One Word.

As I approach my 3-year anniversary as CAC AmeriCorps’ Program Director, I reflect on the journey over the last 3 years and the elements that have defined the people, texture, and tone of my service in this role and offer some advice to members and those who choose to become servant leaders.

In 2015 John Harris had been CAC AmeriCorps’ Program Director for about 13 years and I had been a Stormwater Coordinator for the Town of Farragut for about 7.  When I became aware that John’s life circumstances had changed and that he would be moving and vacating his position, I knew I had to talk to him.  I was just finishing up my MBA with Carson Newman which I had begun 2 years prior.  When I first went back to graduate school, I chose an MBA because I knew I wanted to take on more responsibility as a professional, but I didn’t know exactly what that meant.. until the spring of 2015.

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John Harris with Members in Nashville at 20th Anniversary Celebration

We met for lunch where we talked about John’s next steps and the amazing things he had accomplished over more than a decade as a Program Director.  John Harris transformed the lives of hundreds of people, from across the US, by developing systems that allowed them to find themselves in service.  In the process, he improved the quality of the Environment in East Tennessee.  Then I made a pitch. Without a position description, without a sense of salary, I knew that this was THE opportunity.  AmeriCorps had transformed my life and had continued to add value to it for nearly a decade after and nothing was more compelling than holding a position charged with doing the same for others.

This was, and remains, the dream.  It is what drew me to the opportunity and is what sustains me in it.

Fast forward a few months, the position was posted.  I applied and was offered an interview.  I remember while sitting in the interview with Barbara Kelly, the Executive Director of the Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee (CAC), that it felt as if everything I had done in my professional career mattered and came together in that moment.  As someone who has applied and interviewed for hundreds of positions over my lifetime, this was the first time everything came together in quite this way.  I knew the opportunity was something special and I walked away feeling as though I had just had the most important job interview of my life.

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2015-2016 Members at Beardsley Farm’s ‘Harvest Fest 2015’

Over the past three years since then I have chosen a word to define the previous corps year to maintain a sense of the journey in my mind.  For year one my word was HUMILITY.  When I began with CAC AmeriCorps, what I brought to my new role was a strong sense of program and event coordination, collaboration, insights into the environmental sector, insights into being an AmeriCorps member and partner, and an abundance of confidence coming from a work space where my independent action and creativity were consistently rewarded and I was fully acclimated to the culture and held the full confidence and trust of my superiors and peers.

During the first 6 months with CAC AmeriCorps I was tasked with composing the federal grant that would fund the next 3 years of our program.  I remember speaking with Ms. Kelly early on about the importance of the grant writing process and that, ultimately, if you don’t have grant funding, you don’t have a program.  I had written small grants before, but never something to the extent of this grant, but I’ve long considered myself to be a relatively strong writer.  Undaunted, I approached the process by working to clearly understand the grant documents, asking questions and seeking insight while applying creativity and vision.  I had absolute confidence that the program would be funded as we sent it for federal review in December.  How could it not?  On Friday, May 13th, 2016 my son Jude was born.  It was one of the most joyous days of my life.  The following Monday I checked in on our grant status and was notified that we had not been funded.  My heart sank.  My son had just been born and, as far as I could tell, I just lost funding for an AmeriCorps program that had been continuously funded since the inception of AmeriCorps in 1994.  I thought about what this would mean for the people we had recruited, my staff, the legacy of the program and my family.

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Jude Hours Old

I felt as though I had failed everyone.  Having come in with the expectation that I would take the program to the next level, this left me questioning myself.  The highs and lows I experienced in these few weeks were some of the most intense that I’ve faced in my professional life.  Fortunately, I was informed that, because we had not been funded on the federal level, we would be considered on the state level.  Ultimately we were funded for the same number of members from our previous grant cycle, but it was clear to me that I could have just as well been watching it all fall apart which made me question our program’s reliance on a single federal grant.

Besides overestimating my position in writing this grant I made other mistakes, most of which came from not taking into account that the culture I was entering was different from the previous one and that I was resetting my internal organizational equity by joining a new organization.  This led to some well meaning, but under informed, decision making that created challenges for the office and agency that could have been otherwise avoided if I had been more inclusive of my leadership and internal partners as I grew into my new role.

This first year I relied heavily on what had worked for me in the past as I struggled to identify what was useful in this new space and what wasn’t.  One thing that made this transition seamlessly was a theme of ‘connect to the big picture, find partners, and ask questions.’  In my previous role as a local water quality manager, I had connected to the regional and state-level community and found this to be immensely useful in learning my role and how to innovate within that space.  The same was true in my new role.  Understanding my internal dynamics as well as creating external relationships was critical during my first year.

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2016-2017 Members at Ijams Nature Center

For year two, my word was PERSEVERENCE.  In 2006 I first recited the AmeriCorps pledge, including the line “Faced with adversity, I will persevere.”   By my second year with CAC AmeriCorps, we lost the last of our long-term institutional knowledge with the loss of our Program Coordinator who had been in the office for several years before Ariel and I who had both started around the same time.  It wasn’t until her departure that we were truly confronted with the full extent of the moving pieces that were in play.  At this point I was more aware of our program’s strengths and weaknesses and was in the difficult position of realigning some of our longstanding processes to enhance their sustainability in the long-term even if it meant austerity in the short-term.  This period was characterized by anxieties that, at any moment, some unknown issue would reveal itself.  By the end of the second year, the result of our perseverance was that our systems began to become more sustainable and, out of a desire to not have all our resources in a single basket, we were successful in laying the groundwork to implement a brand new 12-person AmeriCorps VISTA program in addition to our existing program diversifying our funding, interventions, and expanding our partnerships.

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2017-2018 members at the City of Knoxville, Public Services facility

As I come to the conclusion of my third year with CAC AmeriCorps, the word I have chosen for this third year is PROMISE.  In year three I feel as though my team and I have a firm grasp on the landscape,  culture, partners, and systems in which our program operates and are positioned to move these pieces, and create new ones, to enhance quality, scale, and sustainability with partners from our community and members to the federal government.  This is the first year that has felt firmly grounded in the present facing towards the future.  I am excited about where we are and where we are going as a program and am confident we are capable of meeting the challenges ahead of us.  As we come to the end of this Corps year moving towards our 25th year and 1 millionth hour of service in 2019, I was asked a question for the yearbook for 2017-2018. What was your favorite memory from this service year?  My answer was this:

I am a fortunate person to have lots of great memories from every year that I have been with CAC AmeriCorps, but something that stood out to me this year was the resilience, commitment, and character of our members in general.  This isn’t a reflection on numbers, it is a reflection on powerful individual decisions.  Members like David, Jaimee, and others have made a point to reach out to our office to ask strong clarifying questions about how their site could best contribute to the whole.  Members like Deidra, Marjorie, Jessie, and many more were faced with early job opportunities and remained committed to the program.  Before the Corps year started, Gary, Greg, Forrest, Rachel, and Emily were slated to be a part of a totally different site that dissolved the week before the service year started and, every one of them, has adapted and had success despite this.  Watching the emergence and development of servant leaders like Christine, Michaela, Stefanie, Austin, Carolyn and others who demonstrated the ability to bring passion and accountability to their service, frequently placing the needs of their team ahead of their own.  It’s easy to shine in the light, it’s harder to work through adversity, find the silver lining, and achieve success in the face of challenge and opposition.  Idealism is a beautiful thing.  An idealism that is tested and remains, in the face of reality, is powerful and is what changes the world.

After writing this response, it occurred to me that this “favorite memory” was also a reflection of the things I have come to value in myself and others.

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Jude, 2 years old and picking tomatoes.

As we work to wrap up recruitment for the 2018-2019 service year, what I have to say to our potential applicants and new members is this.  National Service is a stage.  What makes any stage, museum or platform significant is not the stage itself, or the lighting, but what happens on the stage and how it is interpreted.  Ask yourself, “What will my performance be?”  I look forward to serving with you.

CAC AmeriCorps & VISTA

Since the summer of 2015 I have had the privilege of serving as the Program Director of CAC AmeriCorps, a program of the Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee (CAC).  This opportunity has been the realization of over a decade of involvement in national service, first as a member, then as a grant reviewer and site supervisor.  Through this role I have had the unique opportunity to nurture the talent and ideals of members while building capacity in the communities we serve.  Through this national service framework, members have earned over $760,000 for college and gained important experience through a broad range of issue-driven projects.

At the end of the day, it’s about helping people find purpose and focus in being part of something greater than themselves.

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Tennessee Conference for Volunteerism and Service Learning, 2017

During my tenure I have leveraged $2,640,000 in federal funding and local match, with an 8% increase in funding during my first year and then an additional 11% during my second.  I diversified programming to represent all branches of national service including AmeriCorps State/National, VISTA and NCCC and have grown service opportunities through CAC AmeriCorps to their highest levels since the programs creation in 1994 allowing for 49 full time member service years (MSY), or over 83,300 hours of national service annually maintaining a 100% recruitment and an average 93.5% retention rate.  In addition, I have provided direct supervision to 2 staff, 1 VISTA Leader and oversight and accountability for up to 49 members ranging in age (18 to 55) and experience (high school to PHD) at 31 partner sites in Knox, Blount, Anderson and Sevier Counties in East Tennessee.

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2015-2016 Corps, Staff & Alums at the Knoxville Botanical Gardens.

Through these opportunities, I have the opportunity to watch members push themselves to do remarkable things during their term(s).  From a quantitative perspective, our members manage thousands of volunteers on an annual basis extending the value of the AmeriCorps impact in the region by an estimated 10,000 volunteer hours, or approximately $210,000 in in-kind volunteer serve.  From a qualitative perspective, members tutor urban youth, provide job training, teach children about watershed science and work together to build capacity in our community to address important social and environmental issues.

18278133_807115812776070_4080947234669531229_oIf you are a part of a community organization addressing environmental issues, economic or food security issues related to poverty, or improving infrastructure here in East Tennessee and would like to partner with CAC AmeriCorps to host one or more AmeriCorps, AmeriCorps VISTA or AmeriCorps*NCCC members, please do not hesitate to contact me.  If there is a community need that you see going unmet and would like to discuss how CAC AmeriCorps members could be utilized to address it, contact me and if you are looking to find an avenue to make a difference in the world around you through national service, get in touch.  We are almost always recruiting.

Visit CAC AmeriCorps on the web here, Facebook here, and Instagram here.

Rainy Day Brush-Off

422436_321160404599551_1464547533_nA program of the Water Quality Form, The Rainy Day Brush-Off was an artistic rain barrel program that operated between 2008-2012 and I had the opportunity to participate in between 2009-2012.  This program involved the efforts of representatives of the City of Knoxville, Knox County, Town of Farragut and the Water Quality Forum.  For the 2009 and 2010 events, in addition to helping facilitate the program, I also created two artistic rain barrels based on themes of repetition, symbiosis, and existentialism.

In 2012 Parci Gibson (Knox County), John Shubzda (City of Knoxville) and myself gave an internationally attended presentation titled “The Rainy Day Brush Off: Initiating a Successful Public Outreach Campaign” facilitated by the EPA.

1917972_1027552948745_7865791_nThe results of the Rainy Day Brush-Off Artistic Rain Barrel Competition included the distribution of over 2,500 rain barrels in the Knox County area while engaging local artists in the creation of over 115 unique artistic rain barrels.  At 55 gallons each, this resulted in an increase of an estimated 137,500 gallons of harvesting capacity in the community reducing runoff and improving water quality.

Tennessee Stormwater Association

12654609_1051281028267148_3910651657596397251_nDuring my time with the Town of Farragut, I spent several years as a Board Member of the Tennessee Stormwater Association (TNSA) where I first served as Treasurer for three consecutive years and then as Vice President during my final year.  During this period I oversaw approximately $400,000 in assets and worked with the IRS and state regulators to secure TNSA’s 501(c)3 Status and resolve several outstanding tax challenges.  In addition, I worked with the conference planning committee to organize the 2012, 2013 and 2014 Annual Conference as well as provided substantial support to the East Tennessee MS4 working group and East Tennessee Development Symposium which consistently attracted over 300 participants.  TNSA successfully brought professionals together from all aspects of the regulated community under the Clean Water Act from stormwater program administrators, to state and federal regulators and representatives from the private sector.  This strength in connecting diverse stakeholders combined with state-wide marketing efforts though the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters (TAB), Green Infrastructure Grants and other direct MS4 program support elements laid the foundation for a sustainable non-profit professional organization.  A long way from TNSA’s humble roots as an advisory board to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

10668827_781862605208993_1432684072896985232_oDuring my final year on the board, I had the pleasure to see several years of board effort culminate in the selection of the organization’s first self-sustaining Executive Director, Charlene Desha, who had previously served as the Executive Director of Keep Blount Beautiful in Knoxville, TN.

To learn more about the Tennessee Stormwater Association, feel free to visit the website or facebook.

Poppy Seed

judeinprogress1After art school in 2005 I didn’t really draw for several years and, when I finally got back at it, it was in a way that emphasized simplicity and repetition over realism.  A decade later, in August of 2015, I had been working on a sculptural structure for about a year.  This skeleton of sorts was built from recycled consumer cardboard boxes built up from a piece of scrap plexiglass and then covered with a skin of paper which involves stacking layer after layer of newspaper using mod podge.  This process eventually creates a sturdy enough surface to draw on. I wasn’t really sure where I was going with the piece, but I liked the idea of revisiting my previous efforts to use reused materials in my work.  August was also the month that I came home to discover I would be a father.

judeinprogressThis realization inspired the direction I would proceed with my piece and prompted the addition of a womb-like focal element in the center of the piece encapsulating the avatar of my unborn child.   For the next 9 months I worked feverishly at finalizing the skin of the piece trying to get the color and gradient of the paper just right while beginning the most labor intensive part of the process, drawing the circles and the accompanying pointillism that create the overall sense of a biological/cellular space.

In my present cannon of creation, circles in a repetitive pattern serve to illustrate a sense of interconnectedness within the human ecology that we occupy throughout our physical experiences and perceptions.  Cells dividing, stars born through atomic fusion, birth, rings of a tree trunk, the human eye, all glimpses of a universal truth.  We come from one another and our existence and the fate of everything we know is interconnected.

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The title, Poppy Seed, comes from the size of my son when I first saw him in an ultrasound photo.  He was a small circle with a second pulsing circle contained within it.  It was, and continues to be, one of the most amazing moments of clarity I have personally experienced.

 

Posted in Art

A Thread Woven Through Time

AmeriCorps changed my life.  Nearly 10 years after my first term of AmeriCorps service, I can still say, without hesitation, I am the person I am today because of the unexpected opportunities I experienced because of this program.  This narrative is an account of how AmeriCorps allowed me to weave a thread of purpose through service over nearly a decade of my life.

Part I. AmeriCorps*NCCC

In 2005 I had recently finished college graduating with my Bachelor of Fine Art and found myself living with my parents after having my applications to a number of graduate schools rejected.  Like 10.  I was frustrated with the stagnation that I felt creeping into my life and I began to reevaluate my plans for the future.  I was not brave enough to undertake a term of Peace Corps, but I needed an adventure.  I needed a change. and I thought that surely there was a program that was a domestic equivalent.  It turns out that, sure enough, there it was.  Type in ‘Peace Corps’ and ‘America’ into Google and you get ‘AmeriCorps’.  Motivated less by an altruistic desire to help my fellow man and more by a somewhat selfish desire to travel and take “interesting” and “meaningful” photos I applied to AmeriCorps*NCCC.  AmeriCorps*NCCC is a team-based residential national service program for 18-24 year-olds where teams are stationed at one of several campuses across the US and during their service year they deploy on numerous 8-week project terms called ‘spikes.’  George W. Bush was President.  Hurricane Katrina had struck the gulf coast the year before.  Not that this really meant all that much to me at the time.  But it would.

405805_10150674417993973_1870052233_nI wasn’t immediately accepted into the NCCC.  I was initially placed on an alternate list and instructed to proceed with getting my finger prints and the remainder of the application process if I wanted to continue to be considered.  This was really frustrating after the recent bout of rejection I had faced.  “I had a college degree, I had volunteer experience and I’m not good enough to get into a program that accepts people who haven’t completed high school?”, this was the general line of thought that went through my head when I received that letter.  I felt entitled to serve.  At this point though, I didn’t have a lot of other prospects and I proceeded with my clearances.  It was just a month or so out from the tentative start date in January that I received another letter and was offered the chance to serve and though I had already started to discount the opportunity in my mind, when I got the offer, all of that was washed away and I realized how deeply I wanted the experience and I accepted my invitation to serve at the Perry Point campus in Maryland.

426320_10150671730298973_556395123_nWhen I was picked up at the airport in Baltimore I took my first of many trips in a 12 (or 15) passenger van. This first trip was to the Perry Point, MD campus that was also a VA facility sitting on the Chesapeake Bay.  I was packed in with a group of new Corps Members and a second year corps member who’s wisdom from the previous year was essentially that the local pub had a great deal on alcohol if you bought the pub’s beer mug.  At this point I don’t  remember if this is a figment of my imagination, but I feel like he was actually brandishing the mug in the van and I remember judging him for his less than pure intent.  Ironic.

When we arrived at what would become our home base for the year, we were given our uniforms and other essentials and a housing assignment.  I was assigned to a house with 5 other guys.  I got the top bunk in my shared bedroom and I remember my first night there thinking “I’m cold” and “What have I gotten myself into?”  It was January in Maryland and I had failed to get/act on the memo that I should have brought a sleeping bag.  Needless to say, with all the excitement and newness also came doubt and uncertainty.  Early on you aren’t assigned to teams, you are simply getting setup for the year and getting to know the group as a whole and doing a lot of general in-processing which includes taking a pack test if you wanted to be considered for one of the firefighting teams, which a whole lot of people did.  I wasn’t really sure, but I figured the point of the experience was to take on any opportunities I could so I gave it a go.  The leadership at the campus really glorified what it meant to get to serve on a fire.  In some of the early trainings and presentations, serving on a fire was a service opportunity that, in some ways, came across as more meaningful than others.  More about that later.

The team I was assigned to was Fire II and my Team Leader was Chris Hall.  This was Chris’s 3rd year of AmeriCorps and second year of AmeriCorps*NCCC.  Chris was passionate for service and had a way of articulating and conveying that passion to others.  Also on my team were Jimmy Kelly, Barb Crosby, Emily Celichowski, Mitch McLean, Laura Hoffman, Katie Irwin, Cory Price, Melissa Lee, Erin Jesberger and Nicole Buckner.  All strangers who I would share one of the most important years of my life with.  I remember when I was first assigned to this team being both thrilled to have been selected to be on 1 of 2 firefighting teams that year and being equally concerned about being on a team with so many “loud” personalities.  With a disposition to introversion this would be a challenge.  Check out our first team photo, I’m the only guy in the photo not smiling looking too cool for school with my Holga camera with a Polaroid Back.. Yup.  That was me circa. January 2006.  Coming out of art school where I had been allowed to self-select my peer group and work with generally similar people for a good 4-years on artwork that was largely self indulgent, this was a bit of a switch.

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Fire II, Class XII, Perry Point. Photo by David Beach, Fire Unit Leader.

After getting some time to get to know each other through team building and various independent service projects, we would soon be given our first project assignment.  As I mentioned before, Hurricane Katrina had struck the gulf coast just the year before devastating cities like New Orleans, LA and Gulfport, MS and I had honestly not even given it a second thought before arriving at Perry Point.  When Katrina had silenced the French Quarter, I had been in art school where my primary concern had been figuring out how to create the ultimate externalization of who I was as an artist and graduating.  Somehow, something as devastating and relevant as Hurricane Katrina had totally missed my radar.   But now, like  most every other Corps Member, I wanted nothing more than to have the opportunity to have my first project round on a disaster recovery assignment.  I wanted to serve in the place where the need was the greatest.  If you had asked me during this period why I wanted to serve on disaster I would have talked about wanting to make the most difference I could.  In my heart I also wanted to take the best pictures I could, the most meaningful.  I was seeking glory and purpose as an artist.

For  our first project round we were assigned to a Girl Scout Camp called Camp Iti Kana in Wiggins, MS.  The site was a good ways from the coast where the major impacts of Katrina had been felt, but there was still some major damage that had occurred to some of the cabins and trees and as a wildland firefighting team the camp had need of some prescribed fire operations.  For this project round Chris appointed me to the position of Assistant Team Leader.  During my first day ‘in charge’ I had to call 911 because a cabin burned down in a neighboring camp ground.  It turned out to be an electrical fire following an investigation by the local fire department.  I was just glad nobody got hurt and that it wasn’t related to our work.  Some days we would spend long hours watching over fire as it slowly burned the natural debris of the forest, others we might be demolishing/salvaging a structure, or rebuilding it.  This project round was defined by the smell of scorched pine needles that saturated our clothing and skin, the walks through a charred forest back and forth between the cabins we lived in and the dining hall and hospitality (and lawn ornaments) of our project sponsors.  Thus began a realization that service is really hard work, getting up day in and day out to do the labor that needs to be done to make the difference.

408934_10150671953863973_1399524186_nAfter Camp Iti Kana we were sent to our second project round further south to conduct FEMA survey’s with residents to assess their recovery needs.  It was in the first week or two of this project that  Erin, Nicole and Myself were selected to be on a newly formed composite team called the Gulf Liaison Team (GLT).  Oh, and we met former President Bill Clinton.  That was pretty neat, but I digress.  Erin and I were sent to Louisiana and Nicole was sent the the GLT in Mississippi.  On the GLT we served with Kate Vacanti, Eric Crawford and Cadi Poile.  This separated us from Fire II for a project round, but I was looking forward to the unique opportunity to contribute on the operational end of the NCCC.  The purpose of this team was to facilitate communication between NCCC field teams and rotating campus staff.  At this point in time there was not an NCCC campus in the region and so staff and teams were cycling in and out from around the country which created several communication challenges.  My primary job on the team was to produce a newsletter which we lovingly named “The 396428_10150675128848973_2070357635_nHeat” while sitting around discussing the weather one humid and hot Louisiana day at some sort of coffee shop / eatery.  During this period my team lived in a giant 500+ person circus tent at Camp Algiers and later a gutted out school where the walls were tarps and bathrooms were portable FEMA units called Camp Hope.  During this period I would get up nearly every morning to cook grits and make coffee for the camp and I become lovingly known by the staff as the “Grits Guy.”  After a morning of cooking I would serve the camp until I had to break away for my daily GLT tasks, but it was through this experience that I got to see how food could bring people together.  How a sense of normal could be created by establishing every day habits.  The GLT would travel around to the project sites of other 424967_10150677882473973_925831368_nNCCC teams in the region and we would serve with them for the day, documenting their good works, figuring out what resources they needed to accomplish their work and ultimately provide a means of sharing all of this information among teams and administration in the region.  One of the last and most memorable projects we completed as a group was a special assignment where we were sent to a home in a rural community where we helped gut out the home of a little-old-lady made unlivable by the effects of the storm.  We slept in her FEMA trailer where she had been living for over a year while she waited for help to get her life back on track.  To return to a sense of normal.  We got a taste of what it means to live in the wake of a disaster and be powerless to recover from it.

409033_10150672020403973_1306520513_nFor the third project round we reunited with Fire II in Maryland where we were working to paint schools in Baltimore as well as do some demolition work for a local nature center.  On the drive back to Perry Point I remember looking out of the window of the 15-passenger van and thinking how odd it seemed that everything was moving.  The fast-food restaurants were open for business.  Buildings were serving their intended functions.  People were coming and going from work.  Life was normal, as if nothing had happened in Louisiana.  As if Hurricane Katrina had never happened.  It was a jarring juxtaposition.  The world was on fire, and the people were asleep and blissfully unaware of the suffering around them.  I focused on reconnecting with Fire II and getting the work at hand done.  408877_10150672018938973_358027865_nIt was during this project round that something really special happened.  One day while I was painting at one of the schools, Chris took me aside and told me that a call had been made to put someone on a national wildfire crew in Idaho and because I currently had the most Independent Service Project (ISP) hours at our campus, I was on the top of the list for deployment if I wanted it.  I had worked really hard all year to be in this position completing over 300 independent service hours beyond the 1,700 required of AmeriCorps Service.  As you might recall from earlier in this narrative, a great deal of emphasis had been placed on how awesome serving on a wildfire was.  Interestingly enough, this was not a clear decision to make.  I had also recently applied for the opportunity to fill a TL position for the final project round of the year.

It’s kind of remarkable, but to this day I credit who I am today to this choice.  I was presented with a decision to choose a path that was filled with short-term perceived excitement and glory, which was honestly the reason I joined the NCCC in the first place, or a path that would be wrought with challenge, but with the opportunity to do something really special.  Help other people find the value in their own service experience.  This wasn’t a decision I could make on the spot.  There was no guarantee that I would even get the Team Leader opportunity, interviews had not been conducted, and if I did become a Team Leader, It was made clear that I would not be able to serve on a wildfire or disaster operation for the rest of the year because my responsibility would be to my new team.  People talk about defining moments and following your heart, but it was the moment that I chose to trade someone else’s definition of what constitutes meaningful service for for the chance to make my own definition, not for the communities we were serving, but for the people making the difference for these communities.  This was the moment that I understood selfless service and what it meant to be a leader.

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Fire IV, Class XII, Perry Point

My assimilation into Fire IV wasn’t easy.  To be perfectly honest, it was a lot more challenging than I thought it would be.  As my first real leadership opportunity, I would learn more in this project round than I had in the rest of the year combined.  I met my new team for the first time in Mississippi.  After the exciting glow wore off, much like the beginning of the year, the pit of my stomach was filled with unease.  My team was tired, frustrated and ready to get out of the south, and for some, they were ready to be done with AmeriCorps and eachother.  Their year had been challenging in ways I could not fully understand, but I would have to try to be able to make the difference they would need from me.  My job wasn’t to change the past.  It was to help them find value in the service they had already completed and embrace the final project round bringing their service year to a meaningful closure.

425066_10150674485828973_2141342812_nFor our final project round we were sent north to Wells, Maine to work for Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve.  In addition we had project assignments with Kennebunk Land Trust and Mount Agamenticus Conservation Region.  The logistics of this round essentially split apart my team to accomplish different project tasks for different partners.  One team worked on estuary assessments for Wells NERR, another worked on trail maintenance and bridge building.  I would rotate between work groups to make sure things were moving along, but I depended on my Assistant Team Leader (ATL) for day-to-day support of the Estuary team.  Despite the relatively serene and pastoral nature of our surroundings and the physical separation from the disaster recovery work in the coastal southeast, Fire IV was carrying with them the weight of the year and more than once I was caught off guard when my Corps Members would come to me at the end of their wits ready to go home and I had to convince them to keep on pushing.   Despite the adversity that Fire IV had faced throughout their service year, they worked with me to get things done for our partners well above expectation and persevered through the remainder of the year.  Each and every one of them would complete the Corps year with me.  I was proud of them, I was proud of myself.  Because of their perseverance, Fire IV completed over 18,000 hours of national service during their service year with and without my assistance.  While every team and every individual will have a different service experience, and while the motivations of the service member can be as varied as night and day.  The service is real and so are the impacts on the communities served and the people that serve them.

Part II. AmeriCorps Florida State Parks – Talbot Islands State Parks

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Little Talbot Island State Park

Like my first AmeriCorps experience, I entered into my second, again, with a less than 100% altruistic sense of service.  I had been accepted to serve in Morocco as an Environmental Educator for the Peace Corps at the end of my NCCC year as well as into SUNY Cortland for Outdoor Recreation when I had an epiphone on a rather bumpy plane ride after coming back from visiting with someone I had met at the end of my last Corps year.  I want to marry that girl.  At the end of the NCCC year I had the opportunity to spend some time with a team leader named Sara and, long story short as it can be, I told my parents over Chinese food I was moving to Florida to marry her.  I told her I was coming down to visit.  So began my whirlwind application to AmeriCorps Florida State Parks.  The Florida State Parks AmeriCorps program had sites all over the state for individually placed Corps Members as well as a couple team based groups similar to NCCC.  I was applying a little late in the game and it was by a stroke of luck that beautiful Talbot Islands State Parks in Jacksonville was in immediate need for an AmeriCorps member.  The member they had selected had, in-fact, injured himself over the summer in an unrelated roofing accident and would not be able to participate in the upcoming service year.  Unlike my NCCC experience, I applied in December 2006 and started on January 1st 2007 moving myself and all the important things (mostly my car, computer and some bedding) down to my new home in Jacksonville.  I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but it didn’t really matter because I was driven by the unwavering confidence that I would propose to Sara, she would say yes and it would all work out.  Because this is an AmeriCorps story, that’s all I will say about that.

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Depression marsh thinning for pitcher plant populations at Pumpkin Hill Preserve.

My time in Florida was a stark contrast to my previous Corps year.  My NCCC year had been chaotic, exciting and characterized by teamwork and an intensity unlike anything I had ever experienced.  I had found purpose in serving others.  My experience with Talbot Islands State Parks was defined much more by a sort of silent introspection.  Though I would get to spend some time in team situations and experience other parts of the state intermittently for special events or tornado recovery, for the most part I had the opportunity to become a part of what felt like the end of the earth.  To reconnect with the natural world and the wonders around me.  Digging post holes for protective bird fencing on the beach while the birds sat outside of their designated area staring, contemplating why I would be doing such an absurd thing.  Walking blindly through a sea of jagged palmetto plants in hopes of stumbling into a depression marsh where I would be able to take GPS points of pitcher plant populations or be eaten by a giant man eating serpent of some sort.  Tracking down and documenting gopher tortoise holes.  This is the type of work that defined my second year of AmeriCorps and it allowed me the clarity of thought to reflect on my future and further solidify my confidence in what I would want to do as a career.

By the time I left the state parks, I was quite certain I wanted to make my life’s work something that protected and improved the environment.  Fortunately, during the Corps year, I had the forethought that I would need to supplement my undergraduate education to be competitive in the environmental field and I used my education awards to pay for my Master’s Degree in Environmental Policy & Management which I finished about 6 months after my second service year in 2008 because I had completed most of it while serving my second term.  This work and education, made possible by AmeriCorps, established the foundation on which I would start my career.

Part III. AmeriCorps – Stormwater Matters, Town of Farragut, TN

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Building EnviroCharacters for Earth Fest 2015

About 3 years after starting work with the Town of Farragut, TN, I had the opportunity to again reconnect with AmeriCorps, but this time as a site supervisor with the Knoxville Community Action Committee’s (CAC) Environmental Corps.  I was looking for assistance in implementing parts of the Town of Farragut’s Stormwater Matters water quality program and I was able to illustrate the undeniable value of AmeriCorps Service Members to the Town’s leadership.

Through a combination of grand funding and partner match, members receive a living stipend, health insurance, training, and so much more.  The living stipend combined with the education award and training provide basic sustenance and incentive to the service member while they work full-time at a site to get things done and make a difference for their community partner.  In addition, the on-the-job training the service member receives is a critical step in making them competitive for graduate school and/or the professional opportunities they aspire to hold in the future.  For a modest contribution, the CAC AmeriCorps program provides a college educated 18-24 year old who is ready to bring passion, purpose and their own unique vision to the mission of an organization.  Unlike a volunteer or intern, an AmeriCorps Member works full-time at their site to accomplish a comparable body of work to a regular full-time employee significantly increasing an organization’s capacity to pursue it’s mission.

10403236_10201580786401163_3684970055750992571_nSince 2011, I have had the opportunity to work on a one-on-one basis with a young professional to get things done for water quality in the Town of Farragut and believe it is my responsibility to offer to them what was once offered to me, the opportunity to discover purpose in service.

The presence of the AmeriCorps member injects new life into the Stormwater Program on an annual basis by introducing new dreams, aspirations and talents to our program and work group.  Members have been male and female, have come from North Carolina, Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania and have had backgrounds in Environmental Policy, Anthropology and even Food Service Management.  Every member has brought something unique to the program and has left the community better off than when they arrived.  AmeriCorps is the best investment a non-profit or government can make.

Left to Right: Nicole Stephens (2014-2015), Ashley (Gwen) Slater (2013-2014), Joseph Konvicka (2015-2016), Jason Scott, Joshua Cunningham (2011-2012), Chris Woudstra (2012-2013). Representing over 15,000 hours of national service. Thank you to Lori Saal for taking this photo.
Left to Right: Nicole Stephens (2014-2015), Ashley (Gwen) Slater (2013-2014), Joseph Konvicka (2015-2016), Jason Scott, Joshua Cunningham (2011-2012), Chris Woudstra (2012-2013). Representing over 15,000 hours of national service. Thank you to Lori Saal for taking this photo.

Part IV. Ready To Write Your Own Story?

If my musings, adventures and/or mishaps have had given you even a hint of curiosity about national service through AmeriCorps and what it can mean for you, I encourage you to explore www.AmeriCorps.Gov and search for a service opportunity that lines up with your own personal and professional aspirations.  There are service opportunities in everything from Environment and Disaster Recovery to Economic Development and Public Safety.  Some are team based, some are not.  You can have an adventure far away from home or serve in the community you grew up in.  There is an opportunity to serve out there waiting for you.

Creative Stormwater Manager

Text from an article originally published in the July 2015 edition of APWA Reporter.

In 2011 I had been working to administer the Town of Farragut’s Stormwater Matters program for about three years.  During this period I focused primarily on learning the foundations of what a water quality professional ought to know.  I started out with construction stormwater inspection and enforcement and moved into illicit discharge detection and elimination, municipal good housekeeping and the rest of the NPDES program areas.  After learning the ropes, thanks to the support of countless informal mentors, I wanted to pursue a credential from a respected organization that communicated that I was competent and invested in the profession.  More importantly, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.

I come from what some might consider an “atypical” background for a stormwater professional.  Having graduated in 2005 with a Bachelor of Fine Art in Studio Art, I hadn’t really considered working in the environmental sector until 2006 when I served my first term of AmeriCorps with AmeriCorps*NCCC.  It was the year after Hurricane Katrina had laid waste to the coastal southeast and I spent the bulk of my service year conducting disaster recovery operations and natural resource management in Louisiana and Mississippi.  It was then that I realized how much I enjoyed working to clean, protect and restore the great outdoors and I would go on to complete a Master of Science in Environmental Policy & Management in 2008 consciously shifting my career focus away from introspective aesthetic inquiry to community-based environmental impacts.  Nonetheless, my professional foundation was, and still is, rooted in visual communications.  This background provides a distinctly different skill set from one in engineering or one of the biological, chemical or geological sciences.  The CSM credential provided an opportunity for me to demonstrate that my capabilities had grown to reflect a level of proficiency in these areas and that these areas, including visual communication, are not necessarily exclusive from one another.

In 2011, I also found myself inspired by a community partner who had invited me to the annual Halls Outdoor Classroom Celebration in North Knoxville.  Teachers, students and members of the surrounding neighborhoods came out in large numbers to celebrate the space, enjoy nature and have a good time.  What I saw was a clear convergence of the arts and sciences and a broad range of partners and I began advocating for an Outdoor Classroom and Water Quality Demonstration Space in Farragut as a means of educating the community about water quality and enhancing civic engagement through service learning.  In 2014 the Outdoor Classroom was built.  The space features numerous permeable systems, rainwater harvesting and has started to become one of the most dynamic avenues through which our water quality program has the opportunity to interact with our residents, visitors and business owners.

What the CSM represents to me has changed as my career has evolved.  In 2011 it was a way for me to demonstrate to myself and my peers that I could manage a water quality program effectively.  In 2015 the CSM has come to serve as a reminder of the convergence of disciplines necessary to get things done for my community and its water resources – to bring to bear the best of what I have to offer and to identify the productive talents of others and match them to the appropriate pieces of my small, but important, piece of the puzzle.  To be a CSM demands that you not only be certified, but that you be creative to solve the multidisciplinary challenges posed by your work.  Creative Stormwater Manager.

Regardless of your credential, title or role in water quality, you will not likely be able to solve the puzzle on your own.  Stormwater is in many regards a technical scientific discipline, but even more so, it is a discipline of purpose.  This type of work deserves a passionate application of the artistry that you practice, be it biology or basket weaving (contrasting arts selected for alliterative impact, you’re welcome), and the CSM is an excellent way to allow water quality professionals of broad talents and capabilities to demonstrate a standardized level of competence in their field in the areas of clean water policy, engineering and program administration while committing to a standard of excellence through continuing education and the ethical pursuit of excellence in their work to protect, enhance and restore water quality in their communities.  Go out and do good work.

creativestormwatermanager