When COVID-19 first arrived in the United States, Fabian Cisneros was a part of the Student Conservation Association, serving in the Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Although he was able to continue his work, the sudden changes to the nation’s day-to-day functioning made him start to question where his presence was most needed.

“I began to think about the impact that COVID-19 was going to have on communities of color,” he says. “I wanted to be part of the solution.” Fabian also thought about the timeline he wanted for his next service experience, since he’d spent the past two years doing conservation and natural resource management in Alaska, Maryland, Washington, and Utah. “These terms were fairly short and did not go on for longer than 7 months. AmeriCorps VISTA terms are one year. I missed being part of a community and wanted the time to get to know the people I would be serving.”

Fabian portrait smiling

               Fabian Cisneros

With this in mind, Fabian joined Northwest Side Community Development Corporation as their Program and Research AmeriCorps Member. Northwest Side Community Development Corporation is located in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood of Chicago. The nonprofit works to support the predominantly Latinx community through economic development programs and rental counseling. Their programs include an incubator to help grow small businesses, 1-on-1 counseling to help clients improve their credit scores, and addressing housing discrimination through landlord education. 

“My organization is only 3 years old and has made big impacts in the community, but didn’t have the capacity to record that data,” explains Fabian. As the Program and Research AmeriCorps member, he has focused on gathering data from past clients, writing grant language templates, and recording data about the community they serve as well as the vacant commercial properties in the area. His current project involves “reaching out to participants that we have helped and retroactively recording that data. This has also given me the opportunity to ask them about their current situation and see how sustainable the help we gave them has been.”

group of people gathering and looking up at a mural

One of the things that has surprised Fabian during his service year is just how many real estate listings are actually in violation of discrimination laws. Even during his own search for an apartment in Chicago, he grew accustomed to long lists of rules and restrictions about who was eligible. “It wasn’t until I started my position a few weeks later that I realized that the majority of the listings I viewed were […] illegal for discrimination.”

While Fabian’s ability to conduct research isn’t directly affected by working remotely, not being able to fully interact with co-workers has been challenging. “I visit our office every few weeks and it makes me think of the normal work environment.” Although Northwest Side Community Development Corporation’s events have evolved with the pandemic and for the most part have been moved online, there is still something sad about not being able to share work-related successes in person. “I wish we could accept walk-in clients, I wish chatter would be spread around the building, and [there was] impromptu meetings to talk about exciting programs for our participants.”

Despite the limitations of doing a year of service during the pandemic, Fabian is happy with his experience so far. “I would highly encourage anyone who is interested in becoming an AmeriCorps member to try it! It’s a great way of gaining experience in a field that you’re interested in. My background is in conservation and natural resources and the AmeriCorps VISTA program has given me an opportunity to learn new skills.”

Interested in serving an AmeriCorps VISTA year with one of Housing Action Illinois’ member organizations? Learn more today.