Q&A with Fateema Villani, AmeriCorps VISTA Leader

Fateema Villani joined Keep America Beautiful® as an AmeriCorps VISTA Leader in Nov. 2018. Keep America Beautiful has partnered with the Corporation for National and Community Service’s program AmeriCorps VISTA to combat the side effects of poverty by addressing food deserts and disaster resiliency in affiliate communities.

Throughout her year of service, Fateema worked in the Keep America Beautiful office in Stamford, Connecticut. She has recruited eight VISTA members in affiliate communities across the country, which has included overseeing the VISTA member’s work, organizing and leading a VISTA retreat, and hiring the next VISTA leader to take over the program for the next year. We spoke with Fateema to find out more about her work this past year, her passions, and her future plans! 

Tell me a little bit about your role here at Keep America Beautiful.  

I am the AmeriCorps VISTA leader here at Keep America Beautiful – I work as a recruiter, liaison, mentor, and advocate for the VISTA members who are hosted at affiliates of Keep America Beautiful.

Can you talk through a little bit more about the structure and why you are housed by a nonprofit?

AmeriCorps VISTA is a federally-funded program that sends volunteers to underserved communities to address and combat poverty. The Keep America Beautiful VISTA program focuses on community gardens and natural disaster resiliency. The community garden programs are intended to feed and educate people living in poverty. We also have a mobile market in one affiliate community that sells fresh food at a very low cost and a VISTA member focusing on placemaking via gardens in an urban setting.

What do you oversee and what are the members working on?

I oversee their week-to-week work, and I give them bi-weekly reports from which they update me on the demographics and other metrics of what they’re doing. I am their compliance and liaison, which translates to me answering questions that they may have on the behalf of Keep America Beautiful and CNCS.

What got you interested becoming a VISTA leader?

I was looking for AmeriCorps positions that gave a little more responsibility. I wanted to get more experience in recruiting, mentoring, and managing people. As a VISTA leader, it is more of administrative and a management role. I liked the mission of Keep America Beautiful and what the VISTAS would be doing in the communities.

What experience did you have that led you find this role and lead you to want to do this?

I got my undergrad degree in psychology from Buffalo State and then I did my first year of AmeriCorps NCCC. That was my first introduction to the AmeriCorps program, and it was a crazy ride – it was eight of us on the road for 10 months of training, living, (mandatory sessions of) working out, and working together. It was an intensive lesson on team building and it made me a better person. After that, I completed my Master of Science in International Development and Service, and the service component was present in my life yet again. I studied abroad and got the opportunity to serve my host communities by volunteering with numerous nonprofits. That experience got me even more interested in service, so I decided to do another service year with AmeriCorps VISTA in a leadership position.

Have you gained any more passions through this program?

I didn’t know how much I enjoyed interviewing people! When I was recruiting for the VISTA positions, I talked to over 100 people. I was setting up interviews all day, every day – four times a day there was an interview. I really liked getting to know people and seeing where they were at and assessing their qualifications.

What is one thing you learned since you’ve been working at Keep America Beautiful that you were able to apply to your VISTA program?

Working in the Keep America Beautiful office has made me more green-conscious. Now, I can no longer throw away plastic in the garbage and not feel guilty. If I see litter – and it’s not too gross – I will almost always pick it up.

I also learned to address work culture and office environment – no matter how different you are, different departments, etc., you can always find a commonality. After all we spend eight hours a day, five days a week with each other!

Is there something throughout this last year that surprised you?

Yes, the Keep America Beautiful staff surprised me! I came in here thinking how hard it would be to make friends, and now I am leaving a little community that I’ve really enjoyed seeing  five days a week. Also, the activations of the Keep America Beautiful mission surprised me. I got to participate in a beautification event at a Brooklyn garden and clean river walks in Norwalk. It was way more hands on, which really drove home what Keep America Beautiful is all about.

What is your advice to someone thinking about entering a year of service, such as AmeriCorps VISTA program?

If you’re in the middle of a crossroad, it’s better than being idle and waiting for something to find you. It is a proactive way to serve your community while figuring out your aspirations and goals in life. You will gain professional development, help communities, and meet like-minded do-good people.

One piece of important information is that VISTA members and leaders live at the poverty level in the county they are serving, which is around $12,000 to $14,000 per year.

What does living at the poverty level teach someone?

It makes you become a part of the community you’re serving. It’s a program where you seek to help communities without monetary payoff. If you do this, it means you have passion and seek something beyond monetary value.

So – your VISTA year is almost complete. What’s next?

I’m not sure yet. I’m looking. If you have any recommendations send them my way!