Stevenson Center Podcast: Kirk Richardson (Peace Corps Fellow, Political Science)

(sound effects) Hi! Kirk Richardson here from the
Stevenson Center for Applied Community and Economic Development. I am a Peace Corps Fellow in the Politics and Government Department and I’m currently
completing my internship at a CDFI in beautiful Missoula, Montana.
And if you’re like I was before starting this internship and think “CDFI” is just
another product of the pervasive acronym-philia in the development world, you’re
right! But it also stands for “certified development financial institution.” CDFIs
can be a community bank, nonprofit organization, or something similar, but
what they all have in common is a dedication to providing non-predatory
loans to low-income people. One of the more common forms of this is small
business lending which just so happens to be our core product. With our small
business loans we tend to lend exclusively to people who are unable to
get a traditional bank loan and wouldn’t otherwise be able to pursue their
entrepreneurial dream of independence from “the man.” Within my organization,
which serves both Montana and Idaho, I do a lot of different odd jobs from
generating analytic reports within our CRM to promoting new products by
traveling to communities across the two states and meeting with developers and
local residents face-to-face. So even though I’m working in the finance
industry, I’m doing things that aren’t so different from what I’ve done in the
past. And I’ve bounced around quite a bit, and I’ve learned that I’m simply most
comfortable being a jack-of-all-trades and I’m finally accepting that and ready
to come out as a generalist in an age of hyper-specialization. And considering my
background, it is surprising it took so long. After graduating from university
with an English degree, I worked on community development projects in the
Peace Corps for two years. I went to Georgia; not the state, but the country. Or
sometimes I say, “the former Soviet Republic of
Georgia,” but people sometimes think that I’m just trying to be fancy, like saying,
“the Providence of Rhode Island,” so now I mostly just say, “a small country right
below Russia on the Black Sea.” And that usually elicits enough intrigue to ask
the question, “which country?” And then I can just say, “Georgia.” (sound effect) Which, by the way, bears very little resemblance to the US state. Needless to say, I had the “authentic Peace Corps experience” and I loved it all things considered. I
didn’t like not having heat and a non-insulated cement Soviet style block
apartment in winter or getting a couple gastrointestinal parasites from
contaminated water, but those were really minor things in the grand scheme of the
whole experience, which really was transformative.
Without a doubt, Peace Corps’ best slogan remains, “the toughest job you’ll ever
love”…. or, “the worst vacation you’ll ever have.” The Peace Corps was also where I
learned that I like playing the chameleon; code-switching between friends
of different nationalities or between host country politicians and the
villager whose wine I was helping to make. It was fun seeing multiple
perspectives and understanding the patterns of thought between diverse
groups of people has been one of the most useful skills I’ve accrued through
experience. So if you’re like me and you are fretting over your programmatic
choices or where you might end up for an internship or for Peace Corps, my advice
is to adopt the meta-perspective and believe that if you have the right
mindset, you will learn useful skills and have a profound experience no matter
what, and that the fellowship or Peace Corps service, whichever you’re
contemplating, will define your life to an extent, but it doesn’t have to define
your career if you decide you don’t want it to. The decision will ultimately still
be yours. You’ll just be
better informed to make those decisions and that sense of being informed and a
feeling of self-efficacy are definitely two things that have grown during my
experience at Illinois State. On the one hand, the applied nature of the program
is immensely refreshing. Trust me, I love going down the rabbit hole and I like to
explore big questions. After all, I graduated with a degree in English
during the recession. I sacrificed for the ramen noodle ideals of the dorm room
and I don’t think those ideas are trivial. I don’t want to dismiss them. But,
for people who want to be effective in the world, who want their ideas to mean
something, there has to be a connection to the actual events and forces that
shape our built environment, and it can be very hard to see– to really see– those
forces when we aren’t directly interacting with them. And academia is
something of a shelter from them, which can be good for providing a needed
third-party perspective and informing practitioners and changing the way
things are done and directing our cultural ethos on the grand scale.
However, that sort of change comes when tempered with and informed by how things
work in the day to day among people and organizations chasing narrow goals, or
doing really good but being slowed by good-intentioned regulations, or a lack
of money, or inter-organizational competition, or whatever. It’s all gray
and it only gets grayer the farther one gets from self-contained arguments. A lot
of things cannot be accounted for in statistical modeling, so just like
balancing quantitative work with qualitative data, I like to supplement my
education with practice and that is one of the benefits of the Stevenson Center
program. We went to undergrad, then worked in the
world for a bit, came back to reconsider some theory interspersed with more
technical skills, and now we’re off tampering with the world again– tinkering
with our own personal reality constructs. I think this is the best way to engage
with the world and that is why I appreciate the Stevenson Center and its
applied focus. So to some, worry a bit less when projecting your future but
work like a demon to affect change that matters to you. Value experiential
learning as much as formal learning and court discomfort as the cost for
expanding your ability to understand the world. Anyway, I hope that helps. This is
Kirk Richardson, signing out.

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