This article was written by Amizade, and it was originally published on the Fulbright Program blog. It is reposted here with the given permission.
Amizade has partnered with the Fulbright Program since 2016 to offer in-person service-learning and ethical storytelling programs in the rural Appalachian region of the United States. Since we are currently unable to travel and serve in person, Amizade was delighted to partner with the Fulbright Program once again as part of their 2021 Fulbright Service Week.
Amizade hosted a series of virtual conversations about what service looks like in diverse communities across the United States. Fulbrighters from dozens of countries, universities, and academic disciplines joined these engaging sessions with local community leaders, and the conversations were inspiring. Leaders from three distinct U.S. communities shared local perspectives that are often difficult to encounter without traveling. In addition to these discussions, Amizade facilitators — Executive Director Brandon Blache-Cohen and Communications Coordinator Melissa Nix — led participants in guided reflections on what service means to them and how they might be able to take action in their own communities.
The Service Week events started on Martin Luther King Jr. Day with members of the Pine Ridge Agricultural Initiative on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Keller Allen, Leah Mutz, and Milton Bianas talked about their definitions of service and acknowledged the often complex history of service on the reservation. A highlight of the session came when one participant asked to hear a Lakota song. Many expected a recommendation from Spotify or Youtube, but Milton surprised the group and decided to sing instead. Perhaps due to a burst of inspiration provided by Milton’s song, many participants shared brilliant personal definitions of what service means to them.
On Wednesday participants were transported to Williamson, West Virginia, a rural coal-mining town in Appalachia that has suffered economically since the collapse of the coal industry but continues to inspire with its award-winning community revitalization efforts. Wednesday’s speaker, Darrin McCormick, is a longtime leader and champion of community-driven development, the former mayor of Williamson, and an excellent storyteller. He offered Williamson as an example of the significant progress that can come from many years of community dedication and planning. Darrin also walked participants through the creation of Sustainable Williamson and the Williamson Health and Wellness Center, two community-led organizations dedicated to improving the quality of life for the region’s residents by building a culture of health.
The final conversation in the series featured Michael Fernandez, Director of Caras con Causa, a grassroots nonprofit organization that promotes community development to eradicate poverty through education, maintaining the environment, and economic development together with the communities of Cataño and Guaynabo in Puerto Rico. Michael spoke about the power of global service-learning as a tool for social good, and how the role of visiting volunteers has changed as Caras has grown. He shared that he finds hope for the future through collaboration in service. Michael and the participants from the Fulbright Program agreed that, quite often, service really does begin with friendship.
Though the conversation series itself has now concluded, the service it inspired is just beginning. At the end of each conversation, Amizade invited the Fulbrighters who attended to participate in a virtual service project. A small group of Fulbrighters will spend the next two weeks researching questions around water decontamination from uranium and radium that is impacting the Pine Ridge Reservation. Monday, January 25th marked the kickoff of this service project, and the group is now hard at work on their research into several topics including water testing, successful decontamination in other communities, and ways to combat the effects of exposure to contaminants.
It was such a pleasure to collaborate on this series and examine what it means to serve in a community. We hope these conversations served as windows into communities that many people do not usually have a chance to visit and motivated all who participated to take action through a service project of their own.