Social Gardening

June 2nd


Admiring the perfection of nature last night while cooking…

I was in a meeting this morning discussing the AmeriCorps Vista program — which puts incredibly community-minded folks in volunteer opportunities with nonprofits and other groups nationally — listening and pondering the goals of the organization. In contrast to the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps is in part geared toward ending poverty in America.

The speaker elaborated on Vista volunteers receiving a small stipend monthly that barely covers their cost of living. They are to live poor to be more motivated to work for the poor, in theory. In the Peace Corps, I was paid $56 a month and you wouldn’t believe how high that placed me on the social ladder. I had my own home, never went hungry and had plenty of pocket change for bus trips back and forth to the major cities. (The buses rarely ran and were a complete pain in the ass — think 20 people, animals and babies in an 8 passenger Toyota van — but cost wasn’t one of the challenges.) In all fairness, I probably lived a more secure financial existence on that $56 dollars a month in Cameroon (as short as this adventure lasted) than I did on the $124 of financial aid per month I made work for three years of college. I did go hungry. Scraping together enough money for Taco Bell learning to rely on friends was humbling, at best.  Regardless, neither situation made me feel sincerely poor or without hope. I always knew I had an education, good health and a strong family on which to rely.

Capturing the beauty of nature

Fundamentally, that’s the difference between true poverty and temporary class experiments. While Vista volunteers may have to creatively stretch every penny they earn to get by, chances are they’ve seen a dentist, are up to date with their immunizations, have never gone days with hunger, and have an address book full of friends and family who would take them in and help immediately if given the chance. I always had the ability to pull the ultimate “uncle!!” card in the Peace Corps, which I did after just five months. I returned to the capital and demanded my return ticket to the US.

The poor are without financial legacy. Most children born into poverty in the United States are born to children. The cycle of poor education and  health is yet again planted in the worst neighborhoods, only to produce seedlings who will one day bare the same fruit. We all know of the bootstrap stories of those who’ve pulled themselves out of this routine. President Obama, potential Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and President Bill Clinton are in the minority. They had that je ne se quois to break through their environment for greater possibilities.

Portabello bliss

I’m not sure what we do to change these systemic flaws in American culture that keep certain sectors of society always planted in the same garden of despair. I admire the Vista volunteers working knee deep in the quagmire. Reminding those of the American dream — that you can be anything you want to be — must be far more complicated when dreaming itself  is a luxury.


Posted in
Community, Journal, Politico, Public Health
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9 Responses

  1. Skinny McGee June 2, 2009

    Another great post! Your writing is getting to be quite fantastic!

  2. We hung out with AmeriCorps people last year. It was nice to have social experiences with people in different programs because of the similarities, and the differences. I know many of them applied for food stamps (as we could have) but we had more of an access to a food bank so we went that road as a community. Voluntering is an adventure regardless but what kind of adventure depends on the program.

  3. I was an AmeriCorps volunteer, and I have to say that being an AmeriCorps member HELPED my financhial situation,rather than making me feel “poor”.I used my stipend, which, for me, was extra money on top of the salary that I was getting from the job that I was also holding down in the evenings, and the lump sum that I was awarded at the end of my term to pay on student loans which REALLY helped, especially after I got out of school and was looking for a job.

  4. Love it–dreaming is a luxury. So blessed to live here. Dream big, work hard and achieve! (Great pics. Who knew mushrooms made good photo subjects?)

  5. love that post. and the pics. perfection.

  6. I think one of the reasons I love reading your blog is that I live in such a shell (nut shell that it is) that I have no idea of this completely other part of world/society. It just amazes me what I learn from your blog. Thanks for sharing.

  7. I agree with this – that most of us have a bunch of safety get-out-of-jail free cards – friends, family, etc.

    Minor fact quibble though – President Obama was born to two university educated parents. I agree he had a lot of race-based odds to surmount, which he did admirably, but he did have access to education and a relatively stable home life – which is truly different from having no financial and educational options.

  8. Poverty is not a game, and try to live with less for a while is not so hard when you know you have the possibility to get back to your normal life anytime. But I admire the ones willing to try to do something nevertheless. They don’t do it for money, that’s for sure!

  9. I have been studying community organizing and listening to a lot of podcasts about different non-profits in the States and I am amazed to learn how much non-profits enhance American society in so many various and creative ways. It’s really amazing when you think about it.

    Also, I think that part of the problem with poverty is that it can become a mindset both for the poor and for the rich……

    Good post!