Service as a gateway to community engagement
Manda Witterbort is a City Year Baton Rouge alum (14’, 15’) who works to support civic engagement initiatives for youth. After two years of service with City Year, she served from 2015-2017 with the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic.
Manda received a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and recently graduated in May 2020 from the University of Denver with a master’s in higher education. During her time there, she worked with a number of organizations focused on community engagement and youth development. In 2019, she became a Campus Compact Newman Civic Fellow which supports students who have demonstrated their commitment to the community and their willingness to be problem-solvers in the public space. She now works to support the Community Engagement Fellowships program at the University of Denver.
We connected with Manda to talk about how City Year has informed her experiences. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Advance educational equity
How did you see your role as a City Year AmeriCorps member in creating a more equitable learning environments for students?
I think that one-on-one support and understanding is really integral to our role as corps members in helping to create more equitable learning environments. So, I went into the experience with the intention of building strong relationships with students. I think the more caring adults a student has in their lives and the more opportunities they have for mentorship, the more they’re able to achieve their goals and aspirations. While mentorship alone can’t address the systemic inequities that affect the communities that corps members serve in, we have lots of evidence that positive relationships and social-emotional skill building are powerful tools to help students succeed both in and out of school.
Expand your worldview through service
Why did decide to continue your National Service journey with Peace Corps and how did City Year prepare you for your Peace Corps experience?
When I attended Rollins College, I was really plugged in to the Orlando community through youth development jobs and internships. I liked learning about what was going on at the local level. When I decided to serve with City Year, I did so because I wanted to understand youth development on a national level. Serving locally in Baton Rouge but for a nationwide nonprofit gave me that insight. Peace Corps, then, became a way for me to understand youth development through a global perspective and City Year definitely prepared me for the experience in a number of ways.
In Peace Corps, I worked alongside youth leaders on projects dealing with sexual health education and team sports. My most cherished project was forming a girls’ basketball team. We took basketball and made it a community force! We focused on building relationships with other communities that had newly formed girls’ teams, used it as an opportunity to build conflict resolution and decision-making skills and challenged the men in the community to come out and support the girls being that it was a male dominated sport.
Peace Corps expanded my world view. I began to understand the importance of culturally relevant practice meant; I started to dissect my own privilege and identity as a white woman and what it meant for me to be working in communities of color. And City Year also taught me about what it means to be a responsible and respectful “guest” in someone else’s community.
That allowed me to approach my work in the Dominican Republic with an open mind and a willingness to learn and work alongside my community members.
You decided to pursue your master’s in Higher Education. How did your graduate experience inform your practice as community engagement and youth development practitioner?
I went into my graduate program wanting to focus on ways in which we can develop a culture of active citizenship in students. My question was: How are we working to encourage students to get involved in their community while they’re in college to make interpersonal and systemic change? I believe a way to bring all students into a life of service is supporting them to figure out how their passions, skills and goals align with work to make our world a better place. Addressing how can each person bring social responsibility in their career and personal networks.
During my two years, I spent time seeking out a network of people who were doing similar work—people I like to call critical community engagement scholars. So, folks that are centering power, privilege, and oppression and racial justice as an integral part of the community engagement work. I found that particular community in my work as a Campus Compact Newman Civic Fellow.
In my internship, I co-created the Equity & Program Assessment inter for Campus Compact Oregon. It was a powerful and humbling experience where we interviewed non-white staff members about their goals and experiences with the intention of envisioning organizational equity. And it resulted in a list of recommendations that would help make Campus Compact Oregon a more equitable work environment.
These kinds of experiences also allowed for me to continue self-reflection and guide me to better define who I wanted to as a critical community engagement practitioner scholar. I attempted to deepen the connections between racial justice, equity and community-engaged work, so that I am not replicating oppressive practices.
Remain civically engaged
Why is it important for City Year AmeriCorps members to remain civically engaged after service?
We all have a responsibility in making our communities—and this world—a better, more just place. It takes engaged community members and active citizens fighting for what they believe to make a difference—both on an individual and structural level. City Year AmeriCorps members serve for 10 months. While those 10 months can certainly be impactful, they won’t “change the world.”
But I believe it’s a good place to start the work.
What advice would you give to any corps member who’s interested in continuing their community engagement work after service?
I think it’s important for corps members to examine what parts of service they’re most passionate about.
Do you find that you’re really passionate about teaching? Are you an effective advocate for students and their families because you know how to ask the questions, you know the systems well? Or do you have a growing interest in education policy? These are all things you can reflect on during the course of service that can service as a guidepost when you’re trying to figure out how you can stay engaged post-service.
The other important thing is to stay informed about the issues that are affecting the communities you want to live or work in. And by that I mean, understand that community’s history, understand the policies that are impacting the community, speak to the community members and understand their concerns, etc. If you’re not actively working to stay informed in this way, you won’t have enough context to be truly engaged and effective in your work.
In both City Year and Peace Corps, one of the ways I stayed informed was by actively working to build relationships with the caring adults in their lives. I was able to lean on people in their communities—those who had known them long before I did—to gain insight. I’d ask things like: What would motivate your child or student? What do they student struggle with? What brings them joy?
It really does “take a village.” And it also lets a young person know how many people really care about them.
If you’re inspired by Amanda and want be actively engaged in your community, apply to serve with City Year.
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