My Journey to AmeriCorps

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Release Date: 
Wednesday, January 18, 2023

My Journey to AmeriCorps
Written By: Wil Sanders

My journey to AmeriCorps started when I won a scholarship to go to the Arctic back in high school. It was my junior year, and I was supposed to be looking for college scholarships, but Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s office advertised an opportunity for high schoolers to go to the Canadian Arctic. I went with about 200 other students, mostly and Canadian and Indigenous on a ship with all sorts of elders, diplomats, artists, and scientists as our mentors. It was my first experience meeting Indigenous people and then also coming face to face with state sanctioned genocide as we visited sites of forced removal and heard stories from elders who experienced extremely recent colonization efforts from the Canadian government. I was 17 at the time and had not really seen that type of injustice led by a state and met the people who it affected. It radicalized me to be very critical of the state and its relationship BIPOC communities.

What also led me to AmeriCorps was working for two years as a volunteer teaching assistant at the Worcester County House of Corrections. Never having been involved in the criminal justice system or had family members there, the experience humanized incarcerated people for me, and I began to hate the criminal justice system. Like if we all agree that these are people and that they deserve basic dignity and rehabilitation, why is my student asking me how to say, “can I have my medicine” because not a single guard speaks Spanish. Like it hit me that wow yeah this really is just torture. And later after the program, during the BLM protests in 2020, it made a foundation where I could easily transition from a reformist to more of an abolitionist mindset in how I view the criminal justice system.

 I later graduated with a B.A. in Geography/Spanish and an M.S. in Environmental Science and Policy. I spent a lot of that time focused on Latin America and different cultural and environmental issues. I studied in Ecuador and then came back and led a development project for a community center with some grant money I applied at my university. I learned new community engagement skills, though the experience made me see how inaccessible grants and the resources of colleges are to communities that could really use the funding. There was a serious power imbalance in how much control I as the donor/grantee could have exercised over the direction of the project. It seemed crazy to me that I, a 21-year-old, held the destiny of this project in my hands by order of the funder, and not the community that had the lived experience and who were the ones primarily implementing it.

All of this led me to the Community Engagement VISTA with the NLADA. I wanted to work as part of a DEI framework to make NLADA more accessible for all stakeholders. Working with diverse communities has hopefully prepared me for this type of position. As of now, I have only been in the role for a month, but I feel excited because people at NLADA seem very committed to the work and vocalize that they want to make the necessary changes to be better to their community advocates, clients, and staff.  I think that acknowledging power dynamics is important and that NLADA as a professional organization really has a position to affect change on a national level to empower their clients in criminal and civil legal aid field to be better community advocates. The openness at NLADA to change and the energy I got from my coworkers is why I decided to volunteer for their organization and why I am excited to get to work!