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VISTA: Rebekah Townsend

The third in a series of Q&As with our 2020-21 AmeriCorps VISTA participants

Rebekah Townsend: Thrive Alliance

Rebekah Townsend - VISTA

Rebekah Townsend is originally from Muskegon, Michigan, and is a recent graduate from the University of Michigan. She majored in biopsychology, cognition, and neuroscience and minored in moral and political philosophy.

Through her volunteer and work experiences, as well as social change classes, she became passionate about a broad array of social justice issues. Specifically, Rebekah is interested in environmental justice at the community level.

Her previous experience includes working as a marketing student coordinator for the University of Michigan Recreational Sports Department and conducting research in the School of Public Health.

What does Thrive Alliance do, and how do you support them as an AmeriCorps VISTA?

Thrive Alliance creates cross-sector collaboration to strengthen the nonprofit sector by uniting the voices and influence of nonprofits and building their capacity. Through action groups, Thrive connects and pursues initiatives across issue areas including Policy & Advocacy; Environment & Sustainability; Children & Education; Immigrants & Workers Rights; Basic Needs & Safety Net; and Arts & Culture. I support them by helping with a migration to a new communications platform and leveraging the platform’s tools to increase outreach and engagement. I am also supporting a landscape analysis of nonprofits in the county for a strategic alliance initiative launched in response to the pandemic. I’m very interested in environmental sustainability, so I have been helping with the planning and outreach for that issue area’s monthly meetings as well.

What’s a “day in the life” look like for you at Thrive Alliance?

I am currently working from Michigan, so there is a three-hour time difference. It works out well, because I am somewhat of a night owl. My day starts around 10:00 am ET with some coffee. Typically, I will start work on my individual tasks, since most of my co-workers are still sleeping. This looks like responding to emails or working on database cleanup. In the afternoon, I typically have check-ins or working meetings with members from my team. Although I initially worried about the time difference and working virtually, Thrive has been amazing with the onboarding process and really made me feel part of the team. Our meetings and check-ins create safe spaces for us to share our feelings about everything that has happened over the past year, and I am very grateful.

What are some of the hard truths about being an AmeriCorps VISTA that applicants should be aware of?

I think there is sometimes a perception of AmeriCorps that it’s a program for people who don’t know what to do or that it isn’t an impressive step in a career path. But that perception could not be more wrong. Being an AmeriCorps VISTA is hard work and creates so much growth. I have developed so much in my communication skills and ability to adapt. Working in the nonprofit sector has given me a unique perspective and helped me shape my future goals. I think the hard truth would be that this is a position in which you will need to be dedicated to your organization and role if you want to grow from the experience and be successful as a VISTA. You need to be able to navigate ambiguity, communicate well, and manage up, especially while working remotely.

What advice would you give to seniors who might be considering applying to become an AmeriCorps VISTA?

I would say do your research. I think I was really lucky with my placement at Thrive; it wasn’t the organization I initially applied to, but they were looking for a VISTA and I asked for my application to be forwarded to them. Thrive was a perfect fit and I could not be more happy with my site. In the early days of applying, I was casting a very wide net and I think it’s much more beneficial to find an organization that aligns with you. I probably would have found Thrive sooner if I did this! My advice would be to ask yourself what issues you care most about and what kind of work you want to be doing. Get as specific as you can, and then find opportunities that align with your passions and skills.

What was the interview process like for you?

My interview process was in three parts. I had an initial AmeriCorps screening over telephone with Will Besson, the AmeriCorps VISTA program manager. Then, I interviewed with the site supervisors, where I met with Paitra, my supervisor at the Haas Center for Public Service, and Georgia, my supervisor at Thrive Alliance. Lastly, I had an interview with the Thrive Alliance team and was warmed by the welcoming atmosphere so early on. A few weeks later, I received an offer and happily accepted!

What are your career goals and how do you anticipate your work as an AmeriCorps VISTA supporting that career trajectory following your completion of the program?

I plan to go to law school in fall 2021. I want to become an environmental justice advocate at the community level and leverage my law degree to do so. I am in the process of hearing back from schools and deciding which one is the right fit for me.

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to be involved in the environment and sustainability group at Thrive and with their strategic alliances initiative. Being an AmeriCorps VISTA has furthered my passion for environmental justice and has helped me confirm that I want my focus to be at the community level. I have learned so much in the past six months, as I saw how different sectors collaborate to bring solutions together and drive action. Learning about local environmental issues and hearing from community members have reinforced my desire to pursue environmental justice. 

Through my time as a VISTA, I have gained valuable insights into the dynamics between different groups, and I know that I will carry these insights into my career. My time as a VISTA has also catalyzed growth in my professional development and confidence, and helped me explore where I see myself fitting into community-engaged action. Overall, my AmeriCorps VISTA experience has been one of immense growth and self-reflection, and I look forward to continuing this growth for the rest of my time in the program and building on it afterwards.

If you have questions about the VISTA program, please contact Paitra Houts.