AmeriCorps Members serve as a human capacity intervention in urban education systems around the United States (Cassidy, Hicks, Hall, Farran, & Gray, 1998). Since 1994 nearly 75,000 Americans, annually, have served in AmeriCorps. The largest percentage of service provided by AmeriCorps Members is in the field of K-12 public education. Research has shown that public school students in low-income communities benefit from interactions with adults on campus who can validate and lift up their cultural capital in their learning experience (Darling, 2005; Howard, 2001; Noguera, 2003; Osei-Kofi, 2005; Tatum, 2007). Considering that AmeriCorps Members come from a variety of personal and professional backgrounds, but rarely have any experience serving in communities similar to those where they have lived, it is important for them to develop asset based perspectives of the communities they serve in order to achieve their service goals.
This research study sought to understand the perceptions held by AmeriCorps Members about the communities they serve and how the training they received influenced their views of the community. The Community Cultural Wealth Model (Yosso, 2005) and research on the six essentials of Asset Based Community Development (McKnight, 2017) informed the design of this mixed methods study with descriptive and explanatory analyses of two sites within one AmeriCorps education program. The research process included a survey of 85 AmeriCorps Members, in-depth interviews with 11 AmeriCorps Members, and interviews with two Training Directors; one from each of the two research sites. The six forms of capital highlighted by Yosso’s (2005) research (aspirational, familial, linguistic, navigational, resistant, and social) and six essential elements of Asset Based Community Development (McKnight, 2017) research (individuals, associations, institutions, physical assets, local economy, and connections) were used as coding frames for the data collection.
Findings support the need for ongoing learning experiences that allow AmeriCorps Members to engage the communities they serve. The engagement of community members affiliated with service locations increases AmeriCorps Members’ asset-based views of the community. Additionally, informal learning experiences are the most impactful on the perceptions AmeriCorps Members hold of the communities they serve. AmeriCorps programs that balance informal and formal learning experiences better support AmeriCorps Member understanding of community as a factor of their service. Finally, AmeriCorps Members who learn to recognize and values culture as a natural and normal part of the community they serve are more likely to see the community as asset-based. Engaged AmeriCorps Members in guided reflection during their service experience is a strategy that supports this mindset development.