Public Spirit, January 2014

It’s Cold!

Let this month’s hot-off-the-press edition of Public spiritwarm you up with these radiantarticles:

Upcoming Event:  Live for Five

MLK Day of Service Sites

A Look Into:  Pine River-Backus Promise Fellows

Interview with Leona Thao:  A Woman Who Traveled Across the Country to Serve in Minnesota

Good Reads


 Upcoming Event:  Live for Five

“Live for Five” is an opportunity for AmeriCorps members to showcase their wit, creativity, and passion in the form of 5-minute presentations on a topic of their choice.  

Who: All AmeriCorps members are invited!

What: Live for Five!

When: Tuesday, February 25th from 5:30 to 7:30PM

Where: Honey, 205 East Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis, MN 5541. There’s a bus stop right across the street, served by Metro Transit routes 4, 6, 61, and 141.

Modeled on the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network’s Five Minutes in Hell, this high-energy, fast-paced event is the perfect bite-sized opportunity to learn something new and meet other AmeriCorps members. Presenters speak about a topic that they are especially knowledgeable or enthusiastic about for 5 minutes, uninterrupted. All topics are welcome, from tutoring kids to skydiving!

When you register for this event, you will have the option of being an audience member or a presenter. The Social and Networking Committee will only accept 10 presenters. From 5:30 to 6:00 we’ll have some networking and social time, followed by an hour or so of presentations, and more networking to wrap up the evening. A registration link will be sent out soon, so look for it in your inbox!

MLK Day of Service Sites

This month was MLK Day and as part of the festivities the ICC organized a variety of service opportunities across the state of Minnesota. Read further for some more information about the places we volunteered and check back next month for a recap of the amazing work of our AmeriCorps members and the community! 

Arc’s Value Village

Arc is a Minnesota nonprofit that provides services for individuals with disabilities and their families. Arc also runs four thrift stores around the Twin Cities to help provide funding for their services. They accept gently used clothing and household goods.


Habitat for Humanity

Most of us already know a bit about Habitat for Humanity, but did you know that Habitat has 32 affiliates in Minnesota? Or that they run “ReStores”, (outlets where they sell donated construction materials to earn more money for housing projects)? They also have a variety of affiliate programs to expand their housing efforts! If you’re interested in a more holistic picture of Habitat’s services, check out their MN webpage.

Mankato’s ECHO Food Shelf

The ECHO Food Shelf has been fueling Mankato communities since 1981. ECHO, standing for The Emergency Community Help Organization, serves those in Blue Earth County and North Mankato with emergency food assistance. ECHO reports approximately 1,300 households assisted each month – a number that has increased over the years. With humble beginnings in a church basement and intentions of only meeting short-term food assistance needs, ECHO has truly let its community set their course. 

What set ECHO apart from many other food contribution organizations was their decision to change to client choice in 2010. Those seeking food assistance are able to select the items they would like instead of a typical food package assembled for them. Clients come to ECHO at a time they set by appointment and each household is allotted 12 visits per year. In addition to the daily functions at ECHO, events and food drives occur throughout the year to keep their efforts supplied.

On this Day of Service ECHO invited AmeriCorps members to volunteer at their site sorting food. Like many organizations serving populations in need, volunteers are a crucial part of the puzzle. 

Neighbors, Inc.

Neighbors, Inc. is one of the many organizations that AmeriCorps members served at for Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. This non-profit, social-service agency was established by local churches in 1972 and is located in South St. Paul. Neighbors, Inc. serves the communities of Northern Dakota County by providing emergency assistance and supportive assistance programs. Their website notes that “with the help of its volunteers, Neighbors, Inc. will strive to reduce poverty, promote self-sufficiency, and build community.” On Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, volunteers sorted and packed food at Neighbors, Inc. food shelf.

A Look Into: Pine River-Backus Promise Fellows

It is the unfortunate case (and often an unrealized fact) that the achievement gap in Minnesota is high. Oftentimes, this means that there is an inequality in the distribution of resources. While some students are well served by the Minnesota education system, others are unable to take advantage of the same opportunities.

That recognition inspires the service done by AmeriCorps Promise Fellows. Sponsored through Minnesota Alliance with Youth, Promise Fellows serve to bridge the achievement gap in Minnesota and reconnect youth with their education and their community. By doing this, they help youth realize their potential and assist them in accessing the resources needed to succeed–and all of this regardless of socioeconomic background.

Principal Trent Langemo at Pine River-Backus High School in Pine River, Minn., has hosted AmeriCorps Promise Fellows for the past three years. In a school district that experiences high levels of chronic poverty (and issues that arise from poverty), Langemo saw the potential for impact, both in the classroom and outside of it. According to Langemo, the benefits of hosting a Promise Fellow were many: from their “skill set,” to their “flexibility” and “large-scale aim.” Plus, members could more effectively provide “academic support for struggling regular education students [while] increasing student engagement in the community.”

They have not disappointed. Said Langemo, “The partnership between [Pine River-Backus High School] and AmeriCorps has been unbelievably beneficial for students and staff. [Promise Fellows are] highly skilled and educated volunteers who think big picture and put students’ needs first.”

A short video about past Promise Fellows at Pine River-Backus Middle School

 In addition to ongoing academic support, Promise Fellows at Pine River-Backus High School have initiated several programs and projects to benefit students. One such program, “Senior Buddies,” linked the next year’s high school seniors to incoming 7th graders in order to smooth the transition from the elementary to middle school and to create positive role models. A different project connected students with volunteer opportunities at a local community garden, building a sense of empowerment and providing a connection to the community.

These examples are indicative of Promise Fellows at-large, engaging students academically and in their communities. As is the case with each branch of AmeriCorps, Promise Fellows have the capacity to make a real difference at the grassroots level. With the Promise Fellow program, the difference can be made among one of the most important demographic: youth. If the example of Pine River-Backus is an indication, they are succeeding.

Interview with Leona Thao:  

a woman who traveled across the country to serve in Minnesota

Many AmeriCorps members are committed to their positions, but few can say that they’ve moved across the country for AmeriCorps. Leona Thao, VISTA for GiveMN, can. In July of 2013 Leona moved from Oklahoma, her home for her whole life, to Minnesota to serve as a VISTA.  I spoke with Leona about why she made the move and what it’s like for a VISTA far from home.


Tell us about your background, where you moved from, etc.

Personal background- I’m Hmong American and come from a family of 10. I was born and raised in Oklahoma and moved from Oklahoma to Minnesota in July 2013 to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA. A lot of the community work I’ve been a part of revolve around racial and educational equity and social justice advocacy.

I received my BS in Business Administration from Oklahoma State University.

How did you find your AmeriCorps position? What drew you to the position/why did you feel it was worth moving halfway across the country?

I have interest in pursuing a graduate degree in Minnesota. A relative who knew about my interests shared information about the AmeriCorps VISTA positions that were open at the Saint Paul Public Schools Foundation and

I applied to three positions. I was offered the School Outreach and Partnership Coordinator position at GiveMN which gives me the opportunity to learn about education, fundraising, and the nonprofit sector.

There are a number of reasons that made my decision to move halfway across the country well-worth it.

  1. First off, it’s a great privilege to be serving in an AmeriCorps program. I have the opportunity to a difference and an impact in the work that I do. The pay is great too! Just kidding but the educational award that is given after the completion of your term is pretty rewarding itself. Ultimately, programs like this one really show you that anyone with compassion can make a difference.
  2. I get the chance to look at schools in Minnesota to pursue a graduate degree.
  3. I’ve been to the Twin Cities before and love the vibrant culture/atmosphere here. There are an overwhelming amount of resources and nonprofit organizations that do great work for their communities and I believe there’s rich diversity in these communities. I want to be a part of it.


What’s your experience of MN been like so far? What’s been the hardest adjustment? What do you like best?

My experience serving with GiveMN and living in Minnesota has been really great. I get to work with an organization that has a tremendous impact on nonprofits and schools across the state of Minnesota and I love that I play a role in it. The Twin Cities and the state of Minnesota are great places to be able to explore. There’s a lot to do in the Twin Cities so you never get bored. Plus, there’s Mall of America!

The hardest thing I’ve had to adjust to besides the winter is living away from my family. Sometimes I get a little homesick. The best thing about moving here is that I get to live in a bigger and much more diverse city.

How have you dealt with the winter so far?

I’m not a fan of the winter here but it’s bearable. You learn from experience and it’s definitely a learning winter for me. I have mittens for the first time in my life and they work wonders against the cold.

What I’ve learned is that whether it’s 30 or -30 degrees, cold=cold.

Do you have advice for others who are planning big moves?

People aren’t joking when they tell you to prepare for the winters here. But again, it’s bearable so you’ll survive.

If you’re not from Minnesota or the Twin Cities, not to worry. There are plenty of things to do with our low budgets!

General advice-learn to budget and make the most of your time and have fun!

What’s the silliest thing you’ve learned about Minnesota so far?

Duck, Duck, Grey Duck….


 Good Reads

Articles to read:

“Poverty vs. Democracy in America” by Daniel Weeks, published in The Atlantic

Weeks researched this series of articles by traveling the country to conduct interviews, while living on a budget of $16 per day.  This journey allowed Weeks to highlight the daily struggles and broader issues that are most important to the individuals he met.

“The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later, Do we have the ‘glands?’”

This opinion piece provides a historical scan of the war on poverty, as depicted inAmerican Idealist, and an argument for bipartisan efforts to address income inequalities moving forward.

“It’s Time to Stop Blaming Poverty on the Decline in Marriage” by Emily Badger

This short article makes the case that the 1996 welfare reform law’s focus on promoting marriage among low income individuals was misplaced.  Although Badger limits her focus, this article reads like a cautionary tale against mistaking correlation for causation when fighting poverty.


Links to Click:

Free Tools to Test Your Nonprofit’s Site for Accessibility

Accessibility is important! If your organization isn’t working to ensure that their website is accessible, this is a great place to start.


What Nonprofits Should Stop Doing in 2014

Some advice from Nicole Wallace about what nonprofits can do to improve their donor relations in the upcoming year.


From a Year in Service to a Career in Service

A short interview with Daniel Baralt, who leveraged his City Year service into a career.


Do You Need Help Getting a Winter Coat?

A list of good resources if you’re low income in the winter. Good both for AmeriCorps members and the people we serve.

All three of these are winter activities for on the cheap for the AmeriCorps member who needs some time out and about in the cold weather.



Letters to a Young Activist by Todd Gitlin

As a seasoned activist, Todd Gitlin recounts his own experiences to provide lessons for the coming generations of change-agents.  Each chapter of this work explores a different moral dilemma or practical challenge that is commonly faced by aspiring activists.  Gitlin argues that a collaborative, balanced approach to activism is the best process for creating change.


Hunger Hits Home, a documentary produced by Share Our Strength

This film presents a balanced view of hunger’s causes, consequences and victims in the United States.  Similar to A Place at the Table, it highlights the stories of several families struggling with hunger to help raise awareness and inspire action.  By creating a balance between emotional and logical appeals, this film is able to present a view of poverty that inspires compassion rather than pity.