AmeriCorps Spotlight: Janeanne Levenstein

At Higher Achievement, we LOVE AmeriCorps VISTA members, and they make huge contributions to the capacity of our organization. VISTA members help us enhance our work in program, development, recruitment, and more – and while it’s often easiest to see their impact a few years after each VISTA assignment has culminated, staff who work alongside VISTA members each day feel their impact in a direct way.

In Baltimore, one such VISTA member is Janeanne Levenstein, who took a few minutes to sit down with me on Wednesday, and answer several hairbrained questions I had about her VISTA experience so far (which, by the way, only began on February 22nd). As a Higher Achievement VISTA alumna – I really enjoyed the experience of talking with a brand new VISTA about her experience.

Janeanne’s motivation for getting into VISTA was much like mine: a strong interest in social justice, and a serious drive to gain professional experience! Fresh out of college – she studied sociology and anthropology at Goucher College – Janeanne didn’t want to take a standard entry-level job where she might not have as many opportunities to grow or to serve. So, she decided to make the huge commitment to a year of service.

Janeanne has a strong background in community service and social activism. I learned that her mother ran a drug-and-alcohol-free center where teens occupied just about every leadership position. That is to say – the teens were running the teen center, making decisions, organizing fundraisers, and more – all in service of their own community. Janeanne has carried a value of communities being involved and empowered in community service projects ever since, and describes herself as “picky” with the types of nonprofit work that she really gets behind. Higher Achievement, Janeanne says, fits the bill exactly because of our commitment to social justice, and our intentional choice to hire and empower people from the communities we serve. I also learned that Janeanne’s first paid job was mowing lawns at age 12, and she self-promoted by flyering her whole neighborhood and brokering her business deals herself – which I see translating directly to the go-getter attitude she has toward recruitment systems building. This stuff is in her blood! And somehow, that all ties into one other training ground: ULTIMATE FRISBEE.

Janeanne credits ultimate frisbee with inspiring her to work in recruitment – she says that’s how she learned that she likes organizing and likes building teams. She helped transform an ultimate team from “pitiable” and “flailing” to semi-finalists with press coverage.

Janeanne wants to translate that rockin’ experience to the mentor experience at Higher Achievement – not that our mentor corps is anything but amazing already, but of course, the volunteer experience can always be maximized. Janeanne has some exciting ideas about building the Higher Achievement mentor community so that peer mentors can connect with each other on glows, grows, and common experience. In that way, Janeanne wants to see the mentor corps develop into a more unified community serving Higher Achievement scholars.

VISTA members work to alleviate poverty – but they’re not under any illusion that they know what’s right for impoverished communities better than those communities do. Janeanne says “I see a lot of organizations that pull people from outside of a community that can’t necessarily relate and also have their own ideas about what the community needs. I find that if you can mobilize a community for itself, that’s the best way to promote change. You’re not… I’m always nervous about going into something, having my own ideas, being a knight in shining armor, saving something, when maybe that’s not really what the community wants. It relates to social justice in that it’s taking… it’s mobilizing an underserved community for itself.”