Each summer — as the program year winds down — we invite Fellows to reflect on their experience. This year, Claire Hannapel, QVS’ Development Director, sat down with Tiauna Lewis, a young adult Fellow serving in Atlanta this 2020-2021 program year.
Hi, Tiauna! Thanks so much for sitting down with me. So, tell me a little bit about yourself and what led you to QVS.
My name is Tiauna. I’m a recent graduate of Swarthmore College and grew up in Nebraska.
Before the pandemic I lived in Omaha — where I was doing Americorps. I was living in this house with six other people. Not many of us talked to each other. We hardly talked about how we wanted to take care of the house. We bought our own groceries. We had a shelf full of different milks. We weren’t invested in our space as much as I wanted us to be. It felt weird. It felt like whenever there was a conflict, it was a conflict, not just a disagreement.
I noticed I was behaving in ways I didn’t want to behave, like sending disgruntled texts to my housemates and not wanting to be involved in my neighborhood. I felt the need for a more friendly and intentional environment.
I talked to my mentors in Nebraska, and they recommended doing radical things now, while I don’t have things like a permanent job or debt limiting me.
Since Swarthmore is historically Quaker, there are a lot of Quaker connections there and I had some friends who had done QVS. I was actually thinking of applying to QVS after I graduated. But I thought there was no way I could commit to earning only $125/mo, so chose to do Americorps to earn about $1,000/mo. The additional money ended up not making much of a difference because I wasn’t as happy as I thought I could be, and unlike at QVS, at AmeriCorps I was still responsible for the majority of my living costs like rent, food, and mental health services.
Coming into the year, were there particular questions you were holding? Hoping to get answered?
Coming off Americorps, I was intrigued by the intentional community living thing. I wanted to know: How do I grow to be comfortable around people? How do I allow myself to ask for help? How do I make a home out of a place?
I had some anxiety around money to work through — as someone who comes from a low income background. I was disappointed in myself because I thought money would make my life better. I thought I would like Americorps because it was like QVS but I was making more money. I found that I wasn’t actually confronting my insecurities, but instead was hiding from them.
I’ve always assumed — especially going to Swarthmore — having money was what success looks like, and would make my life fulfilling.
I realized I wanted to be more comfortable with the resources I had. I wanted to see how I could live a fulfilling and safe life without the excess wealth I always assumed I needed. I’ve never had excess wealth.
I was able to come to terms with the stipend because I saw that QVS was marketing something different. Not about obtaining wealth, but abundance and community support. QVS hands you a support network that consists of your house, the organization, and the Quaker meetings. I knew asking for help — especially when money was involved — was really hard for me. Things I’d never felt comfortable doing, asking my neighbor for a spatula, or asking a friend to pay for a book that I’d like to read. Small asks. I wanted to be more comfortable with accessing the abundance around me. QVS is really trying to teach Fellows to live within a community, a house, a neighborhood. So far, it’s given me a great home in which to grow.
What is it like to build community in a QVS house? What is it like to build intentional community during a pandemic?
It was tough. QVS has met and exceeded my expectations in some ways. And there were different waves of community [building] within my house. Moving in together was very exciting. Before QVS, we’d each spent months adapting to the pandemic — many of us were mostly alone, not spending time with friends.
There was a period when the newlywed phase wore off. We began (all at our own pace) confronting insecurities and patterns that made it difficult to grow in community together. It showed us how personal the community building process was. We were scared and intimidated by that in different ways. We all had to go through a process of re-committing to each other, especially at the end of winter. And not all of us were able to do that.
Living in an intentional community is really like dating a bunch of different people. We underestimated how much work that took. In some ways that was one of the most exciting things — building a community during a pandemic. In order to be safe, we had to be at home. It made us bond. It helped make us close. And it definitely has something to do with this assemblage of people. We all genuinely love each other very much. That’s a heavy expectation for every QVS house to feel close in the ways we do, but it worked out for us. We’ve created a little family and I adore them. We also value a lot of the same things. We all value honest communication. We value having ongoing conversations. We value talking with each other.
Was there a point in which you sat down together and named these values aloud or were they just known and embodied?
A mix. It came naturally. It wasn’t an intentional conversation, but an intentional construction of systems.
Over time, we all leaned into communication. I think coming in we were already a communicative group, so that helped. Our first way of systematizing our values was through our agenda at house [business] meetings. We had more informal conversations, but recognized when things needed to be a longer conversation. For example, I remember early on having a conversation about spending time together — we loosely asked ourselves, what does it mean to be in community when some people need different kinds of community spaces? Everything from big group vs. small group conversations to board games vs. card games.
We were balancing what it meant to spend time together. We formed a system where we’d talk about something at house meetings, but be okay with naming if something was a longer conversation.
Rachael, our City Coordinator, was a huge help. Rachael introduced new methods to help us communicate our needs and helped normalize the feelings we were experiencing as people growing in community.
I remember during my QVS year, my housemates and I developed our house culture through mottos and phrases we would return to regularly. Did your house have any mottos for the year? What do those mean to you?
Yes. We had two that stand out.
“This can be an ongoing conversation.” This one came out of the pandemic. We understood that things were changing so rapidly, and because of COVID, things could look one way this week and totally different next week. In early house meetings, we noticed ourselves saying that phrase a lot. Our conversations came to a point where we were still thinking about how we felt about something, but felt uncomfortable saying something definitive. It became a way to sustain the importance of a conversation, and ensure we were checking in with each other about it.
“I can’t initiate that, but I can rally.” This motto came out of a conversation about house games. Every couple of weeks one of us would have an idea about what we wanted to do. In the fall, one housemate had an idea that we’d play laser tag or capture the flag inside the house. We asked, should we get lasers? Should we use stickers? What should the flag be?
We realized some of the decisions we made and plans we wanted to enact were too broad for everyone’s capacity. I think it was Anna who said, “I can’t initiate that, but I can rally,” and it just stuck. It became this thing we said to express boundaries and clarify communal labor.
Last year, my housing situation was so individualistic. We never played any games together. If someone suggested something, and someone didn’t want to do it, it would have just ended there. But in our QVS house, there is a spirit of wanting everyone to be included at the level they can be. We really enjoy each other’s company and want to create joy together. In the winter, this motto was super helpful when we were going through waves of seasonal depression. We could step up for each other, and back when we needed to.
How has grace shown up for you this year?
I see grace in the extent to which these random strangers are willing to love and understand me. Especially with the insecurities I face when living in community: fears of abandonment, jealousy, a tendency to self-isolate. All these things impacted my energy in group spaces. When I started learning others’ quirks – or needs – that helped me validate my own experience. I recognized it wasn’t just me.
It’s inevitable that we’ve hurt each other and done things that don’t feel good to each other, or just not been present for each other. And my housemates saying they still want to support me and talk with me. That was grace showing up.
At the beginning of the year, maybe during a house meeting, someone started a document called ATL HOUSE. We went around and talked about our birthdays, personalities, notable family members, emergency contacts, astrology signs. We listed it all out. Then we went around listing responses to the questions: how do you like to interact in community? How do you like to be supported?
It was awesome! That moment was when I first started to see intentional community. We were actively committed to being in conversation about how we could be there for each other. We made this commitment early on. And we were able to come back to that moment later on when things got hard.
And yet, early on most of us didn’t expect for intentional community to be so malleable. That’s why we were naive enough to make a document that listed out how we each could be supported! As if we could just refer to a document for answers. Of course our answers would change! We quickly learned intentionality wasn’t a permanent commitment, it was sustained action. Eventually, our intentionality shifted from being this concrete thing, to being something that’s consistently and frequently negotiated.
We became committed to change, to reconsidering each other.
We created systems to work and communicate together that allowed us to talk about what we needed from each other and the community. Change was more central to our community than simply saying it was intentional.
So, what’s next for you Tiauna? Where will you go from here?
A couple of my housemates and I have decided to stay in Atlanta and continue living in an intentional community. I’m excited to know my housemates more deeply and see how we live together outside of QVS. There are even talks of adopting a dog together. I’ve been lucky to build great relationships with local quakers, especially my spiritual nurturer and I’m thankful to have the opportunity to keep building my community in this city. Finding a job has not been easy, but I’ve had great career discernment conversations with QVS Staff Members Rachael, Zenaida, Claire, and Carol Anne, and QVS board member Kate Monahan. They’ve all been incredibly helpful in the process and I’m so thankful for the support QVS provides. Overall I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to learn and grow in Atlanta alongside my amazing housemates.
More about Tiauna
Tiauna Lewis grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska where she got her start in social justice. She is a recent graduate of Swarthmore College, a historically Quaker institution, where she majored in history and minored in Black Studies and Religion. Tiauna has a long history of social justice advocacy through poetry. Tiauna was a member of multiple award-winning slam poetry teams and writes primarily about life as a queer, fat, Black woman. As a college student, Tiauna was active in the Black student community and the First-Generation, Low-Income community. Tiauna is a Mellon Mays Fellow and hopes to continue her education in a cultural studies field (undecided). Tiauna had a strong presence in the humanities research community at Swarthmore, completing long-term research projects on the Egyptianization of Ancient Nubia, the Intellectual History of US Black Feminism, and the historical impacts of the Thomas v. Hill Judiciary Committee hearings. Tiauna is passionate about creating communities and fostering meaningful relationships in her work. During her year with Quaker Voluntary Service, Tiauna worked with the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Atlanta, Georgia.
How do Fellows afford QVS? What resources do Fellows have access to during their QVS year?
We know that for some, participating in a fellowship program like QVS seems out of the question due to financial concerns, student loan debt, and other economic pressures. While a year of simple living on a small stipend is certainly not for everyone, we encourage you to consider all of the ways you will be supported during your year with QVS.
In QVS, Fellows receive:
- Housing in a fully furnished shared home, plus utilities and internet
- Shared grocery stipend
- Public transportation pass
- Health insurance and mental healthcare (if needed)
- Personal stipend of $125/mo
- Student loan counseling & support (QVS covers any loan interest accrued during your service year)
- Access to an equity fund for Fellows with historically marginalized identities
- Dedicated time for reflection and community building
- Opportunity to benefit from exclusive scholarship opportunities for graduate programs
Additionally, while a year of simple living may not increase a Fellow’s monetary wealth, it does give them access to social and personal capital which they will carry with them their whole life.
Read more about our Equity Funds which expand the financial support we are able to offer Fellows from various economic/class backgrounds. And, if you are able, please consider making a contribution to QVS so that we can ensure the program remains accessible to young adults led to do a year of service with us!
Have more questions about a QVS year? Check out our FAQs!
More Quaker Service Stories
Learn how City Coordinators accompany Fellows during QVS in an interview with Eli Phillips, QVS’ outgoing Minneapolis Coordinator.
Margaret Thurston, who served in Boston during the 2020-2021 program year, shares about the ways QVS transformed her understanding of justice.
Erin Lungwitz, a young adult Fellow who served in the Twin Cities during the 2020-2021 program year, shares the songs from her QVS year.