From Student to Volunteer to Employee

Published on August 15, 2022.

My former colleague, Lia Kaz, started as an intern for Spirit in Action’s project, We the People: Working Together. Lia wrote this blog when she moved on in 2017. It is such a great blog about learning to be an organizer! Thinking of my own experiences that I’ve been writing about, I want to share her thoughts with you again.

“I Will Take This With Me” by Lia Kaz

This is my last blog as Spirit in Action’s North Carolina Community Organizer for the We the People: Working Together program. I was completely unaware that over the course of a few years, I would go from being a student, to a volunteer, to an intern, to a year-long Fellow and finally to an employee of Spirit in Action. This fall, I will start at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for my Masters of Social Work. Before I leave, I wanted to share with you some things I’ve learned and the experiences that I will carry with me that will help shape my future.

 How I Got Here

I first met Linda Stout at Warren Wilson College, Swannanoa, NC, in the spring of 2014. I was studying for my undergraduate degree in Social Work and taking a Human Behavior in the Social Environment Course. Linda was a guest professor. Under her guidance, we prepared for weeks, learning to understand cultural differences, how to approach people respectfully, and engage them in action. This led us to our field work interviewing community members through a listening project that became We the People. It also functioned as a needs assessment for Swannanoa, NC.

We the People evolved from a research project to civic education and engagement. We have listened for a few years, co-created resources, found interests with community people, prioritized the issues most important to them and created a vision for moving forward.

What stands out most from my time working with the We the People project is the depth and breadth of stories I get to hear so regularly. These are some of the lessons I will be carrying with me.

Language Matters

Most of my attention has been focused on the ways that we speak with each other in this work. When I talk with people about why they do or don’t vote, why they can or can’t feel included in democracy, there’s often this sentiment that it’s something “somebody else” should do.

So much of the language we have for voting – “civic engagement,” “participatory democracy,” “gerrymandered districts,” “congressional hearing” – is completely foreign to the people who are least represented. When we refuse to adjust our language, we are sending the message that we do not want to include people that are not already included.

From a language justice perspective, this of course means we need to be translating beyond English and including dialects from all our communities. We cannot forget the importance of local idioms, expressions that make the most sense to people. Once we learn how to talk with each other and develop a shared language, it becomes possible to expand into new territories together.

We Need to Pay and Credit People That We Ask For “Advice” or “Help”

Erica (l) and Lia Kaz, canvassing.
Erica (l) and Lia Kaz, canvassing.

This relies on our current capitalist reality. If we are going to hire consultants and staff, we need to also hire community members when we ask them for advice and insight into our process. When we ask for volunteers, on whom many of our organizations truly rely, it’s a different matter. Sharing time and resources can be a beautiful thing. However, when we’re asking questions like, “Where are good neighborhoods to canvass?” and “How can we edit our scripts to connect with people better?” we can’t expect to get that data for free and then turn around and pay a consultant to design our flyers. And we need to also credit disenfranchised people for their part of creating our work.

Who Are Your People?

We often talk in nonprofits about building authentic movements. However, we don’t always develop a deep, personal inventory of where we come from. And this feels like a contradiction. Working in rural Appalachia has been educational in a way that I wouldn’t replicate again as an “organizer.” I am not from the South, and as much as it is home to me now, I can feel how many subtle cues I am missing as someone who doesn’t come from the area or the same class background. Rather than allowing this to keep me at a distance, I have gained practice in finding what commonalities I do have in a new place through training and being an active learner with people with whom I’m working.

Art. We Need Art.

When we come in to do a training, or host a meeting, a lot of the feedback we get is about the refreshing amount of art and creativity we bring into a space. In order to harness our full selves, we need to also work with our creative side. If we stay sitting at desks typing for the rest of our lives, we surely will not generate creative solutions to the issues we are facing.

What I Will Take with Me

Cecelia (l) and Lia Kaz.
Cecelia (l) and Lia Kaz.

Joy is an important part of the process. I cannot tell you the number of times I have left the office laughing, or been encouraged to step out of a meeting to go soak up some sunshine, or celebrated a holiday with fellow staff. Linda and I have spent many hours in difficult conversations and painful situations, and we always make time to pump in some hope. We take time to pick up the two dogs who inhabit the office space. We make sure that we remember what we’re working towards and not just working against.

I will take with me the indelible hope that the staff from Spirit in Action have shown me through their decades of service. I will take with me the integrity, deep pride and rich knowledge of place that the community members have shown me, even through decades of being ignored and marginalized by the powers that be. I know I’ll be excited to see what the next few years look like.

Lia Kaz
Lia Kaz

Lia Kaz (she/her) serves as a Project Coordinator with RADx-UP in the UNC Center for Health Equity Research. She earned her Masters in Social Work (MSW) from UNC Chapel Hill with a concentration in Community, Management, and Policy Practice in 2019, and her Bachelors in Social Work from Warren Wilson College in 2015. Her previous professional experience includes conflict transformation and restorative justice, post incarceration case management, rural civic engagement, antiracist education and community mental health. Kaz’s research interests are eclectic, though all centrally related to the question, “How can we build systems of well-being together?”

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