From shambles to storytelling: Redefining repair in Greensboro, NC

A series where we highlight people using their passions to make a difference in their communities.

"Nothing is ever level. Nothing is ever plumb. Nothing is ever square. Everything is dirty." —Paul Howe, on the realistic challenges of his work.  Photo credit:

“Nothing is ever level. Nothing is ever plumb. Nothing is ever square. Everything is dirty.” —Paul Howe, on the realistic challenges of his work.
Photo credit:

For months, Paul Howe would walk by the same orange cone guarding the same precarious hole in a brick sidewalk near his Greensboro, North Carolina home.

“The sidewalk belonged to a university, and the damage to it was done by city linesmen who installed a new telephone pole in it. Bricks were missing, bare sand exposed, the hole about half the width of the sidewalk,” says Paul, a quintessential jack-of-all-trades. “Nobody was taking responsibility for it.”

So, he decided to take the matter into his own hands.

Using his welding skills, Paul crafted a steel plate to fill the perilous gap and secured it into the hole without any objection (see the finished product). Only after bolting it down, he realized that he had created something more than just a harm-reducing fix.

“I realized that by using a material other than brick to patch a brick sidewalk, I had revealed a story about the sidewalk, and also added a new one,” says Paul.” I did not erase all of the evidence of the damage. I left a clue to it, revealed it, while letting it still function, as it should.”

This idea—storytelling through repair—drove Paul to join Elsewhere, Greensboro’s thrift-store-turned-cultural-center, to renovate its run-down workshop. But, instead of overhauling the entire building with modern fixtures and like mediums, Paul used a mosaic of building materials to smartly patch up the place (check out some of the end results).

“It doesn’t try to hide itself as a repair, it screams at you as being a repair,” he says of the space. “It’s one of the first things people notice when they come up to the shop now, and it speaks simultaneously to the history of the place, and to its current use.”

Now that the workshop’s in working condition, Paul spends his time keeping Elsewhere in tip-top shape and promoting his concept of repair throughout the community by chipping away on realistic tasks with the tools at hand.

“There is a focus on so called ‘big problems,’ and people make livings coming up with ‘big solutions.’ The thing is, so called ‘big problems’ are so poorly understood that they remain, in spite of our best efforts,” says Paul. “I find it more productive to work on so called ‘small problems’ since one can understand enough of a ‘small problem’ that one might actually be able to do something about it.”

Interested in starting your own small repair projects around your community? Shoot Paul an email at or get in touch with him via Elsewhere. 

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Want more than a day of service? Consider a public-service fellowship

Each year on Martin Luther King Jr Day, people across the country volunteer in their communities to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy of service. But what do you do after the day is over?

 There are tons of fellowships and programs to help you get more involved in your community while pursuing a social-impact career, but how do you find these opportunities?  What challenges might you face in your journey? To get a better sense of what it looks like to cultivate a public-service career, we asked Ryan Wilcox, an AmeriCorps Alum and Mentoring Specialist for Whetstone Boys Ranch, to share his experiences.

By Ryan Wilcox


Photo via Ryan Wilcox

My desire to serve others has always been driven by my faith. In high school, I went on several mission trips with my church, including to Rio, Bravo, Mexico—where I was part of a work team that built a cinder block house for a family. These mission trips were my first experience with true poverty. Later, in college, I served as camp counselor at a camp for teenagers with epilepsy. I credit these initial experiences with shaping my passion for missions and service I hold today.

After graduation, I was looking for a job in the non-profit industry. Like many recent graduates, I struggled to find a job right away. After an extended search, I investigated public service programs, and AmeriCorps stood out to me. AmeriCorps offered much of what I was looking for: a 9-month to 12-month commitment; an opportunity to leverage my Advertising/Public Relations degree; and potential placement in my community. I chose to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA, a program that requires a 12-month commitment, and focuses on fighting poverty by building the capacity of the host non-profits.


Gaining life-long skills

During my 12 months as a VISTA, I served with Cornerstone Assistance Network, a non-profit that works with people below the poverty line, in danger of becoming homeless. As a VISTA, my primary focus was communications and outreach: I helped establish and manage Cornerstone’s social media presence, and was a key member of Cornerstone’s website development team. In addition, I worked to manage and recruit volunteers, attending recruitment fairs at local colleges. These responsibilities helped me develop skills in managing people, building relationships and establishing goals. As a mentor, I use these skills to encourage the boys at Whetstone to grow.

I also learned, inevitably, how to live on a tight budget. I received a small stipend, at the time about $800/month. My VISTA position did not offer housing, but it was close enough to my home that I was able to live with my parents during my service year. I deferred my student loans and elected to receive the Eli Segal Education Award at the end of my term, instead of a cash payment. As a recent graduate, I had student loans, so I appreciated the help!


Coping with challenges

While I learned a great deal in AmeriCorps, some challenges did arise, primarily with transitioning out of the program. I wasn’t prepared for the end of my term, and did a poor job of planning my exit. I didn’t begin job searching seriously until it was too late. As a result, the end of my service arrived, and I didn’t have any prospects for full-time employment.

After leaving AmeriCorps, I took a series of part-time and contract based jobs. The experience was a lesson in perseverance, and a chance to seek guidance on my career direction. I accepted a part-time position with an after-school program. This job gave me the skills I needed to be effective in my current role. It also showed me that I have a heart for mentorship.


Tips for you

Dr. King once said, “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve.” I wouldn’t trade my service year for anything. I gained pride in serving my country and community. It also changed my perceptions on poverty, a big social problem facing the United States.

Are you ready to serve? Here are a few things to keep in mind, if you want to pursue AmeriCorps, or any public-service program.

  1. Figure out what matters most: Do you want to travel outside of the country? Do you need to make a certain amount of money? Are there skills you want to develop? The answers to these questions will determine what public service program is right for you. For example, while I chose AmeriCorps, I also looked at the Peace Corps. I knew I wanted to stay close to home and commit for one year, instead traveling abroad for two years.
  2. Do your research: It becomes easier to find programs to get involved in once you know what you need. I attended a Peace Corps information session before deciding that AmeriCorps was the better choice for me.
  3. Plan ahead: AmeriCorps provides resources to help with your transition. However, I’d advise you to begin to plan for life after AmeriCorps early in the service year. This applies to both graduate school research and job searching. If the end of your service year arrives, and you don’t have a job or graduate school offer, consider serving another term.

Good luck!

Connect with Ryan on twitter and on his blog.

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Can we create one million new jobs by expanding national service?

City Year is an example of a national service program (Photo Credit: City Year, Creative Commons/Flickr)

Recently, I stumbled across the One Million Jobs petition, launched by Our Time and ServeNext, to tackle high rates of unemployment among young people (which is currently at 46%, the highest since World War II). They are asking the presidential candidates to, “Pledge to create one million new national service positions by expanding programs such as AmeriCorps, VISTA, City Year, Habitat for Humanity, Teach for America, and others so we can serve and rebuild our country now.” The thinking is that by increase these opportunities, we can provide employment, develop important skills among young people, while improving our communities.

This made me wonder: Can we create one million new jobs by expanding national service?

I asked this question in the Opportunity: What’s Working Group on LinkedIn, a special partnership between the Huffington Post and LinkedIn to spotlight how people across the country are tackling what they call a dual crisis: that 20 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed and that 3.5 million jobs are currently unfilled due to talent shortage. Here are a few of the responses:

“I am currently serving at a position through Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS), a faith-based volunteer program similar to AmeriCorps. I have found the experience helpful in defining and uncovering transferable skills, developing a list of accomplishments, and building a network.

I will also note that for 15 years up until June 2011 some BVS placements were eligible for a $5,350 education award AmeriCorps through the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). Federal budget cuts passed at that time meant CNCS could not pay the award to all affiliated community service programs. These awards often helped pay student loans or continue education once the volunteer completed their term…”

“Creating a national service would create jobs in the short term. Everyone can agree there’s a lot to do. But these would be paid for by the gov’t (read: taxes). If creating a national service would help stimulate the economy and create job IN THE LONG TERM, then it might be worth it. But I don’t see how that would happen. We need a long-term, structural change.”

“When I first saw this discussion the first thing that came to my mind was, where does the funding come from? But the more I thought about it, the more I thought given a clear, detailed plan, this could be a viable option. If this was to be a true “National Service” program, then everyone would need to buy in. That would mean major corporations sponsoring the program, (a program like this would provide them with a higher quality employee candidate pool in the future) as well as local, state and federal government buy in, (they would have the same benefit). Scholarships for outstanding service would also be a possible part of this program…”

So what do you think? An important step to reducing unemployment or do we need something else?

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Hiring? Here's why veterans can be your greatest asset

“There are support services for vets, but a lot of vets don’t want to be helped,” says Joanne Dennis, Director of Program Development at Team Rubicon, a nonprofit that unites the skills and experiences of military veterans in disaster response, and also helps aid the transition back to civilian life. “Vets don’t want your pity, they don’t want your sorrow. They want to help others.” A recent Civic Enterprises report revealed that 92% of veterans want to continue serving their communities after their military service.


Veterans dedicate their skills to disaster relief efforts. Could they also be a good fit for your organization? (Photo: Team Rubicon Flickr stream)

That desire to serve has drawn more than 500 veterans to apply to volunteer with Team Rubicon in disaster relief missions in places like Burma, Haiti, and Joplin, MO since it was founded in January 2010. But while Team Rubicon’s volunteer base is growing fast, it can’t help with job placement. “We have some firemen who volunteer with us on their days off, and a lot of college students. But a lot of the volunteers are in transition,” explains Joanne. “They’ve come home to an economic climate where they just can’t find jobs. And especially jobs that have meaning or purpose.”

In an uncertain economic climate, many nonprofit leaders and business owners are understandably unwilling to take risks – especially when hiring. When faced with a stack of resumes, why choose the person whose background you are uncertain of and whose experience on paper doesn’t directly translate to your organization’s needs?

That’s the reality most veterans are facing when applying for jobs today. They come home with countless “soft” skills, including management and supervision, team-building, and the ability to successfully lead diverse groups of people while staying calm under pressure. These skills often don’t translate to traditional workplaces where recruiters are looking for resumes with years of conventional experience. But they are often the trademarks of an irreplaceable colleague, especially in a mission-driven organization.

In August, President Obama challenged the private sector to hire 100,000 unemployed post-9/11 veterans or their spouses by 2013. This Veteran’s Day, we’re curious whether nonprofits and other agencies and organizations are heeding that call as well.

Have you hired folks with military experience? Are you a veteran currently looking for work? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

This post was written by Bernadette Matthews, a volunteer with Team Rubicon, and Idealist bloggers Celeste Hamilton and Julia Smith. (Full disclosure: Celeste Hamilton and Joanne Dennis are in-laws.)

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Book Review: Job Searches a Headache? This Book is Medicine.

Book cover image from

Let’s say you’re thinking about your work—maybe changing jobs, maybe finding one—and you’d like what you do for a living to be interesting, pay enough, and, at the end of the day, make a positive difference in the world. Sounds like you might be looking for some sort of a job in public service — working for federal, state or local government, a nonprofit organization, or a for-profit firm that’s involved in some way.

The problem? According to Heather Krasna’s new book Jobs that Matter, there are some 22 million jobs in government (with more than 30,000 federal jobs vacant at any time), 8.7 million nonprofit jobs, and countless tens of thousands of jobs with contractors who work alongside government agencies and nonprofits doing parallel work. Just thinking about where to start can give you a headache.

When you look a little closer, you discover that each agency, each local government, each potential employer, in a matter of fact, expects something different from applicants, provides information about vacancies (if at all) in different ways, and approaches the hiring process differently as well. “Headache” doesn’t sum up half of it.

Careful, comprehensive and informative, Jobs that Matter doesn’t make things any simpler. But it does offer practical help with the tough questions: Where to start? How to focus the search? How to deal with styles of recruiting from most to least formal?

Krasna starts and ends her book with general advice to a job seeker with the goal of finding a job that matters. She begins with how to define goals, match goals with qualifications, and grasp the complexities of this range of possibilities. She wraps up with how to prepare for a job search, apply, focus and negotiate when an offer is on the table. And the chapters in the center of the book explore seven broad ways a career that make a difference, in health care, the arts, education, etc., with examples and advice that span all levels of government and all sorts of nonprofits from large to tiny.

The book offers exercises to help with the planning, examples of good resumes and cover letters, interesting profiles of real people doing real jobs across the country, and useful explanations of jargon (Who knew that a “status candidate” is a federal employee looking to change jobs? Or that some vacancies can only be filled with people who already have jobs with the government?). It has lots of useful references as well, including Idealist’s own Career Guides.

Jobs that Matter will help any seeker Find a Stable, Fulfilling Career in Public Service (as the subtitle promises).

You can order Jobs that Matter from; a royalty will be paid that helps support this site.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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