Katie Spoden, an Applied Community and Economic Development Fellow in political science, is drawing on her AmeriCorps VISTA service and graduate classes to advance the work of the Alliance to End Homelessness in Suburban Cook County.
Spoden received her bachelor’s degree in political science and environmental studies from the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in St. Joseph, Minnesota. After graduation, in 2014-2015 Spoden served as an AmeriCorps VISTA member with the University of Minnesota Extension, with a focus on community and economic development as it relates to access of healthy food. She coordinated a regional effort across rural central Minnesota to implement and sustain Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) electronic payment cards as options at farmers markets. She worked to provide consultation and technical assistance to over 25 farmers markers and farmers’ CSAs, or community supported agriculture programs. Spoden also led the regional effort to provide matching dollars for SNAP transactions at farmers markets.
In 2015-2016, Spoden continued as an AmeriCorps VISTA leader, also in central Minnesota, with the Initiative Foundation in Little Falls. In this new role, she mentored nine VISTA members, evaluated qualitative and quantitative data to assess monthly progress, and developed and delivered regular trainings on nonprofit leadership and professional development. She was also responsible for designing and maintaining a website for the area’s AmeriCorps VISTA program.
After working at a food co-op in Chicago, Spoden decided to pursue a master’s degree with the Stevenson Center to better position herself for a leadership role in the public sector. She completed a year of graduate courses in political science and the interdisciplinary Applied Community and Economic Development (ACED) sequence, and she is now finishing 11 months of professional practice as a special projects associate with the Alliance to End Homelessness in Suburban Cook County.
As the lead agency for suburban Cook County’s Continuum of Care, the Alliance brings together a range of services and housing options for people experiencing homelessness throughout Cook County, outside the city of Chicago. The Alliance strives for the elimination of homelessness and to serve all area individuals and families at risk of homelessness or experiencing homelessness. Suburban Cook County consists of 30 townships, 130 municipalities, 573 square miles, and 2.5 million residents. Among other services, the Alliance provides support to over 50 programs for transitional and permanent supportive housing. The Alliance’s programs also include homelessness prevention, emergency shelters, housing for youth and survivors of domestic violence, and rapid re-housing. To meet the goal of ending homelessness, the Alliance works collaboratively with a wide variety of organizations across the area.
Spoden’s core responsibilities include managing youth homelessness initiatives, facilitating the Youth Action Board, administering a collaboration between the Housing Authority of Cook County and homeless service providers, supporting state and local advocacy efforts to better serve individuals and families experiencing homelessness, as well as data collection, evaluation, and visualization. The Alliance prioritizes the voices of people with lived experiences of homelessness and actively engages a diverse set of stakeholders.
“In my work, I have been able to find a balance between data-driven decision making and authentic engagement with people with lived experience and the individuals who do direct service. I am drawn to community development work because I enjoy serving as a convener and bringing together diverse perspectives and skill sets. The Alliance has allowed me to continue to hone this skill and experience it in a new setting,” Spoden explained.
Continuum of Care program director Kurt Runge appreciates Spoden’s contributions to the Alliance’s work this year: “Katie has the critical thinking and communication skills necessary to excel in our organization. In addition, she is organized, good at managing her time, and able to judge multiple priorities at once. Katie is an asset to our organization and has helped our department tremendously in a very short time.”
While in her professional practice, Spoden is finishing a thesis. “I get to combine my passion for local food systems, my previous professional experiences, and what I learned in my political science courses to create a thesis rooted in both theory and application—reflecting the same balance the Stevenson Center provided,” she noted.
From Spoden’s year on campus to her current internship and concurrent thesis work, the Stevenson Center has helped solidify her desire to pursue a career in community and economic development. Her experience in the classroom combined with her professional practice are allowing her to expand what she learned as an AmeriCorps VISTA member into a meaningful career.
Spoden also credits her peers and professors for encouraging her to pursue her ideal career and making her time and experience at Illinois State University and the Stevenson Center worthwhile: “I want to thank my peers, professors, supervisor, and coworkers who have demonstrated their commitment to building stronger, healthier communities and encouraging me to pursue community and economic development work.”
Spoden has gained and learned much from her time with the Stevenson Center, her placement with the Alliance to End Homelessness in Suburban Cook County, and her overall education as an ACED Fellow. “The ACED Fellows program at the Stevenson Center provides the balance I was looking for in my graduate school experience. The most important aspect of the fellowship is the opportunity to apply what was learned in the classroom in a professional, community development setting. The fellowship gave me the confidence to apply my skills and knowledge, ask questions, and take on leadership roles at my professional placement,” Spoden said.
Want to learn more about becoming or hosting a Stevenson Center Fellow? Contact us at StevensonCenter@IllinoisState.edu or (309)-439-7090.
Megan Birk is the Stevenson Center’s public relations intern.