Flickr user Stephen Strubel (CC)
As an AmeriCorps*VISTA member at MPC, I helped create competitive, equitable and sustainable communities throughout Chicagoland.
A year ago, feeling a slight lack of inspiration and like I needed a break from an academic setting, I decided to get some real-world experience through national service. I decided upon joining AmeriCorps*VISTA, a program in which members make a year-long, full-time commitment to serve at a nonprofit organization or public agency that is working to help households and communities break out of the cycle of poverty. While searching for placement sites, I stumbled upon the Metropolitan Planning Council's (MPC) website.
With my background in public policy and environmental science, it seemed like I had found an organization that was too good to be true. Reading about MPC’s focus on incorporating social, environmental, economic and political considerations to formulate effective solutions to planning issues in the Chicago region excited me. I felt that this was a place where I could make a difference and learn a great deal from my coworkers. Thankfully, MPC felt the same way, and I started my year of AmeriCorps service in July 2013. It’s been a whirlwind of a year, and I am happy to report that this year at MPC has exceeded my high expectations.
As an AmeriCorps*VISTA member, I was tasked with increasing the effectiveness of programs that assist low-income communities through working on issues related to affordable housing and the protection of at-risk ecosystems. I worked with Breann Gala to keep the Regional Voucher Pilot study and Regional Housing Initiative running smoothly. These projects are working to address the housing-jobs mismatch that has developed in Chicagoland during the previous decade by creating affordable housing units in areas of high opportunity—good schools, abundant transit access and low crime—and helping households make the move to these areas when they are ready.
At the same time, I worked with Abby Crisostomo to advance sensible water supply management goals through researching ways to make the Ill. State Revolving Loan Fund attractive and accessible to a wider range of communities that are struggling to keep up with water infrastructure and quality needs. I also spent a great deal of time working with the Northwest Water Planning Alliance, a long-time MPC partner organization, to create a communications and outreach toolkit to better engage groundwater- and Fox River-dependent communities and promote conservation measures to slow and/or reverse the depletion of aquifer resources.
I’ve learned an innumerable amount of things during my time at MPC, but I can summarize them in three overarching themes:
- Getting people’s attention is hard; getting them to act is even harder. For example, almost all elected officials and water providers in the Northwest Water Planning Alliance know they need to implement conservation measures in their communities and most want to do so, but there are many reasons why the ordinance doesn’t end up on the books. It takes the right combination of framing and urgency for a policy to widely move forward, and that’s where an organization like MPC can step in to provide creative solutions and support.
- Working with multiple partners takes a long time, but the end product carries more weight than going it alone quickly. In the case of the Regional Housing Initiative and Regional Voucher Pilot, building the foundation for the collaborative and large-scale study took years, but having a partnership between MPC, eight housing authorities and Ill. Housing and Development Authority attracted the attention and support of the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. These programs have been well-received, and cities across the country are eager to try similar approaches to increasing efficiency and housing choice in their regions.
- Chicagoland is facing many diverse challenges, but there are a lot of intelligent and creative people working to make the region better. If you’ve ever met one of MPC’s staff members, heard them speak at a conference or been to an event at MPC, you already know this. I have been consistently inspired this year by the work taking place at MPC and our partner organizations.
In August I will head back to Indiana University to finish my final semesters of graduate school. I am sad to leave MPC and Chicago, but I am so grateful for the opportunity that I was given during this past year. I am so pleased and humbled that I was able to contribute to MPC’s legacy and am excited to see where life and my graduate work take me in the next few years.