Ask an Insider: AmeriCorps VISTA Lucía Cole

This fall, I was lucky to participate in Urban Roots Farm’s inaugural Food and Leadership Fellowship (FLF), where I and a group of my roughly college-aged peers learned community leadership and outreach skills, practiced sustainable agriculture methods, and investigated food injustice in Austin. One of my supervisors was Lucía Cole, an AmeriCorps VISTA working on the FLF leadership team. Here is a little bit about Lucía per the Urban Roots website:

Lucía joined Urban Roots as an AmeriCorps VISTA in the fall of 2016. An Austin native, Lucía has always been passionate about using food and nutrition to help solve social problems. After receiving her BA in psychology from Southwestern University and working for two years in public health nonprofits, Lucía knew that she wanted to use her background to help empower individuals by increasing access to nutritious food. In her free time, Lucía enjoys hiking, reading, gardening, vegan cooking, watching roller derby, and relaxing at home with her partner Gabby and fat cat Andy.”

Below, Lucía answers some of my questions about her experience with AmeriCorps and Urban Roots. For the record, the opinions expressed in this interview are Lucía’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of AmeriCorps or Urban Roots. Her responses were lightly edited for clarity.

What led you to join Americorps?

I learned about AmeriCorps when I was finishing my last college internship and searching for jobs. I didn’t feel passionate about any of the jobs I saw posted that I knew I was qualified for, and I didn’t want to take a job that wasn’t important to me just because I was qualified. When I saw the Urban Roots AmeriCorps position, I felt strongly about the organization’s mission and about the work I would be doing. I knew that my work would matter and that AmeriCorps and Urban Roots would provide me a safe environment in which to grow professionally. I was a little hesitant because of how little money I would make, but I applied anyway and I’m glad I did. Compared to when I started, I have a much greater professional efficacy and a clearer idea of what I want to do after my service term is over.

Tell us about your specific assignment--where you work, what your duties are, etc.

My placement site is Urban Roots, which is a youth development organization that uses food and farming to transform the lives of young people and inspire, engage, and nourish the community. My job as an AmeriCorps VISTA concerns indirect service rather than direct service, which means my focus is always on how to increase capacity, make sure the programs at Urban Roots are meeting the needs of our youth and of the community, evaluate and improve our programs, and things like that.  By contrast, our Program Manager does the direct service—running the programs, facilitating workshops, and making sure the youth have everything they need each day. Every day looks a little different, but typically I might spend a few hours on the farm supporting one of our youth programs, then go back to the office and spend the rest of the day in meetings with colleagues and working from my computer. I also go out into the community to recruit for our programs, meet with partners, and keep up to date on community issues that affect our youth.

How did your experience differ from your expectations and what has been the most surprising or difficult adjustment for you since joining AmeriCorps?

When I first started my job, I had no idea how much my work would change (and challenge) me on a personal level. At Urban Roots, we talk a lot about race relations, power, and oppression because these are integrally related to food and food access and they deeply affect our youth. I see injustice everywhere I go now--I really can’t get away from it. I’ve felt angry, impassioned, fearful, humbled, and driven to action since I joined AmeriCorps. I’ve also felt guilty about my actions and my legacy as a white person in Austin, and I’m grappling with how I can make a difference and what form of leadership is most appropriate for me as a white person. It’s not something I expect to ever get right, but my experience in AmeriCorps is driving me to think about how I fit into these social systems and how my actions really do affect my community.

What has been the biggest reward?

The biggest reward for me has been working with our youth. The high school youth at Urban Roots are so smart and funny and insightful. They make me optimistic about the future and they’ve inspired me to pursue a graduate degree in social work when I’m done with my service term. Working with our youth has also helped me grow in my leadership capacity. I wasn’t particularly comfortable holding other people accountable before this job (I’d rather be everyone’s friend), but I’ve had to do that a lot. It’s especially challenging with the college-aged youth who are my age, but I’m proud that I can manage a group of young people now. I’m coming to understand that leadership isn’t about always knowing everything, but rather keeping the group in mind and facilitating learning opportunities for everyone. Just feeling more secure in my ability to lead young people has been one of the biggest rewards.

How has working with a mostly female leadership, especially Urban Roots’ female farm director, changed your outlook on your career?

Currently, six of our eight staff at Urban Roots are female. It’s interesting because nonprofits in general tend to be female-dominated, but farm work tends to be male-dominated. I’ll say that having a female farm director is really cool. It shows me that women are absolutely strong enough to do farm labor and totally capable of making the decisions needed to run a farm. Rationally, I’ve always known that, but it’s different to actually work with a female farm director and see her as a role model. Young people need to grow up with male and female role models in every domain, whether that’s farming, math, science, childcare, etc.


What advice do you have for women looking to join Americorps?

If you’re interested in joining AmeriCorps and you think you can work within the financial budget, just go for it. You get to grow so much professionally and there is a lot of support within the AmeriCorps program. Pick something you’re really interested in that you think you would enjoy as a career but you may not have a lot of experience in. For me, that was working with youth on an urban farm. I came in with my evaluation skills and nonprofit experience, but I wanted to learn more about sustainable agriculture and working with youth. My AmeriCorps experience has clarified what I want in my career and has given me the tools and experience that I need to get to the next step.

What are your tips for living on the Americorps stipend?

Living on the AmeriCorps stipend has not been as difficult for me as I expected. That said, I am privileged to take home produce from the Urban Roots farm and share an apartment with my partner. Planning and preparing my own meals is probably the biggest way I save money. I rarely eat out, so my food costs are very low. I also started receiving SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits recently, which has helped enormously. I’ve gotten into a few tight spots--my lowest moment was calling my girlfriend to come to the gas station and pay for my gas--but overall it’s been pretty easy. I’m looking forward to receiving my education award from AmeriCorps at the end of the year, which is about $5,800 that I can put towards paying tuition or paying off student loans.

 

You can check out the Urban Roots website for more info on how to get involved, and learn more about the VISTA program here.