Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing (LCBH) is fortunate to host Lauren Madison, our 2015-2016 AmeriCorps VISTA. VISTA is the national service program designed specifically to fight poverty. Authorized in 1964 and founded as Volunteers in Service to America in 1965, VISTA was incorporated into the AmeriCorps network of programs in 1993. VISTA has been on the front lines in the fight against poverty in America for 45 years.
Tell us about yourself. Where are you from? Where did you go to College?
I’m from Grosse Pointe Woods, a suburb of Detroit. I attended Hope College, where I majored in History and minored in Women’s and Gender Studies.
Tell us how you first got involved in AmeriCorps VISTA.
After I graduated from Hope, I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to take with my life. Many history majors were ready to be teachers and researchers; I didn’t want to do either. A couple of months after graduation, I decided to take some time to myself to discern what was next, so from July to November 2014, I hiked the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia. It was both a very difficult and freeing time, and I came back to the Detroit area around Thanksgiving with a better understanding of the person I wanted to be. I knew I wanted to gain experience at a non-profit organization and be an advocate for social change. I took a few months to be with family and save some money, and then applied for the AmeriCorps VISTA position at LCBH.
What is an AmeriCorps VISTA?
VISTA stands for “Volunteer in Service to America.” VISTAs are kind of like the domestic Peace Corps; we serve in communities throughout the country, helping to build up the capacity of existing organizations so that they can do their work well. VISTA opportunities are very diverse. At our orientation in Columbus, OH, I was trained with fellow housing-oriented VISTAs as well as VISTAs going to work at urban farms, after-school programs, domestic violence shelters, and more. VISTAs serve at various organizations, but we all have the same shared goal: to end poverty in the United States.
What is it like to be an AmeriCorps VISTA at LCBH?
Serving at LCBH gives me insight into both the world of non-profit organizations and the practice of law. I’m grateful for this unique position, because I plan to attend law school in the next couple of years. Most of my work here is done at a desk, but my favorite part of the job is going out into the community and meeting with organizers from community organizations.
What would you tell someone thinking about being an AmeriCorps VISTA at LCBH?
If you are interested in the law, housing, or just generally what it’s like to work at a nonprofit, LCBH would be a great VISTA experience for you.
What is your role at LCBH?
My VISTA position here is called “Legal and Community Engagement Coordinator.” It’s my job to stay in touch with the community organizations we work with and expand our connections to groups we haven’t worked with in the past. One of my most important tasks is maintaining a database which allows organizers to identify the rental properties in their neighborhoods which have been sold in foreclosure. This allows organizers to contact the renters living in these properties and to inform them of their rights in the foreclosure process.
What has surprised you most about working at LCBH?
Before serving at LCBH, I didn’t know much about housing issues. It seems obvious now, but I didn’t necessarily make the connection that safe, healthy, affordable housing is upstream of so many other justice issues. Without proper housing, a person’s ability to survive—let alone thrive as a human with any sense of dignity or belonging—is compromised. What’s more is that housing plays into my interest in environmental issues in a way I didn’t anticipate. Working at LCBH has encouraged me to consider the role of housing in the greater ecology of a given region; for example, in Chicago, how do we create human habitats that work with, not against, the incredible natural resources around us? And how do we ensure that neighborhoods are protected from pollution and environmental degradation regardless of their socioeconomic or racial makeup? I now view so many things I care about primarily through the lens of housing.
Tell us about some of the people you have met while working on housing issues.
The coolest people I’ve met during my VISTA experience so far have been the community organizers I work with-- people like Antonio Gutierrez from Centro Autónomo, Noah Moskowitz from Somos Logan Square, Nick Jefferson from Communities United, and Marcelo Ferrer from Logan Square Neighborhood Association. I’ve been so inspired by their leadership and passion for keeping their neighborhoods in the hands of those who’ve lived in them for years and years. Seeing these organizers at work helps me to imagine a future in which anyone can find a safe, healthy, affordable home in America’s cities.
What might someone be surprised to know about you?
When I retire, I want to operate my own bed and breakfast. And probably a goat farm.