Building and Strengthening Neighborhoods and People

VISTA Spotlight: Ashley Wallace

Know someone interested in making positive changes in the world? GHCC is seeking qualified candidates for our nationally-renowned AmeriCorps*VISTA program.  Sign on for a year of service with us and receive health benefits, a modest living allowance, and an end-of-service education award.  We have 10 positions available to start in August 2010 in the areas of improving public schools, strengthening neighborhoods, and adult literacy.

We’ll be featuring several VISTA stories in the coming weeks to raise awareness of national service.

Want to know more? Visit our website!

Submitted by Ashley Wallace

I want to share my experience this year as an AmeriCorps*VISTA because I believe stories like mine help support and promote national service programs as central to the professional development of young Americans.

In May 2009, in what is now being called the worst economic climate since the Great Depression, I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a Masters of Urban and Regional Planning. I wanted to diversify my professional planning experience and leave my humble Midwestern roots behind for a more progressive and challenging urban environment. I focused my job search on the Mid-Atlantic region — having lived in Wisconsin for seven years, I was ready for milder winters.  A few professors encouraged me to consider Baltimore for its extraordinary revitalization efforts.

My job opportunities soon began to seem very limited. The job openings I did find required more qualifications and years of experience than I had. I was competing with thousands of applicants who had resorted to applying to jobs they were overqualified for. My connections on the East Coast were few, so I began to broaden my search. I knew I wanted to work at the local level, and I already had a strong background in volunteering and a passion for community service, so I started to consider AmeriCorps*VISTA. It seemed like a great way to reach my goal of relocating to the Mid-Atlantic and working with a grassroots organization.

Keeping that goal in mind, I limited my search to VISTA positions with a connection to urban or neighborhood planning and revitalization.  I came across a position with the Central Baltimore Partnership (CBP) that focused on neighborhood and economic revitalization in four neighborhoods adjacent to the Penn Station. My educational and professional background in planning and community service drew me in, and when I was offered the position in the second round of phone interviews I accepted it on the spot.

I had concerns that although CBP focused on locally based revitalization, my skill set as a planner wouldn’t necessarily be utilized. Ultimately, however, I knew I would gain valuable exposure. Even if I would not gain urban planning experience in Baltimore, I knew it could open doors for me in the future.

I was right. The Executive Director of CBP, Joe McNeely, is a nationally recognized community organizer and he encouraged me to utilize my planning skills by reorganizing and redefining my role to fit my skill set and interests. I took on the responsibilities of community planning: integrating land-use and transportation planning with community-based engagement to improve the built, economic and social environments of communities. I have filled a gap that the CBP needed filled and I have learned a lot about Baltimore and its potential.  I have also fallen in love with its historic architecture.

About 8 months into my VISTA year I expressed interest in staying on with CBP at the end of my service. Soon after, conversations began about a salaried position for a community planner at CBP. I was officially offered a position a month later, securing my chance to stay in Baltimore and establish myself here professionally.

My VISTA year has been more than just a year of service. It was an opportunity of a lifetime to relocate to a major city, certain of my job security for the upcoming year, and experience a new and different place. I have learned about urban poverty, the challenges of community organizing, and the importance of community-based planning and economic revitalization.

VISTA has given me an opportunity to gain hands-on experience working with a progressive local nonprofit that is leading in the field of neighborhood revitalization. My experience as a national service volunteer has solidified my professional commitment to both public service and work in the nonprofit sector. What more could I have asked of my country during this year of service?