Constructing Your Year of Service

By June 17, 2015AmeriCorps*VISTA

By Ethan Johnson, Employer Services Research and Outreach Associate,  Twin Cities Rise!

The initial weeks of a job are rife with uncertainty, and AmeriCorps VISTA positions are no different. Of course, good VISTA supervisors will make sure to go over a VISTA’s assignment description, or “VAD,” with their VISTA in detail at the beginning of their VISTA’s term of service, highlighting imminent priorities as well as suggesting some practical steps the VISTA will need to take to begin to work on those priorities. No amount of guidance, however, will eliminate the challenges involved in working toward definite outcomes within the often surprisingly ambiguous environment of the modern white-collar workplace. At some point, most service members will arrive at a point in their work where they ask themselves the somewhat unwieldy question, “how do I know if I am doing the right things to accomplish the goals outlined in my assignment description?”

Having ample experience trying to answer this question myself over the last nine and a half months, I have the following two pieces of advice:

1. Don’t be afraid to just learn (at least at the start): Although it is tempting to dive right into getting things done for America as soon as possible, most service members will find at the beginning of their service year that they do not have enough basic knowledge about their organization’s clients and surrounding community to properly contextualize and direct their work. To address this, VISTAs should feel comfortable spending quite a bit of their early days on the job just taking in information unrelated to specific job tasks, including learning about the respective expertises’ of their coworkers, reading up on established best practices for the sorts of programming they will be working within, and overall just building a base of knowledge about their organizations, their communities, and their fields of work. You might ask, aspiring VISTAs, “how am I supposed to know if I am following this vague advice correctly? How do I know if what I’m learning is actually relevant?” Well, here’s a simple test. Do you, after reading an online article, attending a workshop, having a conversation with your coworker, etc., have a more in depth understanding of specific challenges your organization faces in fulfilling its organizational mission and/or know of more resources with which to address those challenges? If the answer is yes, then your research was a good use of your time. I followed this advice when I first started out as a VISTA, and now my supervisor is in awe (not exaggerating) of my ability to make detailed connections between Twin Cities RISE!’s programming and the larger realities of the job market and the Twin Cities community.

2. Just chat ‘em up: Most VISTAs are fairly new to the professional workplace and completely new to their specific organizations. Consequently, they often have no idea how a new idea actually gets implemented in a nonprofit service environment where collaborative, consensus-based work cultures makes the bureaucratic decision-making processes hard to decipher. For example, when I first began serving at my organization last year, I severely overestimated the propensity of departmental managers within my organization to mandate new business processes to their employees. Instead, managers at my organization almost always choose to present some sort of new programmatic vision to their employees (say, improving the quality of sector-training referrals) and ask for genuine input as to how would be the best way to reach that vision, an insight that took me until six or seven months into my service year to really wrap my head around.

I can see now that my mistake in this episode was not so much that I guessed the nature of particular business processes at my organization incorrectly. Instead, my mistake was getting too hung up on finding the one failsafe way to advance my projects. What would have worked far better for me, and the strategy I have adopted recently in my work, is to create an environment within my organization in which several staff members are aware of my work and my ideas and have a personal interest in following through on their implementation. In my experience, the best way to achieve this outcome is to reach out to as many people in the organization as possible about my work (both formally in planned meetings and informally in spontaneous conversations around the office) describing where I am in the my thought processes on several issues and describing any challenges I might be facing.  Rarely have I come away from these conversations without some sort of helpful feedback on my work, and now several individuals outside of my department ask me explicitly about where I am in my projects and suggest ways they might be able to help. I do not think it is any coincidence I have made much more progress on my work since I adopted this “chatting ‘em up,” strategy than I made when I was trying to find the exact person to talk to at the exact right time. So, please VISTAs, even if you are a hopelessly shy introvert like me, try to be gregarious and spontaneous with your ideas and time. It will help, I promise.

Bottom line in all of this? Getting things done for America isn’t often a linear process. Sometimes constructing a mental and intra-organizational spaces (using the helpful advice above!) where a VISTA can be successful is just as important to success as great ideas or passionate energy. So, VISTAs read that article and have that fifteen minute water-cooler discussion. It will be worth it.