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Strengthening Resilience, from Neighbor to Neighbor

Myung J. Lee — Executive Director, Cities of Service

In my role as executive director of Cities of Service, I have had the opportunity to travel to many of our more than 225 member cities to see individuals, communities, and local officials working together. They are solving concrete problems, improving lives, and making cities stronger. It is an honor to be a part of this work, and our newest program, Cities of Service Resilience AmeriCorps, is a shining example of what is possible when citizens, community organizations, and city government come together to increase their resilience—the capacity to survive, adapt, and grow in the face of stress and shocks, and even transform when conditions require it.

“They are solving concrete problems, improving lives, and making cities stronger.”

In its first year, with generous support from The Rockefeller Foundation, Cities of Service trained and supported 20 Resilience AmeriCorps VISTA members to serve in city halls in 10 cities around the country. The VISTAs help increase local capacity and equip vulnerable communities to better prepare for catastrophic events and ongoing challenges. They do this using the Cities of Service signature Impact Volunteering model that engages citizen volunteers to identify and solve public problems alongside municipal government.

  • Volunteers clean up the Souris River in Minot. Photo credit: Nancy Simpson / City of Minot

This has meant different things in different cities—just like the problems in each city are unique, so are the solutions that are needed—and the Cities of Service Resilience AmeriCorps program works because we know that and we share that with all involved. Our model is replicable and scalable, not in spite of the customization, but because of it. For example:

  • In Boulder, Colorado, VISTAs are leading workshops to connect residents to each other through neighborhood-based networks that will make them more resilient to challenges. Read the story.
  • In El Paso, Texas, VISTAs have brought neighbors and community organizations together to ensure sustainable food access in one of the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. Read the story.
  • In Minot, North Dakota, VISTAs are working with residents and a grassroots organization to re-integrate a neglected—and often flooded—river into the daily lives of the community. Read the story.
  • In Norfolk, Virginia, VISTAs are supporting volunteers that work with residents to create strong financial habits that reduce debt and build savings for the future. Read the story.

Throughout the year, Cities of Service works with the VISTAs, chief resilience officers, and mayors to provide hands-on strategic and technical assistance, problem solving support, professional development, training, and more. Similar to The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program, we connect the VISTAs and city staff to each other in a variety of ways—online and off—throughout the year so that they can learn from each other’s experiences, successes, and challenges.

One of the ways we facilitate knowledge sharing is through the Cities of Service Resilience AmeriCorps Academy, where VISTAs gather in-person to participate in workshops on resilience, share stories and lessons learned, and build their resource libraries to strengthen the work happening in their respective cities. The Academy is built on the Rockefeller Foundation’s Resilience Academy model, ensuring that participants gain the necessary skills and understanding to achieve long-term resilience benefits.

I recently returned from the Academy in New Orleans, where our new AmeriCorps VISTAs participated in exercises and workshops to assess and rank shocks and stressors in their communities, identify stakeholders and their level of influence, and begin to build projects to make their communities more resilient. We welcomed several new VISTAs into the cohort and watched as our veteran VISTAs stepped into leadership roles as they shared their experiences from year one. Participants emphasized the importance of asking the right questions and actively listening to citizens in order to build trust and strengthen community resilience.

In addition to helping our VISTA members gain valuable resilience knowledge and community building skills, the Cities of Service Resilience AmeriCorps program exposes the VISTAs to the inner workings of local government, and shows them the possibilities of a career in public service in which their time as a VISTA may be just the first step. Also, four of the VISTAs from the first cohort have elected to stay on for another full year of service with the program—which we see as a testament to AmeriCorps and the power of the Cities of Service Resilience AmeriCorps program to change lives.

More people are beginning to realize that cities and city leaders play a key role in the strengthening of America. The stronger our ties and relationships with the people who live next door and around the corner, the stronger and more resilient our communities will be, the more able we will be to deal with everyday and ongoing adversity, and the more prepared we will be to survive catastrophic events. Helping our fellow citizens become more resilient is one of the most important investments we can make. Cities of Service is honored to be a part of this effort—one city, one problem, one solution at a time.

To learn more about how Cities of Service is impacting local communities, visit Building Resilience: Strengthening Cities Across America.

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