Reflections on National Service in the COVID-19 Era

My favorite African proverb wisely said, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This never resonated with me more than now. I have been reflecting on my experience with national service in light of National AmeriCorps Week (March 8 to 14) and the current COVID-19 pandemic. I concluded that we all have a role to play in our community, no matter how big or small the action or impact.

When I graduated from high school, I was ready to make an exit from my hometown and not look back. I left for University ready to see new things, have different experiences, and make my mark on the world. Upon graduating from college, I joined the Peace Corps and spent three years serving as a HIV response health volunteer in Botswana. Botswana has one of the highest prevalence rates (percent of people living with the virus) of HIV in the world.

HIV/AIDS is still a global pandemic. However, the landscape of HIV/AIDS today is drastically different from the start of the pandemic. People can live long healthy lives with HIV thanks to life-saving medication, we know how to prevent the spread of HIV so people can take the necessary precautions, and the stigma and fear associated with the disease have been reduced.

I learned a lot about the HIV pandemic during my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and understand that taking action in the face of a pandemic is essential. I taught leadership skills to HIV-positive youth, developed a supply chain management system for a local health clinic, and helped create a documentary film called “Have It All” featuring five Batswana who bravely shared their life stories living with HIV.

*Featured Photo: My friend and I at the “Have It All” documentary film World Premiere in Gaborone, Botswana, May 2018 during my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

My experience with national service as a Peace Corps volunteer profoundly shaped the way I see the world, and I often feel as if I gained more than I gave. The accomplishments I put on my resume do not even begin to tell the full story of my service. I learned the power of relationship, human connection, and community solidarity through my interactions with the people who graciously allowed and accepted me into the community I served.

I arrived back in the USA just over a year ago, and to my amusement, moved back to Duluth. I do not know if the city has changed since I left or I am now seeing it with new eyes, but I have fallen in love with this community. I love the integration with the outdoors, the nearness to the largest body of fresh water in the world, the passionate people who reside here, and the atmosphere of Duluth pride (whip out the flannels and “uuf das”).

However, upon returning, I realized there are significant challenges in this wonderful community. There is historical trauma that has yet to be fully recognized and restored. There are power differentials that create barriers for certain populations. There is a clear East-West economic divide. There are health disparities based on where people live and their ability to access care. Affordable housing and access to shelter are critical issues. Food and basic resources need to get into the hands of people who need them. Now with the threat of the novel coronavirus, there is an even bigger concern that these challenges will be exacerbated.

Even before COVID-19, my recognition of these systemic challenges brought me to where I am today, an AmeriCorps VISTA Leader with a small and vibrant nonprofit organization in Lincoln Park called Ecolibrium3. AmeriCorps VISTA is a national service program, often referred to as the domestic version of the Peace Corps, dedicated to ending poverty in communities around the United States. More simply, AmeriCorps members are Americans who get things done in the community. With Ecolibrium3, AmeriCorps VISTA members dedicate a year of their skills, abilities, and strengths to serve Duluth and surrounding communities. Our members have been connecting income-qualifying families to programs that allow them to save money on energy costs, developing local food systems, and addressing poverty through a holistic lens. It is an amazing privilege to serve this community that I have come to love, and I see the need for continued service even more in the face of our current situation. As a community, we need to recognize every person’s human dignity by reflecting, acknowledging, and acting to bring healing and justice. We can come together as a resilient community in the face of this pandemic and implement viable solutions for a hopeful future.

I would encourage everyone to engage in some form of service. Peace Corps and AmeriCorps are amazing opportunities for the right person, but service does not have to look like that. We each have our own passions and gifts that we can use to make the world and our community a bit brighter. In the COVID-19 era, this may look like:

  • Putting on your uniform daily. Thank you to all of our health care professionals, first responders, grocery store clerks, and other service providers.
  • Practicing physical distancing by staying at home to lower the curve and stop the spread of the virus
  • Providing a virtual service: livestream a concert if you are a musician; post an online workout if you are a fitness instructor; send out reflective exercises if you are a spiritual guide; etc.
  • Checking in with your neighbors to see how they are and what they need
  • Volunteering by donating blood, time, and money or resources (check out Ecolibrium3’s volunteer resource guide for needs, opportunities, and how to do it safely)

There are tons of ways to engage in service during this time. I want to encourage everyone to reflect upon ways they can get involved in making this community, our nation, and the world a better place, and then go do it (safely of course)!

Learn more about community resources for COVID-19, the Ecolibrium3 AmeriCorps VISTA program or AmeriCorps programs in Duluth.