Alumni Spotlight – Alexis Smith
Originally from Midlothian, Virginia, Alexis Smith attended the University of Virginia. She then served in Philadelphia at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences in a 7th grade classroom before proudly serving as a Senior AmeriCorps member on Team Care Force #7, 2013-2014.
Ben: What is your favorite memory from your first AmeriCorps year?
Alexis: “I’m not good with favorite questions, but I’ll do my best! I served in Philadelphia my first year in a 7th grade classroom, and I think now, years removed, the things that stick out to me the most are the specialty events that we ran for students. The reason those stick out to me is because it was such a different environment to interact with our students. They came to those spaces feeling excited about whatever was going on. It was different than being in the classroom and doing things like asking them to take out their pencils. It was a different way that we could engage them, and I think it was also great because those were the times that I was able to really work with my team.
Throughout the year, we worked with different students in different grades. These events were moments we all came together and worked on one thing, which of course had its challenges with fifteen of us and fifteen opinions. It was also where I saw the creativity of my teammates and their various interests and talents leveraged the most. We organized a spring break service event at a local library, which was great because our students came to the library, painted these awesome murals, and engaged with us in a different way. It was also a big opportunity for us to engage the larger community. We did a bunch of events throughout the year, and those were some of my favorite memories.
We also did a really cool school song contest. I had a teammate who was an incredible artist, and she drew our wizard mascot, and we painted it in the gym. It was pretty awesome; it also went on the student t-shirts!”
Brittany: Yeah my team did a Fall Festival event for our students. So just seeing them in that kind of situation is so different than being in the classroom.
Alexis: “It’s an additional skillset that you learn as an AmeriCorps member that’s different than the one in the classroom. You have your tutoring, your mentoring, and your after-school programming skills, and you exist mostly in that space. Then when you go to events you’re thinking about in-kinding, asset mapping, what you can source from the community, and what you can contribute. It’s a beautiful little thing that grows from an idea to an actual event that people can show up to. Surprise, surprise that I went on to Team Care Force!”
Brittany: What was your favorite Care Force trip and why was that your favorite?
Alexis: “One of my favorites was an event we did in Lowell, MA. I think the reason I love that event so much is because of the daily commute we had together. There’s always such a sense of urgency in the work that we do. We’re hopping on a plane, we’re going to a new place, we’re landing, and we’re arriving on-site. You just feel that sense of urgency to complete all of our tasks, and during our Lowell event, we had a 45-minute drive, back and forth, where we were just chatting about things. We had a huge argument about fish sauce at one point. I think that was really special, that time together, because on airplanes you don’t necessarily sit next to each other.
I also remember learning a lot about that community; I had no idea that Lowell has the second highest Cambodian population in the U.S. We ate a lot of great food, which I think is actually a theme among all trips. It’s one of the best ways to experience the cities that we’re in because we work so much. So that was awesome.
There was also a really big focus on skills for that event. We did a project where we spelled out “welcome” in American Sign Language on very thin plywood. We painted it on event day, but we cut the letters during prep using the jigsaw, some of us for the first time. It was not my first time, but before that I feel like I hadn’t taken the time to really focus on how to hone that skill. So that was really cool. We each got a one-on-one tutorial of how to use the jigsaw.
We also designed parking lot lines to repaint them, which feels like it would be easy– and yet the question to answer was, how many [parking spaces] can we fit in here realistically? So all of us came together and sat in a room to figure that out. I also feel like one of the managers gave us a very intense tutorial on the best way to prime this very vibrant red wall. I just feel like there was a sense in that project of getting to know the community in a deeper way, developing our skills in a deeper way, and spending more time together as a team. That’s why it stands out to me the most, although a lot of them were awesome.”
Ben: We kind of talked about transferable skills yesterday during the panel, but what skills did you develop with TCF that you think are most relevant to your current work?
Alexis: “One thing I actually thought about the other day was a book I read, Dare to Lead by Brené Brown. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend (not that Brené needs anyone to be shopping her book around!), but I really enjoyed it. She talks about asking “what does done look like” when you’re working with other people, and to me that was a really big take-away from her book. After I read it, I remembered one of my managers from my time with Care Force. After an event, when the day is wrapping up and the volunteers are leaving, the team comes together to say what is left to do. The questions asked relate to how far along the project is, if the project is cleaned up, or if the project is done. This particular manager would outline what done meant to him: all of your trash has been thrown away and your tools have been put back on the container. I think that was a very early lesson for me when working with other people– you can have varying understandings of what it means to finish a task or a project. Being very clear with the people that you’re leading or the people you’re working with about what your vision looks like to set them up for success, that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot in my day-to-day work here.
I also think about my first project; we went to Cleveland. The project manager at the time had been telling us, “You need to clean up as you go. And when I say ‘you’ need to clean up, I don’t necessarily mean you as the individual. But I mean you and your team need to be cleaning up.” I remember that I had reached a pause where I felt idle and so I started cleaning things up in the middle of the project. I remember her looking through a window—I was out in a courtyard and she was in the building surveying how the projects were going— directly at me—directly into my soul! I knew in that moment that I needed to delegate that work and ask other people to clean up. It’s not on you individually, and leadership is not always doing everything yourself. And so that has also been something that is always challenging as you move through different roles, and so I think about that moment as well. Am I cleaning up myself or am I asking other folks to pitch in? It doesn’t mean I can’t clean up sometimes, but what does it looks like to engage the people around me and the team and not just take everything on myself? That look is still something I think about, and I think taught me a lesson in delegation and also reliance on other people.”
Brittany: What is your current position and what do you do?
Alexis: “Brace yourselves; I have a long title! I recently moved into a new position here; I’m the Senior Manager of Executive Operations and Internal Communications at City Year New York. To summarize, I would say my job is to make people’s lives easier. It’s a dual role where I support the Executive Director by working with the CYNY Board, working on a variety of projects she has going on, supporting her calendar, and essentially helping her with all she’s doing. The other part of it is making systems and processes more accessible to our staff and increasing inter-departmental communications. It’s sort of a new role, so we’re still developing what that looks like, and I think it will also include things like staff engagement and figuring out how to make people’s jobs easier for them to do. How do we make resources more accessible? How do they get the information that they need without having to sort through 27 steps? I love that type of role, and I love building a sound structure and a strong foundation for people, so they can feel informed and well-equipped to do what they need to do in their daily lives.”
Ben: What piece of advice do you have for future TCF members or potential City Year AmeriCorps members?
Alexis: “Very specific to Care Force, I would say, as you all have likely experienced, the pace of working on events and the pace of working in the office is very different, and sometimes we feel like it’s two lives that we’re living: there’s your Boston life and your road life. But I would say that because of the structure of Care Force, don’t be afraid to be persistent about asking a project manager if you can support them with upcoming projects or if you can kind of shadow them to see how they work with and communicate with both corporate and service partners. I think one of the great things about City Year, and about Care Force in particular, is that you can be exposed to a lot of different processes and jobs, and you can learn a lot of skills that you can take with you to future occupations. If you’re interested in doing event management or something similar, the more you can learn from staff, the better. So the more you can volunteer yourself without being asked to volunteer and sort of persistently and politely say hey can I do this? Is there anything I can do? I think is something I would definitely recommend.
I would also say to take advantage of the folks who are around you, whether that’s HQ or working at a site as an AmeriCorps Member. We do a lot of work on professional development; we have a lot of folks who are obviously really knowledgeable about City Year and what it looks like to work on staff with City Year. We also have a lot of folks who have different experiences or whose networks have different experiences. Speaking from my experience, I had no idea what I wanted to do after my corps year — that’s not true, I wanted to serve with Care Force; I knew that after my first corps year! — but after Care Force, I wasn’t necessarily sure I would stay with City Year. I’ve never been one of those people whose had a clear understanding of my next step, and it was always one little thing that I felt I held onto or identified that I wanted in my next step. Talking to people about their experiences or looking at people’s LinkedIn and connecting with them regarding their experiences, is something I would definitely recommend. Because even a conversation about a different type of job might open up a door or even inspire you into what’s possible and what’s next.”
Brittany: What made you stay at City Year after serving two years?
Alexis: “I mean it never really feels like my service year is over, so I think that always has been the case for me. Specifically after my year with Care Force, I was really interested in learning more about national service on a larger scale. I wanted to zoom out from City Year AmeriCorps and think about what it looks like to provide opportunities for all Americans to serve. That was the thing that I grabbed onto and was really interested in, though I wasn’t exactly sure what that would look like or how to do that specifically. I was really fortunate that the timing worked out, and that I had expressed that to some of the staff at Care Force. When an opportunity to work for the Chief Strategy Officer in the Public Affairs and Voices for National Service office came up, they remembered that I was interested in that sort of role. They reached out to me, and I was really interested, and the rest is history. I was lucky enough to work for them for three years. I still have things to learn and City Year is such a great place to be a sandbox of sorts for building different skills, and that’s been what has basically kept me here each time I’ve looked for a new opportunity. I think also the people. The people are amazing here as well. It would be hard to give up, that’s for sure.”
Ben: In your continued work with CY, what CY culture piece do you strongly believe in and want to continue growing in?
Alexis: “I don’t know if you would consider this technically a culture piece, so you all can be the judge of that! I would say the focus on community is what has kept me here. It’s something I highly value and that I will always take forward. Not only being in service to communities, but also feeling a sense of community while being in service. Being surrounded by people who value service to community, while also creating community within is something that I think is really special about the experience that I’ve had so far, and I think that City Year’s focus on growing and developing people is something that I will continue to keep in the front of my mind as I continue in my career. I will continue to challenge myself to build a sense of community for everyone that’s a part of my community. As I progress in my career, manage people and teams, and work on teams, that aspect of my work is never going to end, no matter where I am. So building a sense of community for everyone (that is felt by everyone) and being a culture maker is something that’s always on my mind. The prevalence of City Year culture and the way in which we talk about it has made that something that I will continue to think about.”
Brittany: What has been one of your proudest accomplishments as a staff member with City Year?
Alexis: “This one’s really hard! To answer it generally, I think that any time I’ve been able to build something— like what I mentioned earlier about working on a team my first AmeriCorps year — or that I’ve taken something from an idea to full fruition has been a huge accomplishment. I think in some ways my experience here has helped me find my voice as a professional, and that’s really important to me. I’ve done so many cool things. When I was with Voices for National Service, I worked on a project to publish a collection of stories about national service. I didn’t have any knowledge or experience in book publishing, and that was really cool because I was able to research a process that I didn’t know anything about, so I’m pretty proud of my contributions to that. And afterwards, we got a physical copy of the book!”
Thank you, Alexis, we truly appreciate you taking time out of your day to share your experience with us. Before we say goodbye, check out Alexis’s fun fact from her service year in Philadelphia and the variety of positions she’s held in City Year.
“In Philly, I was in a ‘City Year Choir’ where we sang the national anthem at a Philadelphia Eagles game. It was so cool! I had never been to a professional football game before. Also I would have never done anything like that by myself so the fact that it was a choir was exactly my speed!”
City Year History
“I served in 2012-2013 in Philadelphia in a 7th grade classroom. Then I was on TCF 7 in 2013-2014. After that, I was a part of the HQ Public Affairs team for three years, and then I came to City Year New York. I was the Senior Manager of Events and Marketing for about two years, and now I’ve recently transitioned into my current position here in NY. So I’m maybe in my 7th year or 8th year!”
Thanks for joining us!
This conversation originally took place on 2/28/2020.
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