by Chelsea Tegels

Community – This is the reason why I joined AmeriCorps VISTA.  Going to grad school in Washington, DC for two years kept me isolated in my group of fellow young academics.  After deciding I wanted to stay in the area for a few more years, I realized I had no connection to any local community, only fellow newcomers like myself.  Volunteering had helped me connect to my local college town, so I decided that a year as a VISTA in nearby Alexandria, Virginia could have a similar effect.  In August, I began my year-long position as program coordinator for the Alexandria Mentoring Partnership (AMP), where I work in the Court Service Unit for the City of Alexandria.

Alexandria has a long history – it’s over 50 years older than Washington, DC.  It’s been home to George Washington, Robert E. Lee, and Jim Morrison.  The Foo Fighters have a song about one of its neighborhoods, Arlandria.  Current TV shows The Walking Dead and PBS’s Mercy Street are set in the city.  But it is perhaps most famous for being the setting of the 2000 film Remember the Titans.  The movie details the distrust and hatred that existed between black and white Alexandrians, and how a high school football state championship for the TC Williams Titans brought the two racial groups together.

Today, Alexandria still faces racial issues, but they are complicated by a new divider – how long different groups have been here, and how connected they are to the community.  First, there are the native Alexandrians, who went to Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) and are proud graduates of TC Williams.  This group is aware of the historic challenges their city has faced, from the black communities that sprung up following the Civil War to segregation and civil rights protests, up to the segregated nature of Alexandria schools today.  The African-American community falls into this group, as do many white Alexandrians.  This group knows the names of the people in city government and has chats with former and current city mayors.  Their connection to their city is similar to that of many locals across the United States.  In my college town, we called the town locals “townies.”

Alexandrians born-and-bred are outnumbered by two other groups: those who were raised elsewhere but transplanted here, and those who are planning to be here only temporarily.  Transients make up a large portion of Alexandria and the entire DC area.  Most, like me , are young people here for school or to start a career.  Many come to Alexandria while their children are young, then either leave before they’re old enough to go to kindergarten or stay but send their kids to private school.  Finally, Old Town attracts a lot of retirees.  While many transients of these kinds attempt to integrate and aid their current community, they often lack the knowledge and networks to make a difference.  Others simply aren’t aware of what is happening in the neighborhoods around them, and therefore make no effort to help. This group is largely white – while the divide between townies and transients isn’t entirely black and white, it is exacerbated by being largely black versus majority white.

In the last 50 years, a new group has come to define Alexandria: immigrants.  Being close to the nation’s capital has made the city a destination for foreigners hoping to gain American citizenship.  While Alexandria is home to immigrants from around the globe, the largest and most influential group is from Central America.  Families from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and other places have found themselves separate from Alexandrians due to language, ethnicity, and economic status.  Many Central American immigrants have collected in one neighborhood, now called Chirilagua, in the historic area of Arlandria.  Immigrants from Africa and Southeast Asia, particularly from Ethiopia and Vietnam, have also found a new home in Alexandria.

Tensions exist between these three groups.  Townies view transients as people taking advantage of Alexandria’s location and proximity to DC, and not giving back or attempting to understand their community.  Transients are often unaware of the poverty or racial tensions surrounding their high-rise apartment and newly built row houses.  Immigrants sometimes wish to stay connected to their own communities, and by doing so block themselves from integrating into the rest of the community, causing others to view them as outsiders and resulting in immigrants themselves feeling unwelcome.

Exacerbating tensions is the fact that each group has a different stake in the community.  Demographically, Alexandria is 52 percent white, 21 percent black, and 17 percent Latino.  Alexandria Public Schools is demographically a lot different: 27 percent white, 30 percent black, and 36 percent Latino.  Native Alexandrians and immigrants have a huge stake in public schools, while transients are far less likely to put their kids into ACPS.  Central American immigrants, whose children make up around a third of ACPS students, are often unable to be involved in the school or advocate for strong public schools because of language barriers.  This leaves the fight to local Alexandrians, and especially the black community, to advocate for the best schools and therefore opportunities for their children.  Having a stake in ACPS produces a higher stake in the community – and vice versa.

What does this mean for me?  As AMP program coordinator, my job is to provide program support through recruiting mentors, creating mentor training, and building program capacity.  Alexandria Mentoring Partnership represents about a dozen programs, connecting mentors with hundreds of children.  Mentees in our programs are between the ages of 5 and 18, all in ACPS.  Most are African-American or Hispanic, though we have mentees of many different backgrounds. We look for mentors who are open-minded, care about children, and invested in the future of their community.  In this regard, I have been pleasantly surprised by the success I’ve had in recruiting members from and creating partnerships with all three distinct groups.

As I got to know Alexandria, I became worried that local Alexandrians would dismiss me as another well-meaning but ignorant young person, and that immigrant Alexandrians would not trust me as an outsider.  Instead, as a representative of mentoring concerned about Alexandria’s future,  I’ve been welcomed.  At a tabling event during my first month here, I met someone who works at a local non-profit who promised me that I would have no problem finding volunteers in Alexandria- that TC alums take care of their city.  She was right – not only are many of our mentors long-time Alexandrians but about half of our mentoring programs are run by people born and bred in the city.  The other half is led by people who came to Alexandria for a job or to help the community and have since become permanent transplants.

In visiting programs, recruiting and interviewing mentors, and becoming a mentor myself, I have found that among native Alexandrians are many mentors who are transients.  By far the most common reason that people new to the city have given me for mentoring is a desire to “give back to the community.”  They recognize the need to be a part of the place they live and/or work in, even if they are here for only a year or two.  Because of this, they are welcomed by the rest of the city as community members.

Mentoring brings together all Alexandrians.  In a room of people of varying ages, economic status, and connection to the community, mentoring shows that their connection to the community is the same.  Mentors are investing in the future of Alexandria.  Whether they mentor for one year or a dozen, mentors make a tangible difference in the lives of children who will grow up to be a native Alexandrians that care about their community and who one day might become a mentor and to make a difference themselves.