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.

I decided not to strike on International Women’s Day

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, and as part of that the Women’s March organized A Day Without A Woman. They asked women to stay home from work (paid and unpaid), not spend any money, and wear red in solidarity. Many cities organized protests, and plenty of people were arrested on unclear charges.

But, as many people pointed out, a lot of women cannot afford to miss a day from work. They’ll lose their jobs if they don’t show up, or maybe they just can’t afford to miss work for financial reasons.

photo of a protest sign that says This Pussy Grabs Back

I do get paid time off, but generally I need to save my sick days for when I inevitably wake up with a searing migraine or need to make a doctor’s appointment in the middle of the day. That’s not why I decided to go to work yesterday, though it was certainly a factor (even though I legitimately had a migraine that made me a useless blob all evening).

The real reason is that I work at a public library. The majority of staff at my library is female. If we all striked, they would be forced to close. But this wouldn’t hurt the men (and women) in power making harmful decisions. They have computers and internet access and can afford to buy books in whatever format they choose.

The library closing would only hurt the people who are already vulnerable, who are affected by those harmful decisions. It would hurt the kids who come in after school, and the people desperately looking for work, and the elderly women who come in to find a book to read, who maybe can only get out of the house once or twice a week when they have help.

So I went to work, even with the migraine, and I helped those people do what they needed to do. I wore a red bandana and didn’t spend any money (not that I have much money to spend these days). I did, however, scope out some awesome women-run shops on Etsy that I’d like to drop some money on in the near future (I’m pretty sure I need this cute dratini in my life, and also this crocheted corgi).

I’m not necessarily criticizing the idea behind the strike. If all women decided not to show up for work for a day, the world would basically grind to a halt. That would make a big, visible impact, but not all the consequences would be good ones. I felt that it was important for me to show up and do the work I do every day to help the people in my community who need it most. They can’t afford to take a day off, and they can’t afford for the library to take a day off.

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?