My journey to this moment began almost twenty years ago. I saw a flier in the Black Student Center at Milwaukee Area Technical College promising to make me one of tomorrow’s leaders through an AmeriCorps program, Public Allies. Me? I was a teenage mother stringing together welfare, food stamps, student loans, work-study, and a child-care subsidy. If I failed, I knew, at least, I had tried. Despite these overwhelming challenges, here I am today: an AmeriCorps alumna and Special Assistant to the President of the United States.
The AmeriCorps program offered me hope in a time of economic and personal struggle. It promised to prepare me for leadership through a full-time nonprofit apprenticeship and rigorous leadership training. The program also provided life support, including much needed medical insurance, child care assistance, a tuition stipend, and a livable wage. Most importantly, the program accepted me based on my future potential, not on my life situation at that time. I had not graduated from college. I was not top of my class in high school. I had not played sports, volunteered, or done any “resume-building” extracurricular activities. All I had, and all I needed, was an inclination and a desire to lead through service.
During my time in AmeriCorps, I worked at the Youth Leadership Academy, a support program for African-American boys in grades three through eight. These boys were also not model students. They often had disciplinary problems at home and school. But, they were accepted to the Academy based on their potential to lead. Using a systematic approach, the program would develop their discipline, teamwork, and academic achievement to build self-esteem and lead to more constructive behavior, better grades, and long-term success. These were my first mentees. It was through this experience that I learned to appreciate potential, despite a person’s present circumstance.
Being in the fully supportive environment of AmeriCorps for over ten months transformed my life. I charted a new path towards graduate school, applying and getting accepted to the college program affiliated with my AmeriCorps work site. I was able to continue working at the Youth Leadership Academy to support my family through my undergraduate studies. Then, I went on to law school. The rest is a much different history than what would have been had I never seen that flyer, received the encouragement of Public Allies CEO Paul Schmitz, or obtained the support of AmeriCorps. Twenty years later, I can say with certainty that AmeriCorps fundamentally shifted my path in life. That path has led me to mentor other young leaders and create life-shifting moments for them, as well.
Today, I wrote an AmeriCorps recommendation for one of my mentees. He is a recent graduate of the University of California-Berkeley and an aspiring law student. Yet, he faces homelessness in two months, when the stipend he uses to support himself as an unpaid White House intern runs out. I am confident that he, like me, can become a game-changer with the support of AmeriCorps and the encouragement of a mentor.
Bizunesh (Biz) Scott is Special Assistant to the President for Presidential Personnel.