Everyday Heroes: Documenting the AmeriCorps Experience

On television, on the radio, in newspapers, and in magazines, young people often make front-page news when they are involved with crime, drugs, or violence. But what about the tens of thousands of young people who are actively serving their communities nationwide?

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"What about [the young] people from all different backgrounds [who are] busting their butts, doing some pretty meaningful things?" This is the question Rick Goldsmith, Bay Area filmmaker, asked when he set out to make his latest documentary. What he discovered -- that these youth are getting little if any coverage in the media -- led him to follow a team of youth working for the AmeriCorps program for an entire year as tutors, mentors, and educators in some of the Bay Area's most underserved neighborhoods. The finished product, Everyday Heroes, premiered earlier this month at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre in San Francisco.

"Your education doesn't matter -- just your commitment, energy and flexibility."

Launched in 1993 when Bill Clinton signed the National and Community Service Trust Act, AmeriCorps is often described as "the domestic Peace Corps." It functions through more than 500 programs and seeks to engage Americans of all ages and backgrounds to actively participate in addressing the educational, public safety, and environmental needs of underserved communities nationwide. In exchange for their service, AmeriCorps participants usually receive an education stipend, and that means the groups are filled with folks preparing for college or hoping to pay off student loans, which means they are most often between the ages of 18 and 25. The colorful brochures ask "Are you up to the challenge?" and show young adults and children of varying racial backgrounds looking proud, strong and harmonious.

I went to see the film and interviewed Goldsmith and several of the young cast members. Through that process, I realized that Everyday Heroes is more than an attempt to counteract inaccurate media portrayals. By offering its audience an experience similar to "reality-based TV,"(The group is made up of 21 young people from different class and cultural backgrounds and is a more diverse group than on most episodes of the Real World) the film raises key questions about class, race and the complexities of social service in our society.

Everyday Heroes focuses in on a cross-section of the team, but paints a realistic picture of how different people work together to try to meet the particular needs of an underserved community -- the ultimate goal of the AmeriCorps experience. Team member Sonya Dublin explains it well: "AmeriCorps provides a framework to harness [young peoples] energy and to cultivate that energy. National service [puts people in a place where they are] sharing their strengths, sharing their weaknesses, and teaching each other about how to create community."

The film portrays the difficult process of working as a team and shows us a collection of episodes where members take the time to pay attention to and meet the educational needs of the youth in schools and after-school programs. Several team members work with students in a school garden, educating them about the environment. One member regularly gives an elementary school-aged boy the one-on-one attention he needs to bring his reading skills up to speed. Another convenes a group of middle-school boys and involves them in a Brazilian-style drum circle. In several very effective scenes, the audience is shown how a young Latina guides a younger generation of second-language learners along the same path she once walked, acting as proof that they, too, can learn to speak, write and read English fluently.

Although it is, at times, difficult to keep track of all the team members and their activities, the overall impression is that the time spent each day with the youth -- whether its about reading or social issues -- does add up. Dublin took it further when she said: "Its really empowering to be part of a broader social movement or struggle. While we may have worked every week with 15 people in our programs, we knew that we were part of [a network of] thousands and thousands of people doing the work nationwide."

But working with young people, especially those in need, is not always successful, nor is it easy to record or evaluate. The film includes many telling examples of the impact AmeriCorps members can have, but it also makes it clear that this impact can seem like a drop in the bucket, especially when we look at the way many young people are held back by race and class barriers. By portraying these things honestly, Everyday Heroes sends the powerful message that although work is being done to improve social conditions, there is still an enormous amount to do.

"The overall impression is that the time spent each day with the youth -- whether its about reading or social issues -- does add up."
Through the course of the year, the team loses some of its members, many of whom are people of color. In the film, the supervisor of the team talks openly about the struggles of being an African-American woman in a powerful position. Like her, many of the team members struggle with the way their own racial/cultural identities fit into the work they are doing. In another example, we are shown the struggles of a team member who is white and comes from a middle-class background. She encounters difficulty in working with inner-city youth and in one case has to drop one of the kids from her program. In one team meeting she gets visibly upset about her role in the child's life until an African-American team member chimes in to say "We are not going to be able to help all the kids." Unfortunately Everyday Heroes doesn't explicitly show the difficulties she or the other team mebers has with the kids, and it has a much less powerful effect as a result.

In general, one could say that this film avoids some of the heavier moments between the team members and the kids, but it does capture some of the more confrontational moments between the members themselves. In one scene, the team participates in an exercise calling for the members to take steps forwards or backwards based on their responses to questions like, "Did you ever feel like violence was being directed at you because of your ethnicity or race?" The exercise forces them to look directly at their racial and cultural differences as it positions the white and non-white team members at different sides of the room -- white faces in the front, the darkest faces in the back. This and other scenes show the ways that doing service work is very directly related to one's own personal history.

"If we don't talk about the way people of color are treated and the certain privileges that white America has, whether or not [white people] feel individually like they are racists, then that system is going to be perpetuated."
Although the outcomes of the team experience are not all positive, by the end of the film there does seem to be a general feeling of optimism in many participants about the way the work they have done will effect future generations. In fact, Dublin, who is white, sees young people as the instigators who will move our communities toward dealing more constructively with issues of race. But, she said this hinges on their ability to grapple with the impact of race and racism in their own lives. "In terms of being prepared to work in a world that is really diverse, to be able to work well with all different kinds of people, I think we have to start [by] addressing race."

Team member Travis Smith believes that society has institutionalized a lot of racism. "So if we don't talk about the way people of color are treated and the certain privileges that white America has, whether or not [white people] feel individually like they are racists, then that system is going to be perpetuated. So we need to look at it, talk about it, and not be afraid of it."

Another team member, Ivan Alomar said, "I'm one of those crazy people who still believes that change can happen." AmeriCorps can certainly open peoples eyes to the idea that social change is possible, but until there are many more "crazy" people like Alomar -- who understand that it is their responsibility as citizens of this nation to create change, and are willing to work for change -- we have quite a ways to go. Everyday Heroes is testimony to this fact.

Both filmmakers, Abby Ginzburg and Rick Goldsmith are from the San Francisco Bay Area. To order a copy of the film call (510) 528-9116 or (510) 849-3225.

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