Kurtis Edwards: An AmeriCorps VISTA Taking On Poverty and Racial Injustice with the Power of Literacy

Kurtis Edwards photo collage, serving with AmeriCorps VISTA and traveling between prjoects
CNCS

Welcome to the Poverty + Racial Injustice Stories Project. Our nation is experiencing an awakening, and for some, an introduction to the injustices that Black people have been facing in this country for decades.

We are dedicating this project to the stories of AmeriCorps VISTA members whose work goes beyond the VISTA mission to eradicate poverty. These stories will show how their work in tackling this mission intersects with combatting racial injustices in the communities they serve.

Our hope is that 1. VISTA members will be seen and celebrated for their work, 2. The stories will provide a blueprint for others to follow, and 3. By sharing stories from areas including housing, literacy, and nutrition, readers will get a glimpse into just how far reaching the effects of racial injustice can be.

Kurtis Edwards
Washtenaw Literacy
Ypsilanti, Michigan
Position: Program Coordinator
Aug 2018 - Aug 2020

Kurtis Edwards can’t recall how he found the AmeriCorps VISTA program, but after almost two years of service, he feels lucky that he did. In addition to serving in communities and combating poverty, Kurtis joined AmeriCorps because he wanted to build his management and leadership skills. As a “white person, who is also male, who is also gay,” he wanted to have legitimacy in the mission he felt called to: to talk to other white people about the systemic racism steeped in this country.

As a Navy brat, born on a Hawaiian base, and having lived in a number of different places, these experiences informed Kurtis’ desire for a career in antiracism, working in interracial dialogue, specifically speaking to white people about white power structures. As he completes his second year of service, he is even more resolute in his determination to “work tirelessly at a career in human service and community building.”

Tell me about your service at Washtenaw Literacy?
We wear a lot of hats at Washtenaw Literacy, which has given me the opportunity to take on different tasks. In my role, I have facilitated roundtable discussions, tackling issues that have included diversity, equity, inclusion, and being antiracist.

My human design project has been developing a podcast based around barriers to learning, which is a very broad topic. I wanted it that way because I have a personally strong interest in antiracism, as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion. I believe in the power of dialogue through restorative justice. It has been exciting talking about barriers to learning whether it be personal, systemic, or structural, and how that applies to learning, our life, and the life of our learners as they’re traversing Washtenaw County not just during their time with us in tutoring.

What is the goal of Washtenaw Literacy and why were you drawn to it?
Washtenaw Literacy provides literacy support free of charge to adults through a network of trained tutors. Their mission is to help adults change their lives through literacy.

I believe education and literacy are human rights and have less to do with intelligence and more to do with power and protection. I am drawn to the service Washtenaw Literacy provides because I am helping people gain and use power to make their lives better.

Please tell us about the demographics that you serve in this role.
We primarily serve Black and impoverished to lower-middle-income communities. I serve in the Sugarbrook neighborhood of Ypsilanti, which has a proud and diverse history and that is rooted in African American culture. Washtenaw Literacy serves all demographics that are in need of literacy support. We do not shy away from helping people with disabilities, those who are homeless, those who are of color, those who are white, those who are poor, or even those who are wealthy but maybe can’t read.

How does your service combat poverty and racial injustice?
First, I think it’s important to note that I do not believe that poverty and racial injustice can be separated.

At Washtenaw Literacy, we first recognize that everyone is different. We accept and take everyone at face value. We also recognize and believe that literacy equals power. We’re not teaching our learners what to think. We’re really teaching them how to think. This gives them the power to affect their community.

I work at the Community Opportunity Center, which is a computer lab that is run out of the Community Family Life Center, a Black-run organization in the Sugarbrook Neighborhood. Our work touches all kinds of people. From the refugee learning English to the Black man who broke his back on the job and needs to update his skills, we’re helping our residents beat out the racial injustice that is in education and get ahead.

We want our learners to have the power to make their community better and by virtue we help make the community better by the work that we do.

I don’t have it in me to be an activist, but I do have it in me to work tirelessly at a career in human service, community building, and national service. I’m no longer trying to change the country. I’m trying to change Ypsilanti, Michigan. How I’ve served with Washtenaw Literacy, doing it through education and literacy, has been trying to help residents get the skills they need to have power. I do believe that literacy holds power.

Why is this service important especially during this time?
When I am told to stay in my lane, that really affects me – not in a negative way. When I was told that white people need to stay in our lane, it clicked to me that a racist person probably isn’t going to listen to someone who doesn’t look like them. So, if I’m really going to stay in my lane, I’m going to devote time to dialogue.

I want to devote time to a career to dialogue with white people about their place in this structure. I want to have a career as a white person talking to white people about what it is to be white in a system that I think is similar to apartheid.

How has this impacted how you view this issue or your overall world view regarding racial injustice?
There’s too much to list. I’ve gone from a ‘well-intentioned’ but ignorant white guy to being a person who works each day to understand how pernicious and pervasive structures of oppression can be. It took me from a desire to be a diplomat on the international stage resolving conflict to wanting to build a career facilitating inter-racial dialogue primarily with white people about white supremacy and how we erode and erase it. Even these few examples don’t do justice in describing the impact service has had on me. I went into service believing in service through and through, as well as what I might get out of it. I think if I would have gone in for any other reason, I might not have absorbed as much as I did about systems of power and how they intersect with poverty.

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