By Safae Lacheheb
Safae Lacheheb reflects on her month-long spring fellowship in Washington D.C. working with Serve DC, a service organization dedicated to community engagement. Safae’s fellowship was made possible through Legacy International’s Professional Fellows Program.
I spent the majority of my fellowship journey in the District of Columbia, where I was assigned by Legacy International to fulfill a unique experience in a governmental organization in my field of work on community service and volunteerism.
Upon my arrival in DC, it took me a while to figure out the status of this unique area in the United States. It is an independent city, not part of any U.S. state, yet formed by land donated by the two states of Maryland and Virginia. After a while, I figured out this is not the only unique aspect of DC, and to understand more about this place and fully live my immersion experience, I completed five steps toward learning and living as a true citizen of DC.
Step 1: Embrace the local culture
After a long trip here, I am in the capital of the United States. Surprisingly, the first thing that caught my eyes is not the tall buildings but the green everywhere, the multiple forests, and the beautiful lakes. When I finally came across the buildings, I was delighted by the beauty of the architecture and its original style due to different influences from distant times and places like classical Greece and Rome, medieval Europe, and France in the 19th century. The district hosts the world’s foreign embassies, the headquarters of many international organizations and non-profits, the White House, the Capitol, as well as many other prestigious buildings. During a tour with the other fellows I realized that the cultural aspect is very present as the district is home to many national monuments and museums, all of which you can visit for free.
I enjoyed the numerous advantages of being a DC citizen, including going on trolley tours, visiting the local parks, and learning about the wildlife while being approached by cute un-shy squirrels, walking down one street and hearing more than five different languages, and encountering people from many ethnicities. As diverse as New York, the district welcomes with open arms the coming immigrants, all of whom bring perceivable cultural influences. It offers the large choices of a big city in terms of restaurants and gastronomic variety, international brands, different cultural, entertainment and sporting events. When you’re tired of the city traffic, it is one of the rare places where you can also find quiet spaces where you may admire the symphony of nature.
When you live in DC, you see musicians on the roads and on your way to the subway, you know the metro line colors very well, you drive by car a long distance and think it’s short, you serve yourself in restaurants, you recycle your trash, you favor organic food, and you probably have a pet at home (either a dog or a cat). You wear summer clothes and carry an umbrella and you can’t know what surprise the weather is hiding for you. You respect the traffic code, you easily access the transportation and public facilities if you are with limited capacity, and you meet with friendly Americans who will be glad to use their smart phones to show you the way. One of the skills you master when you’re a DC citizen is you speak really fast and you’re probably able to win a Guinness record for number of words pronounced per minute!
Step 2: Spend time with an American family
I was lucky to be hosted by two wonderful families and to experience the warmth of American houses. Even though short, my stay with these American micro-societies gave me insight into the local culture.
After a busy day of my fellowship activities and visiting places in DC, I appreciated the peaceful moments at home around the dinner table with a generously home-prepared meal, during which I had interesting discussions with my hosts about our cultural differences and similarities. During weekends, we played fun board games and enjoyed family evenings in the backyard surrounded by trees and the nice outdoors. I particularly remember our visit to the Potomac River where I had a very pleasant time with the family hiking, learning names of the plants on the sides of the river, and watching the great falls and the kayakers.
The time I spent with the two families made me realize that they have different habits and that the American lifestyle does not apply to all American families the same way. This is an understandable conclusion, as they don’t share the same background. However, I couldn’t help but to observe some shared values. I noticed they’re devoted parents who work hard to provide the best education for their children, and I was glad to see the effort to involve them in many activities, encourage them to find and pursue their passions, and help them grow independently. As they grant great importance to learning, they make sure to convey clear messages and expectations, and to stimulate their spirit of curiosity towards other languages and cultures.
Both families happened to be responsible citizens and validated my theory about Americans’ engagement in environment conservation and community service. They promoted environment sustainability by preserving trees, recycling waste, and using bicycles for transportation, and were engaged in serving their local communities through different projects and activities.
Step 3: Work with an American organization
At the High Atlas Foundation in Morocco, we work toward establishing development projects that derive sustainable socio-economic and environmental benefits. Organized under a commitment of empowering community development through participatory approaches, High Atlas Foundation has supported projects for youth empowerment and created partnerships with Moroccan universities to implement service learning programs to the benefit of students and promote their civic engagement and social responsibility towards their communities.
To learn from the best practices of American peers in community service, I was arranged with a fellowship placement in the governmental organization Serve DC, related to the Mayor’s office on volunteerism. The mission: to promote citizenship and cultivate commitment to service among the DC population as a sustainable solution to the community’s most pressing needs.
In the first place, my fellowship consisted of learning about the organization’s vision, organizational structure, and management model. With a small enthusiastic team, they run multiple programs engaging hundreds of volunteers, including the AmeriCorps State national service program to help NGOs create programs that fight poverty and advance economic opportunity and academic achievement. They also manage different service days to connect residents with volunteer opportunities like Global Youth Service Day, DC Public Schools Beautification Day, National Day of Service and Remembrance, World AIDS Day, and Martin Luther King Day of Service.
One of the programs I had the chance to explore in depth is called Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), which is a critical one to the agency, as DC is known for high rates of deaths due to incidents that could be prevented. Thus, this program is designed to engage residents with free emergency preparedness training to ensure they have the skills and resources necessary to serve their communities in times of crisis and threats such as disaster, crime, and terrorism.
In addition to the skills I acquired as a participant in the CERT training program, it was interesting for me to learn about different aspects of Serve DC including: i) partnership building and collaboration with communities, NGOs, the private sector, and local and federal governments; ii) conducting outreach and public relations and elaborating a successful communication strategy to engage and motivate volunteers; iii) coordinating with external agencies. In this regard, I attended meetings organized with different stakeholders involved in preparedness for major emergencies, including Homeland Security, health organizations, the department of aging and disability services, sheltering departments, and others. These meetings were about preparing action plans, sharing responsibilities, and coordinating efforts to face any sort of potential emergencies and to make sure all categories of citizens are represented and included. Finally, I learned about the main challenges they face in managing and training an important number of volunteers, keeping them engaged and motivated and involving new volunteers, taking into account bureaucracy and the procedures it takes to get funding from the federal government to keep the program running.
Step 4: Learn about civil society and community service
Community service in the US is structured in the framework of a national program that is expanded over the country. The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) is the federal agency mentoring this program and coordinating national service initiatives for citizens and the nonprofit sector. Serve DC, being the commission representing the District of Columbia, provides funding and supports AmeriCorps members who serve at more than 60 nonprofit and community-based organizations. I had the chance to meet with some of these nonprofits and get one step closer to understand the service culture in the US.
I attended different activities in schools where they provide after schools programs for high-poverty communities, including reading and math tutoring, homework help, language skills for kids with learning difficulties and kids of new immigrants. Other activities included play-works for behavior coaching and social-emotional activities to foster independence and leadership among children and prevent bullying during school recess. In youth community centers I witnessed activity by a nonprofit working toward increasing opportunities for youth from disadvantaged communities through culture, sports, and health education in order to promote healthy behaviors and a safe transition to adulthood.
All these organizations rely on a high number of volunteers to support their programs, and this is only one observation among many others that proved to me the high level of youth civic engagement in this country. To learn about engagement of university students, my supervisor in Serve DC kindly arranged a meeting in one of the most known universities in the US, Georgetown University, to learn about the student experience of service learning. The university offers opportunities allowing students to participate in service projects and initiatives which range from tutoring disadvantaged children in math and reading to offering pro bono legal services and health care in the District of Columbia’s most underserved neighborhoods. Recently, CERT was included to address the unique challenges faced by college campuses and their communities. The goal of the program is to create a group of trained volunteers who can safely support emergency service workers.
One of the important lessons I will remember about engaging volunteers is that they should always be reminded of the goal and the vision of the service they’re providing; otherwise, service will be nothing more than free labor.
Step 5: Serve DC
I couldn’t claim to be a true citizen of DC until I completed one final mission: participate in a community service activity. For this reason, I joined community members of Arlington, Virginia and a local nonprofit to remove invasive plants in a local park to restore balance to the ecosystem. Community members from all ages and abilities were invited to participate in this activity. As it was also meant to be educational, before we started, a member supervising the activity explained the objectives to the group, the types of different plants, and how to proceed and eliminate the invasive ones in the target area before they spread.
I started working with the group of volunteers while learning about their motivations. Some of them were doing it as a requirement like middle school students who were supposed to effectuate community service for their schools. For others, it was really about the self-satisfaction feeling that every volunteer seeks and experiences when accomplishing a service for the community.
I can say that after a period of five weeks, I consider my mission complete. As I’m preparing my luggage to go back to my country, I’m carrying back many memories, resources, and precious lessons that I intend to share with our volunteers to better serve Morocco.
Thank you to all the people who showed me DC through their eyes. My thanks go particularly to my two host families, my hosts in Serve DC who made sure I had the most rewarding experience, all the organizations who shared their knowledge with me, Legacy International and its amazing staff for putting together this unique program, the U.S. State Department for sponsoring it, my fellow colleagues who added salt and sugar to this experience, and finally all DC residents by whom my heart is deeply touched by generosity and kindness.
About the Author:
Safae Lacheheb, born and raised in Rabat, received a Bachelor’s degree in money and finance (2007) from Mohammed V University of Rabat, and a Master’s Degree in Risk Management in Finance from Mohammedia School of Engineering (2010) in Rabat. Safae has just completed her Masters in Econometrics and Economic Modeling Techniques at the Hassan II university of Mohammedia. She is currently enrolled in a Ph.D. program in the field of Human Development.
Safae speaks Arabic, French and English. Safae has been working with HAF since November of 2012, and is now the Training Coordinator at the Centre for community Consensus and Sustainable Development at Hassan II University in Mohammedia Morocco.
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Anthony Bald, Intern