Doing Right By Our Corpsmembers: A Conversation with Julia Hillengas
Julia Hillengas is the Executive Director and co-founder of PowerCorpsPHL, a Service and Conservation Corps in Philadelphia, PA. During this unprecedented year of grief, division, and uncertainty, the PowerCorpsPHL community has lost five young people to gun violence or inadequate access to healthcare. Over the summer, in response to an op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer about the city’s rise in gun violence, Julia wrote this open letter to PowerCorpsPHL’s stakeholders about the need to reframe gun violence as a public health issue. We invite you to read Julia’s powerful letter, and read our interview with her, where we discuss addressing gun violence, building more equitable non-profits, and authentically supporting Corpsmembers and Corps staff during these trying times.
Young men from the PowerCorpsPHL community who passed away over this last year. Rest in Power.
Q1: Intro – What motivated you to write the letter?
Q2: The “savior complex” in non-profit work
Q4: Coping with grief and trauma
Q5: What can Corps do to support change?
Q6: Addressing gun violence locally and nationally
Q7: What Corpsmembers gain from their experience
Q8: “Not the Beginning and Not the End” – What does that mean?
What motivated you, in this moment, to write the letter?
PowerCorpsPHL has been around for seven years; I was one of the co-founders. From it being an idea, to launching, growing, and evolving, PowerCorpsPHL has been a great part of my life, professionally and personally. Some of my most challenging moments in life, however, were losing 12 young people over those seven years. As of today, five of those losses happened in 2020.
In most major cities, the pandemic caused a huge economic strain. There is a lot of uncertainty. A lot of social supports went away overnight, which led to upticks in domestic violence, but also mental health struggles and a rise in gun violence in urban centers. [There was] a lot more gun violence in Philadelphia, coupled with [the fact that] our Corps is deeply rooted in the Black community here. I’m from Philadelphia and grew up in a Black community; part of my family comes from Jamaica. All of this is deeply personal.
This is not the first time [at PowerCorpsPHL] we’ve talked about racism or systemic racism. In fact, a big part of our mission is trying to understand the system that we operate [in] and fill in gaps to make it more equitable. As a staff, we’ve gone through a year-long discussion of looking at our policies. I think the immensity of finally being heard, through the protests around George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, was empowering. It was also heavy and deep: how many times can you have this conversation, in different ways, and these events still happen?
When I wrote this letter, it was a culmination of all those things. Of trying to figure out how to do right by the young people we work with and meet our mission. We’ve been through a very intense couple of months trying to figure all that out on a very micro-level, and then to have two deaths come back-to-back, in back-to-back weeks. It was a moment of really reflecting on what that means for us in our role and how, even someone like myself, who is the co-founder of a program meant to combat inequity, can still fall into traps. That’s how systematic racism is.
When we talk about systematic racism or systematic inequality or structural inequality, it’s very conceptual. It sounds academic and I think people aren’t aware of what that really looks like day to day. I think there’s been great discussion in the past couple years about unconscious bias, but I think that gets very micro-level, person-to-person. But even through your thought patterns, we’re creating it in there, we’re drinking it in the water, it’s so hard to get away from. I identify as a person of color: my mom is Chinese, from Jamaica; my dad is white. I grew up in primarily Black communities, but even I feel like I’ve been infected with white-dominant culture and white supremacy and I have to actively push back against that. I wrote this, honestly, at a point of exhaustion, in trying to reflect.
In your letter, you write about the “savior complex” that is often present in non-profit work. It’s easy for an organization to fall into a mindset of “we’re here to fix things.” Can you talk about what one might see at an organization that has this mentality and, conversely, what it looks like to embrace a different mindset?
Part of it is funders. A lot of times, non-profits are trapped in a system that’s rooted in a mentality of, “We’re going to drop in money here. This organization will provide services and then these people will be safe.” Just the fact that you exist where you do, you’re already in the trap.
It’s important to be really intentional, thoughtful, and deliberate in investing in your staff and professional development – in staff trainings that are great long-term investments, but you aren’t necessarily going to see the results. From a performance standpoint, you’re not going to see a boost in your engagement numbers tomorrow. It’s not that type of training.
I will say that we are intentional about our hiring. Our entire leadership team of six people are people of color. We’re pretty evenly split between men and women. About 30 percent of us are queer and we have representation of folks who identify as Latino, from the Black community, Asian…
In addition to that, about 23 percent of our staff members are alumni of our program, and they’re not just in entry-level positions. Primarily, when we hire alumni, they go into that Crew Leader position, which is not really an entry-level job. However, it is the job that requires the least amount of work experience. Over the past couple years, one of the things I’m most proud of is that we now have three alumni who have either been promoted or hired into a job beyond that Crew Leader role. We have one young person who is in charge of our Culture and Climate and the Corpsmember accountability that comes with that. We have an alum who works on our Projects team, working with service partners to inspect our service sites, get those ready to go, make sure that we’re delivering quality products with our crews. Then we have an alum who works on our Workforce Development team. That had to be done intentionally. We created training pathways for folks to get the skills that we would need. We didn’t lower the bar in terms of expectations.
You need to orient yourself to try and achieve your mission with the folks with whom you want to see that outcome. Not to them and not for them. That’s a common “social discipline window” that comes from restorative practices. If you can change that language, then you have to ask yourself, how do we operate this program with, if we’re used to doing it to or for? Part of that shift is that you need to hire folks who you’ve served in the past. I think there are many other organizations that do really great client and Corpsmember councils and things like that. It’s important to endeavor to make them as authentic as possible. It’s not just asking for survey responses. When you hire staff, they understand the responsibility to deliver.
When reviewing the list of those lost to gun violence, you mention in your letter that you initially thought to yourself, “What if they had joined PowerCorpsPHL? Would it have made a difference?” You go on to address this thought by discussing the savior complex often present in nonprofit work, but we have some questions about your recruitment process.
How many young people do you engage and what determines the number of applicants you’re able to accept?
At any given time we have about 100 young people engaged in different phases of our program. We serve around 150 people formally per year (not including alumni support work). Of that 150, about 100 are new people coming through our doors in a calendar year. We’re an AmeriCorps program, so [AmeriCorps] slots and our additional fundraising are what determine how many people we can accept.
Part of our equity work as an organization is fundraising additional dollars to supplement the AmeriCorps stipend and get it closer to a living wage. Our ability to do that is the number one determinant of how many people we can serve.
What are the factors that might lead you to accept one applicant over another?
PowerCorpsPHL is specifically designed to be a workforce development Corps and to recruit young people who have had little to no formal work experience […] the traditional tools used for “job” vetting are going to screen out the candidates we want.
We lose most people after they apply through essentially self-selection [by the candidate] by not showing up to a recruitment step, not rescheduling, and not responding to multiple forms of communication from us and adults in their life.
That’s frustrating and it’s telling. It’s young people telling us that something about our process isn’t working for them or isn’t coming through clearly enough. Part of our responsibility when we take on our mission is to listen to that feedback and recognize it the same way we would feedback from a formal survey. To that end, we’ve been beta-testing rolling admissions and designing an on-ramps pre-AmeriCorps component to offer more flexibility and engagement on the young person’s timeline to warm them up to our cohort timelines and expectations.
For young people who do continue to show up and stay in communication, the final step towards being accepted into PowerCorpsPHL is our extended two-week orientation. This serves as an opportunity for both us and the young person to authentically demonstrate what we’re about and where we are. This “final-round” tryout is really where we’re actually making decisions on program acceptance versus just losing candidates to recruitment attrition.
Our alumni tell us the number one thing someone needs to be successful in PowerCorpsPHL is the willingness to change. So, while we’re understanding that we are gently pushing people outside their comfort zone, we’re also looking to see how they respond, adapt, and reflect on that process. For some young people, it’s too much to embrace at that moment in time and we leave the door open for them to come in a later cohort.
What programs, activities, or services do you think Corps can incorporate to support Corpsmembers coping with grief or trauma?
Two years ago, we decided to hire an in-house therapeutic counselor that Corpsmembers can access for one-on-one therapy. We also have partnered with social service agencies to do group therapy for very specific purposes. For instance, this includes group therapy for men who have experienced violence.
When COVID hit, our counselor had to really think through how she could engage people and get them interested in therapy, because that’s not typically something Corpsmembers are ready to take on. What she did was offer them a menu of options. We can meet (socially distanced) in person; we can talk on the phone; we can FaceTime; we can just set aside an hour and text each other. Having different ways to be accessible really helps folks who are not used to being offered therapeutic services. Those all come with bigger commitments of either time or money.
I will say, when the pandemic first hit, we had to go fully virtual. We decided we needed to focus on essentially two things:
- Daily health and wellness check-ins. There are a lot of different versions of this, but we utilize something called PIES (Physically, Intellectually, Emotionally, Spiritually). It’s an activity of asking someone, how are you feeling physically; what are your thoughts; where are you emotionally; and how are you feeling spiritually? What support do you feel you have and what do you need? The first couple of times, it feels long and bulky, but it soon became a daily habit that our crews and staff have done throughout the pandemic. It wasn’t always rosy, but it allowed people time to be able to speak out loud and not have something bottled up inside. It also helps to be in the company of other folks who may also be going through something hard –– you have a feeling of “I’m not alone.”
- And then trying to provide some of the things that folks who have more privilege or more social capital would typically have during times of emergency. We brought in a financial advisor to help people try to amplify every dollar that they’re earning. We increased therapeutic support, which is often seen as a luxury. And then helping people get tools for mindfulness.Self-care is this big idea; it can sometimes feel like “the answer to everything” is self-care. But a more concrete way of thinking about it is whether people are carving out time to check in with themselves. And then, are they allowed that time? If you think of self-care in that way, then, as an organization, you can be creative in how you help people get that time and space. When people are stressed, they often don’t take that time for themselves. It literally can be 15 minutes – it’s not going to solve everything, but it does allow people to say what’s on their mind and say it out loud for themselves.
Sadly, there are other Corps that are too familiar with the pain of losing a Corpsmember, an alum, or other young people in the community. There are also Corps that have likely never experienced losses due to gun violence or inequitable healthcare access. What can Corps do – whether they’ve been touched by these inequities or not – to support change?
It takes everyone, whether you’ve been impacted directly or not. When you’re impacted directly, there’s an urgency to respond in terms of your own health and well-being. When you’re not, I think because it’s tricky and complex work, there can be an initial reaction to numb yourself and not want to engage. Which is understandable.
Change means taking time to understand why gun violence might go up in a pandemic. It takes understanding gun violence as a much more nuanced issue than just “there’s a good guy and a bad guy.” It takes asking critical questions about your own thoughts on why this violence happens. The more that we ask ourselves why something really happened, the closer we get to an accurate answer. With more accurate answers, we can build better solutions.
When people hear of gun violence in the news, it gets framed as “there was a shooter, then this thing happened, the shooter is bad, this person is gone, and their family is sad.” What doesn’t get told are all the things that led up to that moment and all the things that may have happened after that moment. I think about what kind of mindset someone would need to be in to get to a place where, they’re either feeling so desperate for resources to survive or feeling so threatened for their own personal safety, that they would aim a gun at another human. If you understand it in that way, this isn’t a video game. Someone had to get to a certain place in their life where that became an option; we’re not born that way.
Sometimes I hear victim-blaming. “Oh, you were at the wrong place, at the wrong time.” I think the news doesn’t give you the context, but if you’re sitting on your own porch and it’s a stray bullet, that’s not the wrong place, that’s your own house.
It’s critical to engage in thinking through what people experience to get to a place where a gun feels like a solution. It takes feeling deprived of really basic human rights. It takes feeling really beaten down and not in control of their life or what their future could be. I think that if you understand the mindset, then you’re at a better place to understand how to help solve the problem.
From what you have experienced and learned, what do you believe is the most important thing we can do, locally or nationally, to address gun violence?
We have to reach, welcome, serve, and wrap our arms around the shooters and young people who are vulnerable to becoming shooters. I know that statement can invoke a very visceral reaction in many people because of the harm done by people who shoot guns at other people. Remember, my staff and myself have had our fair share of grieving and yet, if I’m being honest as a professional in this work and as a problem-solver, that is the answer.
I’m not saying we ought to ignore or excuse the immense harm done, or neglect victims and their families. What I’m saying is that no amount of work with victims is going to protect us from the next round of gun violence and no amount of punitive actions towards known shooters will prevent the emergence of yet another person in a desperate state of mind taking up a gun.
On a local level, it’s understanding with nuance and complexity who is vulnerable to becoming a shooter (or shooting again), why, and how we give them another path forward. There’s usually a deep hurt that needs to be healed or a real and imminent threat to survival coupled with a loss of belief in any other type of present or future. So how do we help people heal, work to provide basic safety to all communities, and support people in envisioning a different life for themselves?
I’ve been talking in broad terms here on purpose because, on the national level, we have to stop divorcing the gun violence that happens in cities from the gun violence that happens in suburbs and rural communities. All of my experience has been with urban gun violence in Black communities and yet, does what I say not resonate with some truth when you think of school shootings? While there are some key differences, it is another example of structural racism, toxic thinking, and the impact of generations of racial inequity. If we want to combat that, we have to start thinking and talking differently.
You mention that you don’t believe that your work “saves” anyone. What do you hope your Corpsmembers leave with?
I hope they have a better understanding of themselves and the talent they bring to the world. I hope they can see how to get the future they want and know that they have the skills to get there. I hope they feel how valuable they are as persons and community members. I think a lot of times, our young people come in and don’t realize how much positivity they can give to the world. They tend to downplay the amazing things they do, and that is really sad.
Going through the experience of PowerCorpsPHL, they put in a tremendous amount of work for this city: planting thousands of trees, maintaining thousands of acres, making sure that the water is clean and that people have access to nature at a time when nature is the only outlet you have. They did that. That’s powerful to be able to look at a section of a park 20 years from now and know that they put that tree in the ground 20 years ago. I want people to be able to see their own power. To be able to know that, whoever they want to be as they get older, they have it within themselves to realize that and they have a community. They don’t have to do it alone.
The title of your letter – “Not the Beginning and Not the End” – is a line taken from the op-ed you reference. What does the statement mean to you?
It reminds me that I’m one person trying to do my part in a long history of many people doing their part who got us here and produced wisdom that I benefit from. It reminds me that there will be others to come after me whom I can pass the mantle to and that the work will continue. It’s both sad to think how long we’ve been at it and freeing and affirming. Affirming that the myth of a single savior/superhero is nonsense and freeing in reminding me that all I can do is do what I can until I can’t anymore. After that, the community will take what strength they can from that and keeping on going.
Resources for Social-Emotional/Trauma-Informed Check-Ins
Sample 1: PIES
- PIES Explainer from Network of Neighbors Responding to Violence
- PIES Explainer from Political Healers
- PIES worksheet from CARES at UCLA
Sample 2: Check-In Example
“Adapted from Sandra Bloom’s Sanctuary Model, this guide was created by FabYouthPhilly’s Center for Youth Development Professionals, a phenomenal practitioner-led, field-strengthening consulting organization.”
Resources for Noticing, Identifying, Understanding, and Countering Oppressive Systems
- For noticing/identifying/understanding: Tema Okun’s Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture
- For hiring: Interview Questions to Gauge Staff Candidate’s Trauma-Informed Experience
- For countering: Community Cultural Wealth Concept as an alternative to code-switching/professionalism/respectability frameworks