Last summer Keanna Marshall, Team Leader of City Year Tulsa’s Webster High School team, had the opportunity to connect with fellow black team leaders (TLs) serving throughout the country during City Year’s Summer Academy where they shared their experiences being AmeriCorps members of color.
But long after Summer Academy ended, the group has continued to support one another via a group chat they named “Melanin Madness.” Keanna describes the group as a safe space for this group to speak honestly about racial and cultural challenges they encounter inside and outside City Year, as well as a community to encourage and counsel each other.
It’s this sense of community, honesty and support that Keanna hopes City Year Tulsa’s newest Affinity Group, with the inherited name of “Melanin Madness,” can create for AmeriCorps Members (ACMs) of color here in Tulsa.
When Keanna brought the idea for Melanin Madness to Lordly Beard, Career Service and Alumni Engagement Manger for City Year Tulsa, he immediately knew leadership would be excited about the opportunity to create a space to both support and develop the Corps’ diversity.
Lordly is now the staff point for the Melanin Madness Affinity Group and has partnered with Keanna to establish the group as a space for ACMs of color to not only share their experiences and support to each other during their service, but also to be a platform to educate all ACMs on how to address racial issues that arise inside and outside City Year and connect with Tulsa’s black community.
So far, Lordly and Keanna have found ACMs appreciate the opportunity to share experiences with a group of people who look like their family and have a similar culture as how they grew up. Keanna says she hopes it’s comforting for ACMs of color to know they are not alone, and that there are people who understand them and are on their side, because she knows it can feel lonely and frustrating to be away from home and isolated from one’s familiar culture.
However, they also encourage group members to step outside their comfort zone as they dig into difficult issues. They challenge the group to ask questions and provide thoughts and advice that can support each other or look to improve a tense situation.
“We really want people to be able to have honest conversations about issues their dealing with and feel safe expressing their raw thoughts and emotions, but we also want to make sure we are examining how and why we are reacting in these situations and try to find actionable solutions,” says Lordly.
In a recent meeting, ACMs discussed how differences in cultural perspectives can be easily misinterpreted when communication breaks down, creating tension on a team, but also strategies to work towards mutual clarity and respect.
For Keanna and Lordly, it’s issues like this one that allow ACMs the opportunities to develop personally and professionally, as well as create positive change that improves the Corps experience for all.
Lordly provides this advice for the group:
“Everything starts with building professional relationships that push away biases. If we can all put on our red jackets and let our City Year mission give us common ground, that’s the foundation we can start to build trust and respect from. We may have different perspectives based on the culture we come from, but we each have chosen to work toward doing what’s best for children, so even if we don’t understand the personal intricacies of one another we can start with respect for that person’s work and commitment to our mission.”
Another topic addressed the need for school teams to more accurately represent the racial demographics of the students they serve, and potential reasons why City Year struggles to recruit ACMs of color.
While much of the group’s discussion focuses on sharing and workshopping ACM experiences with navigating cultural challenges at City Year, they also find ways to educate ACMs on local black history, news and community development and engagement opportunities
Lordly wants to make sure ACMs have the opportunity to learn about and connect with Tulsa as a black community because he wants ACMs of color to know that there is a place for them here to grow, contribute and succeed within the community. That includes making sure the group knows what’s happening in Tulsa; like what areas, organizations and events ACMs of color can get involved with.
One such featured community organization is Rise 1922, which serves as a professional network for Tulsa’s black community. As Tulsa approaches the centennial of the 1922 Greenwood race massacre, their mission is to promote and continue the revitalization of the North Tulsa community by partnering with empowering black business owners and community leaders.
Keanna and Lordly are excited about the potential they see for Melanin Madness to grow and support City Year Tulsa’s ACMs of color. However, they are adamant that every ACM is welcome and encouraged to join in the conversation.
“We really want this group to be diverse and inclusive, that’s the only way it can truly be a learning space,” says Lordly. “We don’t want to simply preach to the choir but reach out and create awareness and opportunities for reflection and reconciliation so that we can create a positive ACM experience for everyone.”
City Year Tulsa’s Melanin Madness Affinity group meets at least once a month, typically during morning Office Hours before L&D days. If you want more information about how to get involved, feel free to join one of their meetings or contact Keanna at firstname.lastname@example.org or Lordly at email@example.com.