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Peace Corps Fellow serving with AmeriCorps uses art to promote inclusion and community

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Ryan Arnold (front row, second from left) at the first 2020 Inclusion Project workshop held at Youth Crossroads in Berwyn in January.

Peace Corps Fellow Ryan Arnold has always had a penchant for making things happen, even before joining the Stevenson Center. Before starting his master’s degree, Arnold served with the Peace Corps in Cameroon from 2011 to 2013 as a youth development coordinator. He worked on various grassroots projects, ranging from public health to water and sanitation. Arnold went on to work at CARE for AIDS for four years as the African operations director. In 2018,Arnold joined the Stevenson Center to pursue a master’s degree in political science.

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Ryan Arnold (far right) with members of his community in Cameroon during his 2011-2013 Peace Corps service.

“After years of working in the international nonprofit sector, I was excited to study political science and dig into deeper understandings of the power structures that create the inequalities that make the nonprofit sector necessary in the first place,” Arnold said. “I am looking forward to continuing to work in the nonprofit sector in a way that addresses root causes, not just immediate needs.”

The Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development cultivates leaders to positively impact communities. Fellows are required to have at least a year of relevant experience prior to admission. Fellows have served with Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, or they have worked for nonprofit organizations or government agencies. Fellows pursue a master’s degree in anthropology, applied economics, political science, kinesiology and recreation, or sociology, each with an interdisciplinary sequence in applied community and economic development.

“I’ve found that a lot of people are looking for ways to get involved and make a difference. Why not be the person that has the idea, that creates the opportunity, and that makes things happen?”

The program requires an intense year of on-campus study, followed by 11 months of paid professional practice. Arnold is finishing his professional practice with the Berwyn Development Corporation, where he is serving as a full-time AmeriCorps member.

Arnold is leading a community strategic planning process. He developed and administered a resident survey, planned and facilitated focus groups, and ran a workshop with almost 100 residents. Among other projects, he created and managed a volunteer database, designed and implemented marketing and outreach projects, and researched best practices. With Illinois under shelter-at-home orders due to COVID-19, Arnold is working remotely. One of his new projects is developing virtual community meetings and creating training materials to enable community members to facilitate these sessions.

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For Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January 2020, Ryan Arnold worked with students, artists, and community partners to create a mural honoring Dr. King’s legacy.

Being an AmeriCorps member means going beyond the position requirements and looking for new ways to fill unmet needs. All AmeriCorps members commemorate the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday through service.

Arnold used the event to create a project that will live on long after his work in Berwyn is done: the 2020 Inclusion Project. Arnold brought together local groups to involve middle and high school students in social justice conversations, engaged artists to help the students paint a mural, raised all of the necessary resources, and energized the community around the project. The students participated in a series of workshops that covered Dr. King’s life and legacy, drawing and sketching techniques, and how public art can be used as a community development tool. The final mural commemorates the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and celebrates Berwyn’s racial and cultural diversity.

Wonderfully, the groups will continue to paint additional murals in Berwyn, providing a meaningful experience for middle and high school students along the way.

“The mural project that is still in progress was a just spark of an idea in August that grew as I had conversations with stakeholders, and became a long-term, community project with multiple partners and a corporate sponsor,” Arnold said. “That process was a great reminder that it really doesn’t take much to bring people together to create positive change. I’ve found that a lot of people are looking for ways to get involved and make a difference. Why not be the person that has the idea, that creates the opportunity, and that makes things happen?”

Arnold is the recipient of this year’s Graduate Student Civic Engagement Award from the Department of Politics and Government.

Shaylin Quaid is the Stevenson Center’s public relations intern.