I joined AmeriCorps VISTA during a turning point in my life. I had enrolled in three graduate programs over the past six years, and the transition from being a longtime student to being a member of the workforce was hard. I’m very grateful that in 2015 the VISTA program brought me to Nexus Community Partners as the newest community engagement program associate.
At Nexus, I’m working with community-based organizations to make sure community members have a say in how the light rail can help them lead healthier lives. My day-to-day work is defined by the 23 community-based organizations working in the Blue Line Coalition (BLC) and the Health Equity and Engagement Cohort (HEEC). These voices come from communities of color, immigrants and refugees, migrants, people living with disabilities, low-income communities, and other transit-dependent people. In this work, I’ve learned that the first step is listening and learning. It’s our responsibility to make sure their voices change policies and influence this long-term public works project.
The BLC’s mission is to build community-based power in advancing local and regional equity while promoting healthy, safe communities. HEEC was formed after a 2012 health impact assessment (HIA) recommended there be an entity that engages deeply with transit-dependent populations. The HIA concluded: 1) the light rail could benefit everyone along the projected corridor running from North Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park; and 2) there are currently stark health disparities between geographic and racial/ethnic lines that need to be changed.
Working at Nexus has been an ongoing education for me on health equity (attaining the healthiest state possible by combatting structural inequities); relationships between health and transit; and community engagement. During my time at Nexus, I have learned a lot about people living in Minnesota. This includes how in African communities, hearing stories about other people’s experiences is important in validating your own.
Beyond listening, my responsibilities boil down to three areas:
1) helping my supervisor coordinate monthly meetings between busy organizations, Metropolitan Council, and Hennepin County to get community input in at every stage of light rail development;
2) using my research skills to authentically capture organizations’ and their community members’ input and to make it easier for Nexus and Hennepin County to act on that input; and
3) from that research, working with organizations to identify gaps and future projects or areas to explore.
During my time with Nexus, I’ve evaluated organizations’ experience in BLC and HEEC through one-on-one interviews, and combined each organization’s gathered input from their constituents (e.g. high paying jobs with paid leave, culturally appropriate daycare, and translations on the train so that elders can access it) into common themes (e.g. jobs or safety) for Hennepin County. For the first time, we can see how organizations representing different ethnic communities and ages can touch on the same theme. I’ve planned events, recorded minutes, and taken photos for social media. In the future, I will work with organizations to explore topics like how the health equity frame can better capture mental health issues for people living along the corridor.
Ultimately, the truth is that for me, being a VISTA isn’t just making a difference by chipping away at the inequity engrained in our society. My year as a VISTA has also made me more open-minded due to the amazing partnerships I’ve formed and learning experiences I lived through. There’s no other experience comparable to it.