enough money to pay my bills and still have some left over for my Star Wars addiction. I spend my free time writing, playing board games with friends, and taking my dog for long walks in my beautiful city.

In other words, I am living my own version of the American Dream, minus the white-picket fence (I live in Pittsburgh, so I’ve got a retaining wall instead of a fence in my front yard). While I won’t discount my own hard work and a robust safety net of family support, I owe this success in large part to my early experience with AmeriCorps.

The president’s first budget proposal calls for cuts to AmeriCorps. I am walking, breathing, living evidence of why this is a terrible idea. If we want to build a nation of engaged, educated citizens who make meaningful contributions to their communities, we need to foster public service, not cut its funding.

AmeriCorps is a vital element in our communities and an invaluable experience to those who serve. The last thing our communities need is for the president to cut funding for this and other important programs. Please call your elected officials and ask them to reject a budget without funding for AmeriCorps.

Honk honk: 2016 wrap up edition

On the whole, 2016 was a shit year with a few bright spots. Here are some of those bright spots, specifically related to writing (though I’ll write another post about all the wonderfully bright people I had the pleasure of spending time with in 2016).

  • Permafrost, a fine literary journal that published my short story “The Time I Listened to Nothing But Warren Zevon for One Year Straight,” also nominated that story for a 2017 Pushcart Prize. This is my first Pushcart nomination, and to say I am honored is an understatement. This nomination has been a huge encouragement to me and my writing, especially at a time when everything was starting to feel pointless. Thank you, Permafrost!
  • I have been writing blog posts for The Rumpus for about a year and a half now, and recently began a new blog column called This Week in Books, where I highlight a recently published book from a small or independent press. I love writing about books (what? you already knew that?!), and love indie presses, so this is a perfect fit for me. I am so grateful to The Rumpus Managing Editor Marisa Siegel for giving me this opportunity.
  • October 2016 marked the one year anniversary of becoming the lead editor for Eleventh Stack, the blog for Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, where I work. (Again it’s that writing about books thing…) I’m so very proud of the work all the Eleventh Stack bloggers have done over the past year, from beta-testing the library’s new website to writing phenomenal content about everything from Beyoncè to beach reads. Leading this blog is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job, and has been a phenomenal learning experience for me as an editor and writer. Hats off to LA for trusting me with this project, and always being quick with advice and wisdom.

What good things came out of your 2016?

If Donald Trump Grabbed My Pussy: A Poem

donald trump campaign flyer about how he would defeat ISIS

Donald Trump thinks I would let him grab my pussy
because he is a “star”
because he has money
because he has gotten away with this kind of abuse before.

He would be wrong.

If you think that my political views make me weak
or out of touch with reality,
Let me assure you:

I know the threat of sexual violence against me,
against all women,
Is real. Ever-present. Insidious.

But there are defenses that don’t require brute strength
Or testosterone.

If Donald Trump grabbed my pussy,

I could grab his wrist and twist it upwards.
The pain—a shock that shoots up your entire arm—
can turn a human being, even a famous rich white man,
secure in his immunity and his privilege,
into a crying, sniveling fool.

Or I could bring my heel down on his toes,
then my knee up to his groin
and my elbow down on the back of his neck
as he doubled over, involuntarily, from the agony—
His human frailty laid bare.

Or I could jab his eyes with my fingers,
rigid and sharp against soft jelly
then grab his hair and pull down
until I can kick him in the face.

Tell me, Donald Trump—
What good will all that money be,
all that fame,
when you’re on the ground,
groaning and dripping blood from your nose?

I’m not afraid of you.
If you fuck with me, I will not back down.
You cannot buy my silence, my complacency,
the right to my body.

Anyone can learn a basic wrist lock
or how to cock her hips like a gun,
throw her fist straight like a bullet.
Sisters, friends—I can show you.

I am not Wonder Woman.
I, too, feel pain.
I can’t stop knives, or fly, or even run for very long.
I can’t force men to tell the truth.
But I am not afraid to stand my ground,
and I am not alone.

We are many.
We are furious.
We demand nothing short of revolution.
We have power and strength—
even if men like Donald Trump
want us to think we have neither.

Raise your fists, sisters, friends
and bring them down hard.