AmeriCorps VISTA member Mina Chitti joined the Behavioral Health Equity Corps (BHEC) in January of 2021. They are currently serving at the Office of Alternate Defense Council. They were kind enough to answer some questions about themselves and the work they have done as part of the program.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Let’s see, I’ll skip to the good parts. My name’s Mina and I’m from El Paso, Texas. I was the typical quiet, introverted, academically minded kid growing up, and I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone. That’s exactly why I lived overseas after graduating college, why I moved to Colorado, and why I decided to take an AmeriCorps position in law and government. Now, here I am, getting more involved in public health policy every month, looking into buying my own snowboard, and feeling more fulfilled than ever.
How did you get into volunteering?
Being part of several marginalized communities makes you aware of how people are treated differently, and the intersection of those experiences shapes your life. I think that’s why I’ve volunteered for quite a few causes over the years. I was the president of an animal shelter organization in college, and later became an officer in my university’s Queer Student Alliance, where I had the most volunteering hours out of everyone in the organization. I taught English in Spain after I graduated and volunteered in grants management for a Spanish refugee support organization while I was there. When I got back in the states, I was delivering food and supplies for local food banks. Basically, I’m really passionate about volunteering and helping the community, and have been for a while!
What do you most enjoy in your free time?
I look for outlets for my creativity. I really like to write, which is part of why I do a lot of research on the side. I also write short stories, keep a travel photography blog, draw, and cook. I like to cook unnecessarily fancy things! When I’m not doing any of that, I try to try something new. A new activity, a new place. It keeps things fun.
What advice would you give people considering going into service?
My biggest piece of advice is to learn from people who have already done AmeriCorps VISTA. You can reach out to people online to learn more about the different structures and versions of AmeriCorps across the country. Know what you’re getting into, know why you’re doing it, and envision how your service will fit into your larger mission/goals. Also, enjoy the experience! I really learned a lot about myself and service as a whole
If you could visit one place, anywhere in the world, where would you go?
If it counts – the ISS. If not, I would choose something on Earth that’s normally pretty inaccessible, like Antarctica. They have penguins, so that’s a huge plus.
What is one item you cannot live without?
PlayStation! I love unwinding with games.
What is your favorite hobby?
Right now, it’s probably a tie between traveling and cooking. I’ve been really interested in learning more advanced cooking techniques, and I’m always looking for interesting places to visit over the weekend. Day trips are the best!
What would you like the world to know about you and your work?
I would like the world to know that I’m very excited about my work! I want to change healthcare for the better on a systematic level and on a personal level.
Tell us about your host site. How do you, as a BHEC member, fit into their vision of supporting communities?
I serve with The Office of Alternate Defense Council. They provide criminal defense for low-income individuals in situations where there is a conflict of interest. Because of that, they are socially conscious. We have three VISTAs at our host site. One is focused on expanding diversity in law, one is focused on documenting police brutality, and then my work is focused on increasing access to legal representation across the state - particularly in rural areas. The three positions are all part of creating a more inclusive, fair, and accessible legal field.
What attracted you most to work with BHEC?
I was considering a few different placements in the fall of 2020. BHEC stood out to me because of the staff that interviewed me – I had a good rapport with them and noticed that they valued my input and service year experience. I also really liked that BHEC connected their VISTAs with VISTAs at other host sites. Finally, BHEC was addressing behavioral health issues that I cared about, such as the opioid epidemic. Substance use is a research focus of mine, so I was very excited to meet other people who were interested in the same issues.
What programs/projects are you currently working on? Please describe.
We have been working on four pilot programs. The first is a rural legal fellowship. I wrote a grant proposal to fund this program, and we are expecting that it will be approved soon. The second is an alternative spring break program where law students will get to follow and assist with a trial under the guidance of a mentoring attorney. The third is a summer program that will match students with mentoring attorneys in five different rural locations across the state, where they will work on real cases. Finally, we are building an outreach program to increase awareness of rural legal opportunities and recruit students to come serve rural communities across Colorado. This outreach was originally going to be conducted in person at law schools around the country but is now online due to the ongoing pandemic.
Highlight a specific project you are currently working on or completed.
The summer program is the most complicated program that I’ve worked on this year. The idea is that the students will work with an experienced attorney on real cases and become integrated into the local community, ideally returning to them after graduation. Assigning students to a mentoring attorney is easy, but the surrounding infrastructure of the program relies on a lot of networking. I've been working on finding housing deals for the summer program students, facilitating development opportunities, involving local legal organizations (such as bar associations), and setting up a rural roundtable of contractors for the students to attend. I have high hopes for its launch.
What impact do you feel these projects/programs will have on the community?
I think that the four pilots are really going to help rural communities across Colorado - and even communities in other states, as we have been networking with organizations across the country to develop these programs. Rural communities have been neglected, and many people wrongly think that they are on their way out of relevance. Our programs will help people understand that these communities have more to give and that there are opportunities to support and serve these communities.
Tell us about the support you receive from your host site.
My host site is somewhat unusual as a lot of the people there are practicing attorneys and are very busy. Because of that, it’s kind of a sink or swim environment. You bring your best, show initiative, and don’t expect guidance in the traditional way. I made suggestions every week, and my supervisors provided feedback on those suggestions. That feedback has been the biggest source of guidance, as my supervisors were patient and had so much experience. They helped me understand both law and rural communities better. It was then my role to adjust based on what they taught me and bring back improved suggestions the following week. It’s a structure that’s worked really well for me.
What would you like to gain from service at this host site? (Taking it as “What did you gain from service at this host site?” as I’m almost done)
A big one was professional development. Before, I noticed a lot of problems in society that I wanted to change but didn’t always know how to approach them. Now, I understand the bigger picture of how change is made and believe that I can make a positive difference for others. Also, having a service year has been impactful in and of itself. I think that everyone who is able should do a year of service to better understand the world and their place in it.
What is the most rewarding aspect/proudest accomplishment of your work/position?
I would say networking. In the beginning, I was a bit shy. I was talking to all these people who have very limited time. They are important, and they can be intimidating - and I used to feel intimidated. At first, I would network alongside my supervisors, who lead the conversation. Over time, however, my supervisors left me to do it on my own, and I've been very proud of how I’ve done with that. I see my growth in how I’m able to go up to others and get value out of those conversations.