On Being a Community Servant


by Nichole Payne

I was having a conversation with an intellectual recently. He was debating whether or not he should take time off to do community service or go straight to graduate school. He noted dispassionately, “In two hundred years, we’ll all be dead anyway.”

His idea seems to be that we are in some kind of rat race to achieve our goals and make something of our lives. This idea only makes sense, though, if those achievements will be completely permanent, and I don’t believe they can be. Even if you produce a great work of literature that continues to be read hundreds of years from now, eventually the solar system will cool or the universe will wind down or collapse and all trace of your efforts will vanish. And in any case, we can’t hope for even a fraction of this sort of immortality. What my friend doesn’t understand is that change is personal, and if there is any point at all to what we do, we have to find it within our own lives. This is the reason I joined up, as did so many others, to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA.

I grew up in a densely populated urban community beset with gang activity, disaffected leaders and failing schools. I once heard a disgruntled teacher mutter, “There is no hope for people like them.” Even in the face of people like that teacher who believed our plight irrevocable, I fought for change. I was the first in my family to go to college and pursue a life of education and middle class existence. I never felt the burden or schizophrenia associated with straddling both these realities. I always felt plugged in, privy to information neither side knew well enough to comment on. Creating a program like Mind Over Media, at Technology For All in Houston, Texas, allowed me to capitalize on this position, with the chance to share my experiences with students who have similar backgrounds to mine. I was able to share my experiences in a world outside the forced provinciality of the ghetto. I took students to campus tours, and they got an opportunity to speak with professors and college administrators about their dreams. It was amazing. Now Armando, a CEP student kicked out of numerous high schools for delinquency, wants to study abroad in Japan for computer engineering. I ‘m not taking credit for these students’ dreams, but I will take credit for the transformation of their dreams into tangible goals, maybe even attainable plans.

I believe that the true role of a community servant should be creating culturally relevant curricula, programs, and organizations. With the support and fellowship of CTC VISTAs and the guidance of VISTA Leaders and Project staff, I was able to make my work more than just relevant for others at Tech For All – I was proud to build my own self-efficacy. My friend’s true dilemma was that he had lost his sense of personal viability in his questions about service. The difference you try to make in life should be connected to you; otherwise you run the risk of seeing your life embedded in too large a context. Many human efforts, particularly those in the service of serious ambitions rather than comfort or survival, get some of their energy from a sense of importance. You have to be infused with the sense that what you’re doing is not just important to you, but important in some larger sense. Sometimes it’s just knowing your efforts are important, period. If we have to give this up, it may threaten to take the wind out of our sails. If life is not real, life is not earnest. Then our only goal is the grave.

Nichole Payne was formerly a CTC VISTA at Technology for All in Houston, TX and developed a digital video / media literacy after school program for teens called Mind Over Media (check out the video). Nichole is currently a PhD student in the Anthropology program at Rice University.