by Alex Janis, Michigan AmeriCorps Foreclosure Prevention Corps AmeriCorps Member
One of the reasons I decided to serve a term with AmeriCorps is because my education greatly inspired me. In college, I studied politics. My particular degree was more philosophical in addressing the dynamics of political communities; not merely a bland survey of different types of government. We read Plato, Machiavelli, Locke, Marx, and Nietzsche. For those who are not familiar, these authors are the kind that grab you and challenge your perspective of the world, as well as your own life. In class we didn’t just bloviate about abstract issues, we talked about real policies and attitudes that have shaped modern life. Issues are frequently shaped in terms of for or against. Many times there isn’t room for neutrality on this divisions, practically or logically. Through the years, I developed my own personal philosophy. While I wasn’t stubbornly attached to a particular ideology, but I felt strongly about certain phenomena I saw consistently reoccurring around me.
When the opportunity arose to become a part of AmeriCorps, I jumped at the chance. For me, it seemed like the perfect avenue to put my beliefs into action. I felt that my particular program would enable me to help those I saw as the most in need. I’m referring to individuals and families in poverty, or more generally, those facing economic hardship. Poverty, to me, is one of the most fascinating forces at work in a community. I wanted to advocate for the poor and help, in whatever magnitude, working people hold on to the most significant asset they own: their homes. Throughout my service, I have been surprised to the extent that I’ve had direct relationships with our clients at my service site, The Center for Financial Health. This is what I always wanted, but the experience has changed me in unforeseen ways.
Some of the most intriguing questions I keep asking myself are: Why are poor people poor? What puts someone in the “Working Class”? Is it just a matter of how determined their pursuit of the “American Dream” is? I thought I partially knew these answers in college. (In mainstream political discourse, you never hear such a direct formulation of these questions. In fact, you don’t hear the term “poor” at all). My service enabled me to help those most in need and, to my bewilderment, I found that my previous education left me with a bias about my clients. At first, I found myself stereotyping my clients as victims of circumstance. Individuals and families that got the short end of the economic stick, regardless of how hard they worked because things happened to them that were fundamentally unpredictable and out of their control. This is not to say that this wasn’t the case for what most likely is a majority of our clients, however as my work progressed and grew in depth, so did my conception of those facing economic turmoil.
For certain clients, no matter how much I empowered them, no matter how much help I offered, no matter how many copies made, emails sent, or phone calls placed, they either couldn’t or wouldn’t provide the necessary information or perform the essential tasks to put themselves in a position to save their home. Any person who contacts the Center for Financial Health asking for help is more than capable of doing what is necessary so they can properly receive assistance. These clients, for whatever reason, would not work with us despite the fact it was overwhelmingly in their own interest to do so. I resisted the easy and fallacious inclination to grow cynical about what was behind the reasoning of a sect of our clientele. As opposed to reversing course on my personal bias toward an opposing yet just as problematic disposition, I interrogated myself about what was going on in my community and who I was serving.
After much thought I found that the problem was, in part, based on my “for or against” mentality I developed through my schooling. I needed to change my views to address the world I lived in. Ironically, I ended up using the skills I attained in my education to comprehend the disconnect in my personal paradigm. Thinking critically, I found that the issue with my “for or against” mentality was that it led me to frame matters in absolutist terms far too often. I realized that the most appropriate temperament with my clients was to be fair and realistic. As an AmeriCorps member of the Michigan Foreclosure Prevention Corps, our interaction with clients, and not to mention our collective view of the less fortunate in this country, should truly be treated as a case-by-case thought process. While it’s easy for us to say that we treat each client individually, it’s very hard not to bias yourself for or against clients. No matter what your preconceptions are, never consider a client guilty of a lack of motivation or an innocent bystander of circumstances. Treat everyone as a blank page and allow their actions to define who they are. You’ll find that it isn’t easy to categorize and, more often than one would realize, people fall in between indolence and victimization. I threw away my romantic view of those facing economic hardship and started treating people as true individuals. Whatever your political beliefs are, I think we can all agree that is a more appropriate mode of thought for not just AmeriCorps members, but Americans more generally.
Alex Janis is an AmeriCorps member at Center for Financial Health in Lansing.
This post is part of a blog series highlighting the viewpoints of Michigan AmeriCorps Foreclosure Prevention Corps members serving at different foreclosure host sites around Michigan. View information about the program or see more stories in this series.