Leading High performing Teams

Thanks you to Jean Carraccio for sharing my story on teamwork on an AmeriCorps VISTA Leader professional development blog found on http://www.VISTAcampus.org:

Want Ad Translation:

Mo’s Restaurant is always seeking self-motivated, hard- working individuals with unusual pride & passion to join our team. Commitment to excellence is required.

Q. Is it remotely possible this ad is talking about dishwashing positions?
Read about one of your fellow VLeader’s experiences on a high performing team. Perhaps the most surprising anecdote I’ve ever heard about on the High Performing Team Webinar.

Hi all! Jean here (the “J”) in JEK
Last month 28 VISTA Leaders participated in the High Performing Team webinar.  The webinar began with an opportunity for those attending to share their experiences on a high performing team. As with all good stories the examples were thought-provoking and inspiring. We can learn about teams by studying teams, in particular studying teams that work. VISTA Leader Chris Anderson shared an example that characterized virtually every aspect of a high performing team. It was also one of the most unusual examples I’ve ever heard and it was such a great example of how a team can find meaning anywhere, anytime.
As you read Chris’s story please think about the powerful work that you and your members do. It strikes me that as a VISTA Leader you have a head start within the context of VISTA. If you ever get discouraged and think that you don’t have the right members or a powerful enough mission to build a high performing team you might want to think about Chris Anderson’s powerful anecdote. Here it is:

“Dishwashing at a restaurant comes in many flavors, but its purpose remains the same. If there are no dishwashers, everything comes to a halt. The restaurant I worked at has a high-level dishwashing operation. The work environment is high-pressure and demanding. The kitchen is hot, it’s loud and it’s crowded. You and a team of four others use a 1,000lb machine that pumps out over 3,000 dishes an hour while simultaneously meeting the chef’s, kitchen staff, and server’s immediate requests. When the restaurant closes, the dishwashers coordinate the cleaning of the entire kitchen with no room for error.

I spent over five years as a dishwasher in that environment as my first job, and was a part of many “A-Teams” during that time. We understood that in order for the entire restaurant to run, we had to all perform in unison. We were all in high school in different groups, yet shared the same values at work (The Breakfast Club?). If someone was having a rough day, they could step outside to give themselves a sort of restart. You could talk one-on-one while taking out the trash, and come back fresh. We would create games and competitions with each other to keep us motivated (if you work in a restaurant, contact me I can offer an entire Olympics for you). At the end of the night, we split into two-person teams to clean the kitchen (with great music). After a strict inspection of our work from the chef, we were free to leave or stick around and eat our meals. In the setting of a more quiet and relaxing state, the chef and our team would go over how the night went. During Jean’s webinar the power and importance of positive feedback was discussed. Receiving positive feedback was truly one of the most important parts of working in our restaurant because it reminded us why we were there, and made it clear that our hard work was valued and recognized.

I can relate this experience towards building a high performing VISTA team. There’s a diverse group coming together for a shared purpose. A VISTA should rely on you to “step outside of the kitchen” with them so they can come back ready to attack. Having your team know the VISTA Leader position is to make their lives better and not to ensure they are doing their job properly will lead to the same shared attitude and more participation in coming together for the whole team getting the job done”.

Chris Anderson is VISTA Leader at AS220, a non-profit community arts space in downtown Providence. Our mission is to provide an unjuried and uncensored forum for the arts.


Community Resource Toolkits

Check out some of the toolkits developed by The White House Council for Community Service. The toolkits are designed to create data-driven decision making an impact for your community. The Resources for Communities includes a section how to best generate meaningful community participation. The Resources for Employers has an evaluation for employers to see what types of skill-building jobs they can offer youth.

The White House Council for Community Solutions conducted extensive research and outreach in the areas of community collaboration and pathways to employment for youth. The Council, in collaboration with researchers and other third parties, has createThe White House Council for Community Solutions 

Resources for Communities
 series of tools and resources for leaders across sectors in communities, including business leaders.


Check out the latest AS220 Youth showcase that was curated in part by  Gaby Molenado, part of AS220’s AmeriCorps*VISTA team!

The many artistic talents of young Rhode Islanders are on display including photography and painting in the Second Annual Youth Art Exhibit, an exhibit of art work by young artists who are part of the AS220 Youth Studios. The work is on display now through January 28, 2012 at the Atrium Gallery at One Capitol Hill, a gallery space managed by the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts.

Scott Lapham, one of the show’s curators, said, “All of us here at AS220 Youth are excited to share with the wider community the extraordinary artwork our students have been producing over the last six months. From concept to creation to exhibition our students are taking ownership of their own creativity. Please join us at the Atrium Gallery as we celebrate our student’s artwork in a show we are calling Think Make Do!”  A reception and awards program for the artists will be held Thursday, January 19, 2012 from 6 to 8:30pm.

Reviewing Action Plans

One important role for a VISTA Leader that I’ve just realized is reviewing VISTA action plans. I can not assume that the site supervisor who wrote the plan has put enough consideration when choosing how to select or word their performance milestones.  It shouldn’t be assumed that the VISTA supervisor or the state office reps will  catch something that may not be accurate.

For example, there is a VISTA who will be: “responsible for managing, guiding & overseeing the 16 student Fellows that will be doing financial coaching in English.” When asked what the indicator or evidence of progress is that this has been achieved, the site supervisor chose community volunteers recruited & hours of community service. Without having clear understandings of the terms used by CNCS, the measurement of achievement seems to match the milestone. But fellowships are not considered community volunteers. Instead, choosing participants in eGrants would be a more accurate way to report the achievement. There is clearly a need for more understanding with these terms as well as more emphasis on the importance of choosing the language used.  (ok…Using community volunteers recruited would work in this case only if the fellowships were being trained to recruit volunteers)

DOES IT REALLY MATTER?  of course it does!…read on…

So when the first report I encountered was due in October, the Progress Report Supplement, I did a great job at developing a method to easily retrieve the information from our VISTA sites. I thought it was a painless experience, but then I received an email form the state office asking why the numbers were so different than the last reporting period. The main reason for this was because the information submitted was incorrect data.  Using the example above, if we were to count the fellowships as community volunteers, when the supervisor is asked to report how many community volunteer hours were done at their site for the year, the number would be hundreds of percents higher than what the actual number is!

Because action plans (also called work plans) and VADs (VISTA Assignment Descriptions) are sources that showcase the VISTA’s full year of work, make sure there is proper communication to go off of from the beginning.  Expect to have a decent training session packet for VISTA site supervisors. I was advised by another VISTA Leader that if you want to raise attendance of a supervisor training, call them meetings instead.

Student Loan Forgiveness for Public Service Employees

If you plan on working a public service job, don’t be afraid of high tuition….

From www.ibrinfo.org:

Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)

Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) is a new program for federal student loan borrowers who work in certain kinds of jobs. It will forgive remaining debt after 10 years of eligible employment and qualifying loan payments. (During those 10 years, the Income-Based Repayment (IBR) plan can help keep your loan payments affordable.)

Who can get PSLF? This program is for people with federal student loans who work in a wide range of “public service” jobs, including jobs in government and nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations.

What are eligible jobs? In most cases, eligibility is based on whether you work for an eligible employer. Your job is eligible if you:

  • are employed by any nonprofit, tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization;
  • are employed by the federal government, a state government, local government, or tribal government (this includes the military and public schools and colleges); or
  • serve in a full-time AmeriCorps or Peace Corps position.

If you don’t meet these criteria, the Department of Education’s regulations create a two-part test of other circumstances under which you may still be eligible:

(1) your employer is not “a business organized for profit, a labor union, a partisan political organization, or an organization engaged in religious activities, unless the qualifying activities are unrelated to religious instruction, worship services, or any form of proselytizing;”


(2) your employer provides any of the following public services: emergency management; military service; public safety; law enforcement; public interest law services; early childhood education; public service for individuals with disabilities and the elderly; public health; public education; public library services; and school library or other school-based services.

These definitions of eligible jobs reflect the Department of Education’s final regulations for PSLF, as posted in the Federal Register on October 23, 2008.

What kinds of loans does it cover? It covers federal Stafford, Grad PLUS, or consolidation loans as long as they are in the Direct Loan program. Borrowers with loans in the Guaranteed (or FFEL) loan program must switch to the Direct Loan program to get this benefit.

When does the 10-year clock start, and which payments count? Only payments made after October 1, 2007 count towards the 10 years (120 monthly payments, not necessarily consecutive) required for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Qualifying payments are payments made through the William D. Ford Direct Loan Program in any of the following three repayment plans: the Income Contingent Repayment plan, the Standard (10-year) Repayment plan, and the Income-Based Repayment (IBR) plan.

To count, these payments must be made while you’re working full-time in an eligible job. “Full-time,” according to the final regulations issued by the Department of Education, means an annual average of 30 hours per week or the standard for full-time used by the employer, whichever is greater. For people working part-time at two or more qualifying jobs, “full-time” means an annual average of 30 hours across all jobs held. In professions such as teaching, annual contracts that include at least eight months of full-time work will be treated as the equivalent of a full year’s employment. If you meet all the criteria, the earliest your remaining debt could be forgiven is October 2017.

What if I’ve already paid off my loans by then? This loan forgiveness program will only benefit people who still owe money on their federal loans after 10 years of eligible payments and employment. If your income is low relative to your debt, and you qualify for reduced payments under IBR (or Income Contingent Repayment) at any time during those 10 years, you will likely have debt left to forgive. (Learn more about IBR.)

Find out more about how to qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF).

Serve Rhode Island Opening Day 2011

This week started off with an event organized by Serve Rhode Island. AmeriCorps Opening Day was at the RI State Capitol building in the rotunda where every AmeriCorps in Rhode Island congregated to celebrate another successful year ahead. Each specific program offered a short description of what their goals are and the kinds of work they are doing. Even Governer Lincoln Chafee and  senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse atteneded the event and to show their appreciation of our work and acknowledge its importance to Rhode Island. Serve RI created a video documenting the event.

The Progress of Progress Reporting

I’ve begun to research the best way to collect data from all VISTAS and supervisors that are needed for CNCS Progress Reports.  I’ve touched base with Ben Sheldon, a former VISTA supervisor.  He recommends Survey Monkey because it easily tracks who has and has not completed their surveys.  I might need to request funds for this, because a Pro account might be required to export data into excel.  If this is too costly, and if I don’t see much difference between SM and Google Forms, I might stick with Google Forms.  All work from summer 2011 VISTAs appear in the December 2011 Progress Report, so I’ll begin tracking this information down during October.

One event that happened since my arrival to Rhode Island was the VISTA Leader training in Indianapolis, IN. This was a four day conference with all VISTA Leaders from the country.  We had great training in effective communication, conflict management, recruitment, resource sharing, and more.  I walked away making some new contacts and even formed a group of leaders interested in continuing a discussion on effective ways of communicating with your VISTAS and how we can all share our resources online.

Unspoken Direct Service of a VISTA (Good? Bad? Both.)

October begins the process of recruiting two new VISTA positions. The Communications VISTA will be placed with AS220’s Youth Studio program.  They will be responsible for producing multimedia content for AS220 Youth’s literary magazine and website in partnership with youth.  The benefits of this position are tremendous, but I am concerned that half of the VISTA’s time, if not more, will be consumed with directly serving the youth participating in the program.  Working with youth to create media fosters more visibility and outreach into the community which is a key responsibility of any VISTA.  And the other responsibilities like “documenting the skill-building process” and “collecting data that shows the efficacy of our training model” also follow what VISTA stands for.  The key responsibilities, which appear to be the daily routine, are teaching youth how to use technology and teach effective media literacy.  This situation is very familiar to my former VISTA year where one of my responsibilities in my VAD was changed upon arriving to my site from making a web-based system of collecting and sharing curriculum for media workshops and youth programs, to “test-driving” curriculum that I create and teach media workshops to the community.  I realized what I was doing did not follow the guidelines, but the opportunity seemed to good to not do.  I was also concerned that if I did not generate new curriculum or teach workshops, that already overworked staff would have to take the burden of adding another responsibility to their daily agenda.  A year passed, and I completed 70% of what I was sent to do.  The added responsibilities of generating curriculum and test-driving them eventually led to running the entire media lab including hiring instructors, writing invoices, scheduling classes, and even giving one-hour private lessons to workshop attendees who wanted more help and engaging very closely with individuals in the community   These were outcomes based on the choices I’ve made.  I fell in love with an organization that represented everything I’m passionate about: public media, new technology, art and collaboration, film/music/video.  I nearly burnt myself out and in the end I’m very satisfied with what I’ve accomplished there.  A new person was hired to fill my shoes for this non-VISTA position, and it’s still running fine, but I can’t help but to be somewhat disappointed and worried that some key capacity-building issues were never achieved. It’s like I helped build a great new body to a car but the rear tire still is flat.

My experience with the responsibility of creating new programming and teaching it at the same time is that teaching will take away the time needed to implement an excellent and sustainable model for the program itself.

Situations like this happen all the time, in different ways.  And the government asks for specific measurable data that does not take into account direct service accomplishments made by a VISTA, thus making the program seem less successful.  However, the Communications VISTA’s assignment description specifically states to work with youth to generate projects, and as long as the VAD is completed successfully, then the year of service is a success!  I have accumulated a VAST amount of resources that the Communications VISTA will be able to use in their work. This includes curriculum for motion graphics, videography, video editing, podcasting, music production, photography, beatmaking, web design, DJing, 3D animation, stop-motion graphics, and more!  I’m looking forward to handing these resources and seeing them used here in Providence.

The second VISTA position is at The Capital Good Fund.  This year for VISTAs at CGF will be exciting. The organization is beginning a new program to train students from Brown on financial coaching and providing micro loans to the local community.  The full-time position begins in December and is for one year.

A week(or months) in review

It’s my first report on my VISTA Leader experience at AS220.  A lot has happened since August 2011!

I was given a tour of AS220 in its entirety, even the Dreyfus roof.  AS220’s annual fundraiser occurred just as I entered the city and allowed me to meet all the staff, the city, the artists, restaurants, and volunteers all at once.

I’m really enjoying the workplace, staff, and all the programs AS220 offers.  The VISTA sites also deserve a standing ovation for what they are creating and providing to the community.  A community youth orchestra, youth-driven social enterprise, and community micro loans/coaching are just a few programs that I’ve had a chance to see first-hand.