Tanner Searles—Mercy Corps NW

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AmeriCorps VISTAs spend a lot of time shuffling around the phrase “capacity building,” because that is what they do: improve the ability of existing organizations to support low-income communities through program development, outreach, and modernization. While many VISTAs encounter the concept of capacity building through VISTA, that wasn’t the case for Tanner Searles, who found VISTA because of her interest in capacity building.

After some careful research into capacity building programs, Tanner discovered AmeriCorps VISTA and signed up with a project at Mercy Corps NW. This VISTA project centers on expanding the scope of its microloan and IDA programs for entrepreneurs who lack the education or assets to do so. She will also help conduct outreach to low-income communities throughout the state and focus on tapping rural communities that have fewer resources to starting up small businesses.

It’s all just another step in Tanner’s life — a life that’s been focused on helping others. Tanner first began engaging herself in community development at her church, where she repeatedly found herself dealing with complicated issues that seemed difficult to approach given her experience level. She decided to pursue a Masters of Social Work (MSW) to become professionally trained and “serve people well and do no harm.”

While earning her MSW at University of Southern California, Tanner spent several years counseling at-risk youth against gang violence. She also volunteered with programs geared toward helping homeless and special needs youth, and throughout these experiences she began to see a similar pattern. “Poverty affects us all,” she said. “Yet I saw top down approaches to its alleviation repeatedly fail due to lack of understanding by city officials and those not directly living in the affected areas.”

After several years of direct service, Tanner saw the many problems that affected low-income communities as a whole, and she saw that they stemmed from a much bigger source.
“Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much work you put into an individual, they might not improve because of the system.”

So Tanner decided to focus on the big picture. With an emphasis on community planning and administration, Tanner focused her degree on the “macro” perspective affecting low-income individuals. “I did not emphasize in psychology because that focuses on the individual,” said Tanner. “Community organization and planning looks more at systems for change rather than direct service.”

After college, Tanner flew to Kenya to eradicate extreme poverty with the organization Nuru International. Upon her return home, Tanner had a clearer perspective of what she wanted to do professionally.

“We talked a lot about capacity building in Kenya, maybe because we were in places where there was such a lack of capacity,” said Tanner. “Capacity building was not a term typically used by conventional social work in America.”

After that, she found AmeriCorps quite simply: she Google-searched “capacity building.” While Tanner had heard of AmeriCorps before, she had not known about VISTA, and admits that had she known that it focused on programmatic development, she would have joined “a lot sooner.”

While Tanner recognizes that this creates the potential of limiting resources for Portland entrepreneurs, she is also very aware of the many advantages of this plan. For instance, many rural communities do not have the wide array of resources for microloans or grants geared toward low-income entrepreneurs, if they have any at all. Additionally, this branching out is an opportunity for Mercy Corps to reach people they have not reached before, and it is a way to get the word out about the various economic resources available. All in all, it is a chance to improve the struggling communities that are often ignored.

Tanner was most attracted to Mercy Corps NW because she wanted to be “in the center of it all.” She was also looking to challenge herself in a subject she was not too familiar with — finances. “In working with poverty-stricken areas, I found that part of empowering people is empowering them to innovate and have faith in themselves to take the leap to employ themselves instead of having to be employed.”

With that, she would like to start up a small business of her own one day — a community organization in which women come together and encourage each other toward paths of success and innovation. “Human beings need community and are shaped by their communities,” said Tanner. “I strongly desire to be someone who positively contributes to the creation of healthy, thriving communities,” all of which she’ll pursue during her year with VISTA.