When I first got hired with AmeriCorps, I was so excited because I was fresh out of college. I saw this as an amazing learning opportunity. Upon joining my team of seven other members at United Way, I had no idea how transformative this experience would be. What started as a way to network and build my career became much more once I began working in my very own community.

Growing up in Auburn Gresham, I always saw how our community would come together to invoke change. Auburn Gresham is one of United Way’s 10 Neighborhood Networks, and they are composed of several organizations working together to strengthen education, economic development, housing and health initiatives. Their lead organization, Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation (GAGDC), works hand in hand with United Way to revitalize the community that is Auburn Gresham.

Living in Auburn Gresham, I knew we needed access to better educational and health resources to make our neighborhood stronger. I began my activism journey with a group known as the B.R.A.V.E Youth Leaders. Together we organized marches, rallies and protests. We also contacted political officials to voice the needs of the youth in our community. We knew that if we wanted to see change in our community, we had to be the change ourselves.

Before I joined AmeriCorps, I never got to see the intricate community-building efforts in Auburn Gresham with the support of United Way. Seeing it firsthand gave me the ability to see my community from a different perspective.

As an AmeriCorps multimedia journalist with United Way, I was involved in a few exciting projects over the course of my service year. I worked with a production company to film a video about GAGDC’s new Healthy Lifestyle Hub. At the site, I helped conduct interviews and got to see all the behind-the-scenes work required to correctly represent GAGDC and Auburn Gresham.

One of my favorite projects about Auburn Gresham that I and my fellow AmeriCorps multimedia journalist, Tate Samata, produced is our vacancy video project. By far, it is one of the most impactful projects that I worked on because of my connection to Auburn Gresham. It represented both my view of my community as a member and as an activist. We traveled through the neighborhood, mapping the vacancies and seeing how GAGDC was planning to fill those with the help of organizations like United Way. Because I have seen the community drastically change over time, it felt important to me to represent the need for resources like a health hub.

The incredible community development happening in Auburn Gresham made me realize how I can combine my passion for activism and writing. Throughout my time at United Way, I wrote many blogs, all with one goal: to tell the stories of these communities accurately. I believe I did that, even for communities that are not my own.

Another story of mine that stands out is the Bronzeville prison rehabilitation story. With help from Brightstar Community Outreach, I got the wonderful opportunity to speak with a man named Terry who went into prison in 1991 and just got released in 2020. It was amazing to hear how Terry was introduced to this new technological world after being imprisoned for almost two decades. Learning how he persevered despite the obstacles he faced was a humbling experience.

The local AmeriCorps program, administered by the Serve Illinois Commission, uses the slogan “Getting Things Done for Illinois.” I believe I did that. After working with United Way through AmeriCorps, I now have a road map for my career. Whether it’s nonprofit work or marketing or digital content creation, I know I can do it because I have the experience, and my experience is rooted in the motive to serve communities by sharing their voices through these stories.

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By Jessica Jones, AmeriCorps Multimedia Journalist