Reflecting On AmeriCorps Week 2024

Mar 19, 2024

Looking back on the recent AmeriCorps Week celebrations around the country, our very own AmeriCorps member Ibrahim wrote this reflection. Check it out! 

Written by: Ibrahim Emara, ACC AmeriCorps Member serving at Neighborhood Allies 

Last week marked a special occasion – AmeriCorps Week – a celebration of the transformative legacy of service that has defined it for over three decades. First conceived as a domestic version of the Peace Corps and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993, AmeriCorps is a federal national service agency that has mobilized over 1.3 million volunteers and service members to address the nation’s critical needs, from education and health to disaster relief and beyond. One of the standout programs within this vast network is the American Connection Corps (ACC) — administered by Lead for America (LFA; a national nonprofit) — which places members at host sites like Neighborhood Allies. The ACC’s mission is to bridge the country’s digital divide and equip communities with the information technology capacity needed for full participation in today’s society and economy. 

As an ACC AmeriCorps Member serving at Neighborhood Allies under the Digital Inclusion and Innovation team, this post sheds light on:

  • Challenges I faced when starting out, and how I eventually settled into my role. 
  • The impact of my team’s digital inclusion projects in Pittsburgh. 
  • How my service experience has helped my professional growth thus far. 

Commitment to Local Service Amid a Challenging Transition 

Ibrahim after a community event in Homewood, one of Neighborhood Allies’ priority neighborhoods, during his first week of service. 

First 60 Days of Service 

Due to my international upbringing, I only had a ‘tourist-level’ knowledge of Pittsburgh, which posed a learning challenge in comparison to many of my ACC colleagues, who were born and bred in their service communities. My learning challenge was addressed by a 60-day listening tour mandated by LFA, which gave me a comprehensive view of the region’s socio-economic evolution from an industrial stronghold to a ‘tech, meds, and eds’ hub. The resultant listening tour report, while a laborious endeavor, laid the intellectual foundation for the remainder of my service. 

One of the common themes of my tour was the workforce skills gap exacerbated by entrenched socio-economic and racial barriers. For instance, while attending men’s peer group sessions in Larimer hosted by Steel Smiling (an organization-in-residence of Neighborhood Allies that aims to destigmatize the issue of mental health in the Black community), I learned about the complex interplay between “the life divide” and the digital divide from residents’ candor and vulnerability as they spoke about the unique obstacles they face as Black men in society.  

Navigating New Terrain 

In addition to my listening tour report, I drafted research memos on topics ranging from governance structures of Allegheny County to local racial and gender disparities, to accelerate my assimilation process. 

Another challenge was my lack of experience in the digital inclusion space, having worked in the humanitarian sector with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) prior to my service. To bridge this knowledge gap, I dedicated time outside of my service for self-study on various digital inclusion-related concepts. Supported by learning resources from Lead for America, this period was crucial in building my proficiency and confidence when dealing with digital inclusion practitioners. 

Bridging the Trust Gap 

Initially, I faced skepticism from residents when conducting outreach for a federal internet subsidy called the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). My team bridged this trust gap by partnering with key anchor institutions such as Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) and Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, where I forged relationships with residents over time. 

Ibrahim tabling for the ACP outside of Free Store’s Fresh Produce Distribution in Wilkinsburg.

Our Team’s Digital Inclusion Projects and Impact 

ACP outreach 

Since I joined, our team engaged over 2,600 residents with the ACP — which provided eligible households a $30 discount on their monthly internet bill plus a $100 discount on a connected device — explaining its benefits and enrolling some eligible households along the way. Despite its impending shutdown in April 2024, the program offered crucial financial relief for many, notably impacting a senior I met at a food bank. His feedback, “I appreciate your approaching me. I live on a fixed income and every dollar saved helps me live better,” profoundly resonated with me, capturing the essence of our mission. His joy over affording a basic cable plan exemplifies the meaningful connections and significant impact our efforts have within the community. 

“I live on a fixed income and every dollar saved helps me live better.” 

Digital Inclusion Asset Map 

In addition to community outreach efforts, I am contributing to the creation of a ‘Digital Inclusion Asset Map’, a public directory for digital inclusion and skills-related resources in Allegheny County. This is being done in partnership with the Greater Pittsburgh Digital Inclusion Alliance (GPDIA). The asset map will support existing efforts to identify ‘digital deserts’, or areas lacking in digital skills training, to inform a broader strategy aiming to empower the most remote and underserved segments of the county. 

Digital Skills Training Courses 

To meet the needs of marginalized populations (i.e. immigrants, refugees, and other recent arrivals), the Digital Inclusion and Innovation team is currently developing free digital skills training courses. This strategic pivot was made possible by Lead for America, which helped my host site become an official location of Northstar Digital Literacy, granting us access to a nationally-used curriculum that teaches essential computer and software skills. 

The Digital Inclusion and Innovation team at the grand opening of a new workforce training center at CCAC Allegheny Campus in North Side, October 2023. Left: Karen Lue, Senior Program Manager for Digital Inclusion and Innovation, Middle: Ibrahim; Right: Itha Cao, Director of Digital Inclusion and Innovation

Minority and Women-Owned Business Directory 

Get Online Grow Online (GOGO) is a Neighborhood Allies-led program that has helped 400+ small minority- and women-owned businesses (MWBEs) transition to the digital marketplace through technical support (e.g. revamped websites, social media pages, and more). This program is stewarded by Demi Kolke, our Director of Community Investments. 

In my role, I completed and restructured the existing MWBE database for improved usability and access for Neighborhood Allies staff. Since accessible data on MWBEs in Pittsburgh is scarce, this ensures that our staff has a streamlined resource that will facilitate more targeted investments and create long-term growth and sustainability for these businesses. Through this project, I have contributed to the empowerment of local businesses and honed my Excel and data management skills. 

As I have reflected during AmeriCorps Week, this journey has been both challenging and rewarding, pushing me to grow professionally while enabling me to make a tangible impact on the communities I serve. From digital literacy to supporting local businesses and beyond, the experiences I have shared here only scratch the surface of our collective efforts to foster inclusive growth and bridge the digital divide. Join me in honoring the spirit of service and consider how you, too, can contribute to this enduring legacy of community engagement and transformation here

Top Header Image Photo Credit: Prototyping Larimer Stories by artist John Peña, photo by OPA