Tenacity: A Narrative of Invisible Work

Article Author: 
Michaela Barnett, CAC AmeriCorps VISTA Member 2017-2018

I spent some time this morning googling variations of “how to write an impact narrative.” It should be a simple task: list the work I have undertaken since arriving at my site and extrapolate on the impact of said work. I was told that I could write one that is qualitative, or quantitative, or both. While sitting at my workstation and struggling with the task, an employee from my site mercifully interrupted. He wanted to talk to me about furniture donations.

            “It makes me sick!” he said, after describing thousands of dollars’ worth of high-quality furniture thrown into dumpsters and destined for the landfill. I understand – it makes me ill, too.

He is the third person in a single week to seek me out and ask if it is possible to donate items that are currently thrown away en masse. Last week, it was uniforms and emergency food rations, but the story is the same. Items that have not outlived their usefulness are being discarded, and people are taking notice. And, they are taking notice that I am someone who can help.

Food donations


In thinking about my impact and how to narrate it, I have been reflecting intently over my experience the past seven months. Employees knowing what I do and seeking me out for help is a recent experience and one that was frankly impossible to imagine just a few short months ago. When I first started at my site, I had several experiences that revealed the significant hurdles I would have to overcome in order to accomplish my project goals. My direct supervisor and AmeriCorps peers did a good job of making me feel valuable and respected; many outside of that direct sphere did not. In my first few weeks of service, I had reason to believe that no one was going to take me seriously. I knew, and know, why: I am temporary. I am young. I am female. This was challenging, then enraging, then catalyzing.

Much of my progress can be listed in numbers, and much can be described qualitatively. (It should be stated that “my progress” has not been an individual, solitary work, but a collective one).  I have facilitated the donation of an estimated 15,334 pounds of food to area nonprofits. I have overseen 116 volunteer hours. I gave away over 600 pounds of high-quality items to 300 shoppers at a Free Store Pop-Up. I facilitated thousands of pounds of donations to places like Goodwill and the Knox County School System. On the qualitative side, the garden that I came to campus to start is going to be bigger and more beautiful and more impactful than anything we envisioned. It has the support of offices and departments all over campus due to many meetings and office visits and impromptu conversations, and it will be integrated into the academic and social life of the university in incredible ways. It is going to provide fresh food and cultivate community, and I am so excited to see it coming to fruition.

Free Pop-Up Shop


However – the bulk of the work that I have done so far has been invisible. It is not quantifiable, and possibly not qualifiable, either. What is the invisible work? The persistent building of social capital that has enabled me to do the impactful work. The invisible work does not look as impressive as the lists and descriptions above. It is time consuming and energy demanding. It takes place in a thousand small ways over hundreds of hours. It looks like conversations, and emails, and impeccable documents turned in on time, and showing up, and introducing myself (smiling) to those who derided me, and asking questions, and amassing support, and being kind, and choosing tenacity over apathy. It inhabits the blank spaces between the words of the impact narrative, and is the only thing that makes an impact possible.

Without all that invisible work, I would not have the relationship nor the reputation that prompted three employees to point me towards new sources of donations. Without it, I would not know whom to contact when new items crop up. Without it, thousands of pounds of food, textiles, and furniture would be going to a landfill instead of people that need them. I have just passed the halfway mark at my site, and so much work remains. I hope that what I have done will make it easier for future VISTAs to perform impactful work, but my focus is today. And today I am going to show up and do the work, both visible and invisible.

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This blog post is a collection of personal reflections and expressions. All opinions represented are those of the author and do not represent the official opinion or views of the Knoxville – Knox County Community Action Committee, CAC AmeriCorps or any other party referenced.