By Kenzley Defler, VISTA Leader 2020-2021
When hearing the word sustainability, many people think of recycling, not using plastic straws, and renewable energy. For a long time those “green” and “environmental” images were all that came to my mind as well. I’ve learned however, that sustainability is about so much more than throwing your single-use plastic bottle in a recycling bin.
I now think of sustainability as a compass, where north is nature, east is the economy, south is society, and west is personal well-being. This simple visual represents a bigger picture of sustainability, one with many more implications and areas for improvement. When considering all points of the sustainability compass, the interconnectedness of the natural world and built environment starts to take hold.
Although they may not represent it with a compass, many international leaders within the environmental field recognize the interconnected framework. In 2015, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs drafted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to guide member states in directly working towards, “peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.” As you’ll see, these SDGs cover everything from conserving water to expanding access to renewable energy to improving gender equality to promoting economic growth.
Another environmental leader who demonstrates a big-picture sustainability mindset is Project Drawdown as they describe a future where anthropogenically caused climate change is reversed and the catastrophic effects are averted. One of the 3 main solutions suggested by Project Drawdown, solutions aimed to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, is to, “Improve Society,” by “fostering equality for all.”
In order to achieve the future so many of us hope to see, we need to balance a regenerative and clean environment with a just society and an equitable economy, all while supporting and engaging all people. This is what sustainability means to me.
The SDGs illustrate that the work being done by AmeriCorps VISTA is indeed working towards sustainability. In fact, the #1 SDG is to, “End poverty in all its forms everywhere,” directly mirroring AmeriCorps’ anti-poverty focus. Some of our VISTA organizations such as the Fairbanks Soil and Water Conservation District focus on the environmental and food security side of poverty reduction. Others such as the Fairbanks Reentry Coalition and Northern Hope Center focus on supporting people and developing just and equitable services for all. An economic focus is seen within United Way of the Tanana Valley which connects its local partner agencies to the necessary funding to achieve their goals. Through these and other organizations, our Fairbanks VISTAs approach their fight against poverty from all sides of the sustainability compass.
While the path towards long-term change often seems daunting, I like to fall back on the compass for both direction and reassurance. When I remember how many opportunities there are to engage with the planet and people around me, I’m filled with hope and motivation to continue working towards a more sustainable future.
By Stephen Greenlaw, FNSB Noel Wien Library 2020-2021
I am not going to tell you the unlimited touristy things to do or explain the seasons or describe when to see the Northern Lights. There’s plenty of information on stuff like that out there. When I first came to Fairbanks, I did a lot of those things myself. Instead, I am here to share my story and give you a little personal wisdom that will get you out and about in Fairbanks.
First off, you won’t find a place like this anywhere else! Originally, from San Diego, California, I moved to Fairbanks in the fall of 2013 to pursue my degree in Fisheries at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. My first two years were tough, transitioning from sunny San Diego to Alaska, as I had never experienced snow before. Luckily, I lived on campus at UAF which connected me to everything I needed to live comfortably.
When I first arrived in town, I didn’t know many people and I didn’t have a car. Although Fairbanks seems pretty spread out, not having a car isn’t the end of the world and you can still get around. If you want to travel around by bike, pick up a fairbanks bike map from UAF Green Bikes. If you don’t have a car, it will be best to live near a bus line and familiarize yourself with the bus routes. And don’t be shy about asking friends or fellow VISTAs for a ride, especially if you are walking to get groceries at -45F. Your frozen face will thank me later!
Speaking of winters, I recommend getting a happy light and taking vitamin D. Winters can be dark and mental health is important. Take care of yourselves. According to Explore Fairbanks, “with the shortest day of the year – December 21st this year – Fairbanks will have about 3hrs 41mins when the sun is up.”
Obviously, dress for the weather. Frostbite is no joke. Wear layers and have a winter hat to keep your head covered and gloves on whenever you’re outside, even if it’s only for a few minutes. And don’t forget these wise words, “What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” ― John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America.
My next piece of advice is to find a hobby! Learn to ski or go ice skating in the winter. Check out the UAF trails and go hiking in and around town. And if you plan to do a long hike, let a buddy know. If you are wanting to go hiking outside of town, check out one of my favorite hiking spots: Wickersham Dome.
In the summer, do some wild blueberry picking or look for fishing spots around Fairbanks.There are lots of ponds filled with a dinner that’s ready to be caught. I’d recommend getting a fishing pole and buying a fishing license at Fred Myers. Keep in mind, non-residents pay a higher price compared to residents for a fishing license. Enjoy what each season in Alaska has to offer. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”
Speaking of seasons- Did you know that in May of 2020 Fairbanks hit a world-record birch pollen count?! According to the article by Alaska Public Media, “the typical symptoms are itchy, watery eyes and nose, sneezing, and, for some people, it worsens their asthma.” If you have allergies, you may want to get allergy medication for the summer.
It is important that you learn about Alaska Native cultures and histories. A good place to start is at the Morris Thompson Cultural Center.Check out this resource: Indigenous Peoples and Languages of Alaska. And lastly, here are two videos I recommend watching: What People Get Wrong About Alaska Natives and Alaska Native Cultures Overview.
Overall, my advice to folks moving to Fairbanks is really put yourselves out there. Immerse yourselves in the community. Fairbanks has a lot to offer and folks will appreciate you for being someone who wants to help and be part of the community!
Of the many things to do in Fairbanks, here are some of my favorites!
I recognize that my time living and working in Fairbanks took place on the traditional and unceded lands of the Lower Tanana Dene Peoples.
Video By: Halle Gensler, NHC 2020-21
By: Mikayla Riley, FRC 2020-2021
How does VISTA service fit in and does it really matter?
So you want to be a VISTA? Awesome! We are so glad you are interested in serving your community. As a VISTA, you will be partnering with nonprofits and other agencies throughout Fairbanks as you serve alongside your designated organization. Through your indirect service, you will be given the chance to see the non-profit sector through the unique lens of macro work.
Um… what is that?
Don’t worry, it sounds a lot more clinical than it really is. All non-profit work can be broken down into three levels of engagement; micro, mezzo, and macro work. You will see all of these during your time as a VISTA, but the work you are specifically focused on is called “indirect service,” which falls under the umbrella of macro work.
Picture it like a pyramid… but flipped on its head.
Macro work – what you will be doing as a VISTA – is a chance to look at the bigger picture. Macro work consists of indirect service where you review the policies of an agency, a community, or even a state and analyze how it might impact your agency’s ability to carry out its services. VISTA’s do not do much on the policy side, although, you will be given many opportunities to look over program evaluations, research, and data that is related to the work your agency is doing - another critical part of macro work. This information that you gather is often crucial to writing grants that will go towards funding your agency’s programs. Because VISTA’s are working within a community, it is important to understand the local culture surrounding your work and how it impacts the ability of your agency to do the work it does. Thus begins mezzo work…
Mezzo work is a beautiful middle ground between micro and macro work. Like macro work, mezzo work takes into account the different policies in place for a specific area. Yet, unlike macro work, mezzo work often includes direct service with larger communities such as community medical centers, the families at a specific school, and non-profits like your agency. People who work at the mezzo level are often doing direct service, just on a larger scale than you might see when you walk into a typical non-profit. But remember, just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
When you work with a non-profit that does direct service with individuals and small groups, you are working with a non-profit that is doing microwork. This work is done between a case manager and a client, a therapist and a therapeutic workgroup, or the social worker who helps cope with life transitions. Anytime you have met with someone in a helping profession in a one-on-one or group setting, you have been on the receiving end of microwork. It is happening all around us and, without it, non-profits could not reach the people that they do.
During your time as a VISTA you may experience some level of envy for the employees at your agencies who are working directly with the people that your agency is striving to serve– I know I did. Just remember, your indirect service work, in addition to others’ work of direct service, makes it possible for non-profits to achieve their goals. Without looking at the bigger picture, your site would have limited capacity to meet the needs of community members. While direct service work is the work you most often see, this does not mean the work you do not see is any less valuable. Your work as a VISTA is crucial to the long-term sustainability of your site and its programs, and your dedication to the role is greatly appreciated.
By: Mikayla Riley, FRC 2020-2021
AmeriCorps VISTA programs all focus on alleviating poverty; so why do we have a VISTA at the Fairbanks Reentry Coalition? Well… It may not seem like it, but when you look a little closer, reentry work is poverty alleviation work.
You are 35 years old and leaving prison for the first time since you were 22 years old. You are released and sent on your way. Ask yourself the following questions…
If you haven’t already made a reentry plan, what will you do? Where will you go? What if you have to stay in Fairbanks, far from your family, because you are required to complete certain programs as a condition of your parole? These are all really scary experiences that, without a reentry team, many people are forced to face alone.
Now go back to imagining yourself in this scary position of leaving incarceration. A condition of your parole is that you are employed within 60 days to pay for your electronic monitoring system. Sounds simple enough, right? Not so much. To get a job you need to have an address and an ID, and more often than not, a lot of places won’t hire someone with justice involvement. So now you have 60 days to get an address, pay for any identification paperwork you need, and find a job. Without this job you will fail to pay the fee for your electronic monitoring system and will be remanded to prison.
So, now that you understand the full picture, how is this related to poverty alleviation work?
Many companies have policies in place regarding background checks and the abilities of justice-involved people to work for them. This has led to nearly 60% of formerly incarcerated people still being unemployed a year after their release. Those who do find employment typically bring home 40% less pay annually (1). With barriers to employment and limited access to social welfare programs, individuals with justice involvement are pushed further into poverty and put at a higher risk of recidivating – returning to prison within three years of their release. Unemployment leads to poverty, poverty can lead to desperation, and desperation can lead people back to crime.
Because reentry work is designed to address these barriers and focus on reducing recidivism, reentry organizations must also be poverty alleviation organizations. Reentry work is so much more than putting a roof over someone’s head; it requires active engagement in a person’s life to see that their needs are met and that they are given the tools to overcome the barriers that have been placed before them.
By: Tessa Holmes, FSWCD 2020-2021
Interior Alaska is one of the most expensive places to live in the nation, with households spending an average of 4% more of their income on food than households elsewhere in the nation(1). 12.5% of borough residents are classified as food insecure and 8.1% of residents live below the poverty level(2). 75% of children qualify for free and reduced-price school meals(3). My VISTA project at the Fairbanks Soil & Water Conservation District (FSWCD) aims to combat cycles of poverty and food insecurity by creating a year-round source of local greens while also providing agricultural job training opportunities in both indoor and conventional farming methods.
The AmeriCorps VISTA project goals and tasks at FSWCD have evolved through time. Over two years ago, Melissa Sikes, the Natural Resource Education Specialist and VISTA supervisor at FSWCD began discussing a community farm project with local stakeholders. Inspired by an indoor hydroponic farm in Anchorage that employs and supports at-risk youth, Melissa sought to connect key community players who would support the creation of a hydroponic farm in the Fairbanks community. The previous VISTA (June 2019-20) recruited stakeholders and conducted research on how to viably fund the creation of a hydroponic farm. Over their service year, the previous VISTA set me up for success by finalizing a team of representatives from community organizations that include the Fairbanks Community Food Bank, Alaska 4-H, and a for-profit farm specializing in indoor growing technologies. In collaboration with these organizations, multiple grant applications were submitted and the scope of the project was adjusted slightly based on funding opportunities. A large part of the first VISTA’s work on this project was to determine the viability and scale of the project based on different funding opportunities.
As if the stars aligned with the AmeriCorps VISTA calendar, about a week before I started my service, FSWCD got word that their grant application for the USDA NIFA(4) Community Food Project was accepted. Beginning my service year in September 2020, I have been able to directly and tangibly continue the work of the VISTA before me. Beginning with our project partners, I have created contracts, organized and implemented regular project meetings, collaborated on local radio and television advertisements, and will be creating and managing a website and social media presence for the Community Farm Project. In December, we hosted a
Community Input Meeting with 33 participants and are now recruiting a community-led Advisory Council.
Thus far, the most meaningful part of my service has been telling the community about the farm project, gauging their feedback, and finding ways to infuse the project with their ideas. In order for the indoor farm to succeed and thrive, the project needs to bring value to Fairbanks community members so they accept and support it long-term. Thus, a big focus of my VISTA year is to tailor our program’s classes and workshops to reflect community input and respond to community need. The ideation, planning, and fundraising of the previous VISTA has provided me with clear direction and set me up for success in my VISTA service. Following my year, a third VISTA will support the Community Farm Project as it grows into a fully-operational farm, sustaining funding and community support along the way.
Photos courtesy of Yukon Farms, the AFFECT Project's hydroponic farm collaborator.
By Taryn Williams, FBX Children's Museum, Summer 2020
Living in a city as expensive as Fairbanks on ~$1,200 a month has proven to have its challenges (especially when there are so many delicious Thai restaurants and coffee huts to tempt you!) and can be one of the most intimidating parts of becoming a VISTA - even more so for Summer Associates who don’t have as much time to adjust. Throughout the last six weeks, however, I have found it to be an entertaining challenge, as it has allowed me to experience the city differently than I otherwise would have. I have found different ways to live within my budget while also trying new things and visiting unique places and have realized that $1,200 can get you far if you know what is important to you.
$800: Rent - already the largest line in anyone’s budget, rent in Fairbanks has proven to be no different. Though an apartment usually costs well more than the monthly stipend itself, renting a room has its perks. For $800, I found a room that is within walking distance from downtown (and my site), a kitchen that is well-enough stocked with utensils and dishware, and a private bath attached to my room. Coming to Fairbanks in a time of COVID-19 and quarantine means that I am spending more time at home than I otherwise would, so I know I am getting my money’s worth here.
$200: Grocery Shopping - the downside of living in a small city without a car is that my options are somewhat limited. Though I was excited to see that the store within walking distance is a Co-Op that boasts many vegetarian and environmentally-friendly items, it also means that my spending is higher than it would otherwise need to be. When I was moving in, I made a trip to the large chain grocery store to buy things like pasta and rice, and have been using the Co-Op to get perishables based on what I’m cooking each week. Each trip to the Co-Op costs me about $30 (I can only take what I can carry!) and - when I’m primarily shopping sales - I average about four days of meals from each trip. In the end, I have spent around $200 there each month.
$100: Restaurants and Coffee Huts - my favorite category to budget for and the one that motivates me to limit spending elsewhere, eating out is always a top priority for me. Seeing the multitude of Thai restaurants upon my arrival, I knew that my “Fairbanks Bucket List” would include trying several of those and - despite not being a coffee drinker - I have ended up at Sunrise several times in the early mornings (and, more often, in the hot evenings for a $2 cone). Between a biweekly Thai dinner, a few stops at the coffee hut, and an occasional crepe, I have come in just around $100 each month.
$60: Cell Phone Bill - an unfortunate necessity in life these days, kept a bit lower with the 10% discount GCI gave me for being a VISTA (small wins add up!) The money is automatically charged as soon as I get paid and I don’t spend much of my time thinking about it.
$40: Miscellaneous - As hard as I tried to plan ahead, there is inevitably always something you end up needing (a Lyft home during a Fairbanks-famous sudden torrential downpour, a pack of band-aids after accidentally scratching yourself on the walk home, or a tube of toothpaste because, well, personal hygiene) and it’s always safe to leave room for this. Between personal hygiene needs and the occasional transportation, I have spent almost exactly $40 on these necessities each month.
My budget in Fairbanks isn’t perfect - ideally I could have found lower rent or tried to find a room closer to another grocery store - but I’m only here for ten weeks and I’m doing what I can to make the best of it. I have a comfortable roof over my head and enough money for my favorite things (Thai food), and I have been able to live a relatively comfortable life on the (admittedly tight) living allowance.
By Aisha Pereira, Restore Inc. '20-21
So you’ve accepted a position with AmeriCorps VISTA of Fairbanks. Congrats!
Now you’ve got to decide how to get to your service assignment… all the way in Alaska! Seems crazy. Maybe it is, a little.
For many people, it’s more prudent to fly, but others may have a vehicle they don’t want to leave behind. In my case, I love road trips and have two fur-covered companions in tow. I accepted a position in Fairbanks, Alaska more than 5000 miles away from where I lived with only two months to make it there.
It seemed next to impossible, but the adventure was well worth all the stress of planning. The best piece of advice I was given and feel obligated to pass along to anyone interested in making this trek is to buy the guide book called the Milepost! This guide is amazing - it gives you info on literally everything that you will encounter between the lower 48 and Alaska, from maps to lists of amenities, where to get gas, food, lodging and so much more.
Driving from Maine across the entire country (and Canada) to Alaska was one of the best experiences of my life. I met tons of interesting people and saw some of the most awe inspiring sights. I highly recommend Badlands National Park and Mt. Rushmore.
If you’re like me with family and friends spread across the country, take advantage of the opportunity and turn your road trip into a chance to see all your long-lost friends and family.
Not only does this help with your hotel costs, it gives you a chance to see their neighborhoods from local eyes. I budgeted for 2 weeks to make the entire 5000 mile journey (it can be done in less if needed) and I certainly didn’t take the shortest route possible. I planned out which areas I knew someone or parks that I was hoping to explore. The shortest route would have taken me through Canada nearly the whole way. According to other travelers, that drive is boring and not recommended for winter travel.
I discovered that the best route (especially during winter) would be to drive all the way across the country to Seattle and then travel up through British Columbia. I was honestly thrilled at this idea because I had never been to the west coast and always wanted to drive across the country and now I finally had that opportunity.
Another major aspect of my trip that gave me immense joy was the fact that I was completely free to change my plans as I went.
The only deadlines I had were to be in Seattle by a certain date and to get to Alaska before my start date. I budgeted to get there about a week before I needed to start work. This worked out ideally because at the beginning of my trip, I decided to skip a stop, affording me an extra day along the way. I was able to stay two nights and explore Badlands National Park, as well as enjoy a whole day in the middle of my trip that I didn’t need to be on the road. I was able to recharge, repack and relax. The next part of my journey wasn’t as easy going as the start but it was still highly enjoyable.
One last piece of advice I would give is that you allow yourself extra time!
Not only do you want to enjoy this trip in all its glory but there are a multitude of things that could happen that could push back even the most well planned and prepared traveler. I budgeted for three days to drive from Seattle, Washington to Fairbanks, Alaska. I was very lucky to have another driver join me for this stretch of the trip and it still took us an additional day to make the full trip. The first leg of our trip went well but we pushed ourselves hard and drove a little too long. We ended the night by driving through some of the most magnificent looking mountains in the dead of night. After a day of driving, we were exhausted; the roads were winding, steep and covered in a thick layer of ice. We made it safely but it was worrying. From there, we decided to shorten the amount of driving time for each day and make it a little easier.
The final section of this journey included some of the most breathtaking scenery and wildlife. Not only were we driving through mountain ranges like nothing I had seen before but we were amazed to see herds of bison along the road, mountain goats on the cliffs, as well as countless moose and caribou in different areas along the way.
If you’re considering this drive, I highly recommend that you stop at Liard Hot Springs. I passed by on a snowy day and didn’t think we would end up going in but figured it was a decent place for a stop and to walk the dogs. When we got to the springs, it was so clear and beautiful I couldn't resist and ended up just jumping in. It was definitely one of the highlights of the entire trip and so refreshing and relaxing during a long day of driving.
All in all, my road trip was an exhilarating, empowering and life changing experience. I recommend it to anyone that has the means to do it, whether it’s the entire cross country trip or just driving the Alcan through Canada.
Do your research. Make sure you have emergency plans and supplies, because you never know what could go wrong. But if you’re undecided on whether to drive or fly, I want you to know that it is absolutely possible to drive to Alaska and I hope my experience might provide you the confidence to give it a try.
By Shea Brenneman, United Way of the Tanana Valley '20-21
They say that the only thing we can truly count on is that nothing is 100% certain. We do our best to calculate cause and effect to predict the future, but the best we can do is work with probability. Scientists and the likes of Bill Gates have been saying for quite some time that the greatest potential threat the world currently faces is likely to be a pandemic, but I probably speak for most of us in that COVID19 still came as something of a shock. The virus didn’t seem real until it did.
All of us AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers here in Fairbanks, Alaska had plans for the months of March, April, and May put on hold as the world shut down in response to COVID19. But all of us VISTA’s, presented with the unprecedented stay-at-home mandate, continue to find creative ways to support and care for the Fairbanks community.
I’m proud to be part of a team with people like Zak Mitchell who creates regular, uplifting, and insightful videos that make the online Fairbanks community feel more alive and supported. Or Brynn Butler on the front lines, pouring her energy day in and day out on behalf of Fairbanks’ homeless population at the temporary Warming Center. Even those whose roles here have suddenly felt far less defined are embracing the humility and patience it takes to just be available and show daily kindness to themselves and those immediately around them.
As for me, I slid under the door into Fairbanks Indiana-Jones-style before everything shut down. I had three days to explore the city before businesses started to close.
Thankfully, I was able to meet the other VISTA’s one time face-to-face over a pickle pizza lunch ordered from the local restaurant Hungry Robot (that was surprisingly good?) before social distancing ramped up. Despite having arrived in Fairbanks like this, my move to Alaska was by far the smoothest transition I have ever had – and I have moved a lot. Between Ashton Varner, our current VISTA leader who has stayed well past her service end date due to the virus, and Meagan Scheer, a previous VISTA leader still living here in Fairbanks, I had tremendous support finding a very affordable apartment. They donated all the furnishings I currently own and haven’t let up in their humbling generosities and kindness towards me to this day.
With this backbone of support and community, I haven’t experienced the “fish-out-of-water” feeling one might expect moving to a new state during a pandemic, and I have enjoyed starting work with United Way of Tanana Valley. I am on a team with three strong, incredible women - Brenda Riley, Sarah Canoy, and Heidi Kampwerth - who have been nothing but inspiring to work with, and I can’t tell you how powerful it is to see them take on the needs of Fairbanks with high-level efficiency and communication – all while maintaining a healthy sense of humor and camaraderie. I have only met one of the three in person as all our interactions are virtual through programs like Slack and Zoom. I truly can’t imagine this pandemic without technology, as 100% of my work depends on it.
My original project under United Way was to create a Volunteer Action Center (VAC) for the city as a way to consolidate resources, needs, and volunteers into one, collaborative system or platform. However, my project has since taken on a different angle to become coordinating and transcribing volunteer and donation needs from Fairbanks agencies during COVID19 and communicating largely through Fairbanks’ favorite medium: Facebook.
After a true crash course on all the different nonprofits in the city, I took over the "Volunteer Fairbanks" page on Facebook. We designed a short needs-assessment survey that went out to all the active agencies in the city, which I then transcribed onto our United Way site for volunteer needs and resources. My job has been to raise daily awareness and to rally donations on behalf of a group of dedicated nonprofits that continue to provide heartfelt, incredible services to its community despite the pandemic.
It’s been incredible to see this community respond to the needs of others during all of this uncertainty, and in my eyes, Fairbanks does live up to its name as the Golden Heart of Alaska.
In an uncertain world, perhaps one of the best qualities to practice and instill is that of adaptability. In that way, no matter what curve balls life throws at us, at least we can count on our abilities to adapt and to be creative. Although COVID19 has been a strong reminder that nothing is 100% certain for us, it sure does seem like VISTA’s can rely on each other, and that Fairbanks can rely on its community to adapt and support one another.