While earning a Masters of Sustainable Communities, Michael Chizhov served in AmeriCorps at Grand Canyon Trust. He enjoyed the challenge of bringing theories into his work with conservation on the Colorado Plateau. Michael is originally from Ukraine and moved to New York as a child. He also speaks about being motivated to create more opportunities for his sister, who is ten years younger than he.

Bringing Theory to Practice with Mike Chizhov

This season is sponsored by the Do Good, Be Good AmeriCorps Training Series. If you work for an AmeriCorps program or State Commission, contact Sharon to find out about customized training for your AmeriCorps supervisors or members

Full Transcript Below:

[00:00:07] ANNOUNCER: This is Do Good, Be Good. The show about helpful people and the challenges they face in trying to do good. Your host is Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom a career do gooder who also loves craft beer and a good hard tackle in rugby. Sharon speaks to everyday people about why they do good and what it means to be good.


[00:00:27] SHARON: Hi everyone, I’m your host Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom. Today’s podcast is brought to you by the Do Good Be Good AmeriCorps training series. More on that later. In this season of do good be good. We have stories about AmeriCorps. AmeriCorps is a national service program in which people sign up to serve in a community somewhere, anywhere in the United States usually for a year. There can be part time or full time, while serving they earn a living stipend and at the end of service they are awarded an educational voucher or an educational award. I served in AmeriCorps myself in 2007 and I ran an AmeriCorps program for five years and today my guest is Michael Chizhov. I had the pleasure of hiring Michael when he applied to join the AmeriCorps program that I was running. He had just started graduate school in the Masters of Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University here in Flagstaff Arizona where I am based. He applied for a part time AmeriCorps position at Grand Canyon Trust Grand Canyon Trust is actually a different non-profit from the one that we highlighted in a recent episode with Megan Dwyer. Just to be clear the Trust as we often call them for short works on conservation efforts across this region.


[00:01:57] This is an area that we refer to as the Colorado Plateau which covers parts of northern Arizona, southern Utah, southwestern Colorado and northwestern New Mexico. To start our conversation I asked Michael if he was always a helpful person. I mean was he considered helpful from the time he was a child.


[00:02:20] MICHAEL: So I grew up in Kiev in Ukraine and we had what’s called a dacha. It was kind little farmhouse in a country where folks grow vegetables because a lot of times it’s can be hard to buy vegetables in the city. It wasn’t like a prestige thing. You know it wasn’t like, “I have this country house that I go to on vacation”. It was just a farmhouse that people had. It was in this like remote village you know maybe four or five hours outside of the city. So one thing that you do when you grow cucumbers and I know this now I did not know this then was that they usually leave a bunch of them out in the field so they can kind of start rotting and really seed and seed the next year’s crop. Well I thought I would be really helpful and help this grandma that was living next door to us collect her cucumber crop. And then of course didn’t bring the cucumbers to her, I brought them to my family. So suddenly we have this like plethora of cucumbers and a very angry neighbor. That was the first story that came to mind of me trying to be helpful and completely ruining somebody’s crop of cucumbers.


[00:03:19] SHARON: And did anyone explain to you what you did wrong?


[00:03:22] MICHAEL: No I think I just got yelled at, but in a very loving way. I think maybe they explained it to me, I don’t know. My parents have told this story to me constantly as a way of reminding me of my helpfulness.


[00:03:33] SHARON: Sounds like Michael did have a reputation as a helpful child. I asked him if there were any other favorite family memories of his helpfulness. In this next segment, I mention an AmeriCorps EDC. EDC stands for esprit de corps. These were service events that were meant to connect AmeriCorps members to one another and build up a common sense of purpose and teamwork.


[00:04:02] MICHAEL: The story goes that he was building the house out of cinder blocks a big pretty sturdy sturdy house but out of the materials available there were fairly inexpensive… Concrete. There’s variations in the story from either that I was helping him move an entire wheelbarrow full of cinder blocks as a five year old to moving a cinder block one by one as a five year old. So I like to think of the former and just imagine myself as this little tiny five year old boy running around with a wheelbarrow full of cinderblocks… just like Herculean strength at that point… that’s not a light load.


[00:04:33] SHARON: You are really tall now.


[00:04:35] MICHAEL: I am now.


[00:04:36] SHARON: Were you a tall five year old?


[00:04:36] MICHAEL: I was not, I was not. I was fairly… not tall.


[00:04:42] SHARON: This is radio so you know sometimes I have to explain these things.


[00:04:45] MICHAEL : You know it’s a job that I feel like I’ve had at other times too which is take the pile and move the pile from one spot to another spot. It’s like a very I feel like a very human task. Moving the pile no matter what the pile is… Usually a shovel is involved. Yeah.


[00:05:00] No matter how complicated and like intense like gardening or construction tools are it still boils down to moving the pile from one spot to the other or hit the thing with another thing. Really at the base of it that’s all we are doing.


[00:05:15] SHARON: Do you find that satisfying?


[00:05:17] MICHAEL: I find it really comical that we have like five thousand dollar saws or whatever and at the end of the day you just like smacking a piece of wood with a hammer. It’s just like what we’ve been doing for hundreds of years, is smack the thing with the other thing and move the pile.


[00:05:29] SHARON: Well especially in volunteer work I feel like we really get down to the basics of just smack the thing with the other thing.


[00:05:37] MICHAEL: Yeah, right.


[00:05:38] SHARON: I remember actually when I was in AmeriCorps I remember I was supposed to be helping homebound seniors and disabled adults and somehow that translated at one point into helping this family, they had an old RV sitting in their front yard, and they didn’t want it anymore.


[00:06:00] MICHAEL: OK.


[00:06:01] SHARON: So we ended up using hatchets and hacksaws to literally piece by piece tear the whole thing apart.


[00:06:10] MICHAEL: And make it go away…


[00:06:10] SHARON: And make it go away. That was our volunteer project. I think that was actually an AmeriCorps EDC and I do remember someone slipped and they were like… With the hatchet… they were like taking out the bathroom or something and their hand slipped and I remember it flying by my head. I think that was the moment where I thought, “oh risk management, probably should have thought this through a little more”.


[00:06:39] MICHAEL: Flying hatchets.


[00:06:40] SHARON: Because I was in charge of that project. Yeah probably should have had some…


[00:06:45] MICHAEL: That project, makes you sound so official.


[00:06:49] SHARON: Michael’s family won a visa lottery when he was still very young and they moved from Ukraine to Brooklyn, New York.


[00:06:56] MICHAEL: When we were living in Brooklyn you know my little sister was born and I was 10. She will probably listen to this, but I think she knows that I was fairly disinterested in her as a 10 year old boy and was just like … eh. This was this interesting simultaneous I guess kind of serendipitous overlap in the direction my life was going and kind of her reality. I was… I guess reading works that were simultaneously talking about, you know, the perils of climate change on the next generation and also some really critical works about the public school system in America… Its foundations, its roots, everything from Indian schools to industrialization and the need for more factor… All this fairly critical education theory. The fact that I had this sibling would be going through this… Seeing her develop as a very smart and very capable person. I just knew that there was so much more I found for myself through some very like trial and error hard work running around the country doing bizarre things. Her existence really set a particular path for my life, just because I wanted to make her life better than what I had experienced. Like me I was kind of confused at that point, not really interested in what the routes that I was being kind of channeled towards. I was going to be a computer engineer and do tech support and programming and that kind of stuff. And I just felt that that wasn’t right. And it took me a long time to figure out what could be right.


[00:08:18] I wanted to spare her those years of figuring it out as much as I could doing a lot of studying and learning on my own just about history and theory of education. I was trying to open up as many opportunities as I could along the way for her. Over the last few years most of the organizations I’ve worked in I found ways for her to do an internship there. I found ways for her to work as a part time staff member there. Less because I think that the programs that I was part of I think she should be as well, but more because I want to provide as many as as large a diversity of experiences and opportunities as I could because I feel like that combination of very varied things could result in something really interesting with somebody like her who is very smart and savvy and socially aware. That’s a long way to say that a lot of the reason why I was doing the kinds of things that I was doing when I started doing AmeriCorps and working with the Trust and moving to Flagstaff, the path that I was on was as much an exploration of myself as it was an exploration of what I could provide for her, Pollina, my sister.


[00:09:20] SHARON: In his 20s, Michael moved to Flagstaff to go to graduate school at Northern Arizona University.


[00:09:27] MICHAEL: Also my position was at the Grand Canyon Trust and I’m still working there now. And what ended up happening, kind of reflecting on it now, is a really great combination of the things I was learning about in school and also really critical social theory, really critical just works on What is justice? What is a sustainable community?


[00:09:47] How do you work towards that in a way that’s not exclusionary? All these kind of really big questions that were the exact reason why I went to this grad program, was to explore those questions in many ways. The Trust was asking similar questions from the lens of conservation and trying to figure out how to answer them in practice. So the combination of this really intense theoretical kind of exploration and study coupled with my time with AmeriCorps and the Trust of trying to really figure out what these issues and conversation could look like on the ground was a really good pairing.


[00:10:18] SHARON: When I think of you and your AmeriCorps experience, having been working for the program when you were serving in it, I think about having these great theoretical conversations with you.


[00:10:30] MICHAEL: Yea, it was a fun… it was a fun time.


[00:10:31] SHARON: It was a nice break for me. You know I’d often be visiting with AmeriCorps members who were definitely much more on the practical side of moving one pile from one side to the other. And then it was nice to come over and theorize about what it means about our society that we’re always moving one pile from one side to the other.


[00:10:56] MICHAEL: But what does it mean? What are we trying to acheive? What is the pile?


[00:10:56] AD BREAK: Season Two of Do Bood, Be Good is sponsored by my AmeriCorps webinar series. AmeriCorps supervisors have unique challenges like managing the member lifecycle. As an AmeriCorps alumna and a program manager with experience with all branches of national service. I have the experience and I have lots of great stories. Contact me at connect@SharonSpeaks.com for more information. That’s connect@sharonspeaks.com. Mention this podcast for a 20 percent discount. Now back to our show.


[00:11:37] SHARON: After finishing a year of service with AmeriCorps, Grand Canyon Trust hired Michael for a full time position. He still works there today.


[00:11:46] MICHAEL: I was given the go ahead to start a formalized Youth Leadership Program at the Trust which was a culmination of years of thought and reflection on what is the role of young people in conservation. How do you encourage a person to become an advocate? What is young? So I think in those first few years I really was casting a broad intellectual net and really trying to do good work and also ask really hard questions about that work. And slowly I was coming up with potential solutions. They kind of kept coming up and taking shape and like I said last last year I was given the go ahead start experimenting with some solutions through the leadership program and that has really been consuming most of my work. I was able I mean if there was a trajectory in mind… connect the dots after the fact… The grad work and AmeriCorps was really big picture questions about society and human groups. Then it was the first few years was really trying to pair those questions down more specifically to the work the organization does. What does conservation look like? What does advocacy mean in this context? And then the last year plus has just been experimenting with potential answers to those questions on that smaller scale.


[00:13:00] SHARON: I asked Michael if what he learned in graduate school held up with his actual experience trying to implement those theories in his job at Grand Canyon Trust.


[00:13:09] MICHAEL: Things take time. Sometimes a long time. I was simultaneously expecting that and not. I feel like there was a little bit more latitude in my AmeriCorps position to try things out.


[00:13:22] And partially because it was the first year that the position itself was happening, so we were all kind of trying to figure out what it could look like in the moment. So that provided me a lot of that flexibility to try and create a product that’s based on some of the things I’ve been learning that could then be applied to let’s say Grand Canyon Trust outreach efforts. Which that, right I could do that on a dime. I could turn around and make a different product. The difficult thing was then once I was fulltime at the Trust, was then trying to incorporate those kinds of products. There is openness to it … it’s a process, but it’s a process. It’s a conversation, it’s multiple conversations, and things just take time. I think the benefit of me staying with the trust and continuing to kind of put my intellectual efforts towards it, is being able to see things change has been really validating over time. You know like if I had left a year or two after I started working there, I think it would have been less of a rewarding experience overall in the narrative arc of my life. But having been there since 2013 has been really just rewarding but also fulfilling to be able to see that now there is a youth leadership program that is founded on some of solving some of the very observations that I had before. But it happened a lot slower than I thought it could and would you know maybe from I just saw the academic background. And honestly in the end, I thought I would be more frustrated with how slow things were going, but I’m not at all. And I think it actually made the potential solutions and the on the ground work that much stronger because it had time to be talked about. It being some of the potential solutions and it being some of the different routes that we can go. I mean I think that was really valuable as to having time to discuss and maybe play and let ideas sit for a little bit and wait for things to happen. Time provides a lot of really interesting things for new ideas.


[00:15:32] SHARON: Well I think that sustainability factor… I think about this when… Actually during grad school I decided I should lose weight. So I went on this healthy eating and exercise.. and You know I did it very straightforward way. But what that meant was that I was just I was basically just trying to lose like a half a pound a week. And it took me an entire year and it took me 52 weeks to lose 32 pounds. But one day you know was actually huge aha moment for me when I finished that year was to realize it was 52 weeks I didn’t gain weight.


[00:16:12] MICHAEL: Yeah right.


[00:16:15] SHARON: I had actually not just lost the weight but because I was doing it so slowly it was the time was to my benefit because the time meant that it had stretched it out to the point where it really had just become, “OK, This is my life now”. These habits are more ingrained. If I had lost 32 pounds in two or three months…


[00:16:33] MICHAEL: That would be really scary. I would be worried about you.


[00:16:36] SHARON: It’s technically possible but..


[00:16:38] MICHAEL: Technically possible…


[00:16:38] SHARON: But then you’d swing wildly in the other direction.


[00:16:40] And I realized that sometimes yeah that sometimes you need the time for something especially if it involves behavior change or if it involves creating something new that people need to get used to. They need to work it into the way that they’re doing things. You know that that process takes time and if you if you’re either forced to stretch it out just because of bureaucracy and everything else or if you know you purposely do it that way either way it might actually help it be more sustainable.


[00:17:13] MICHAEL: Yes. I agree. Yeah I think that is the biggest thing kind of stands out I guess from that transition from grad school and AmeriCorps into program managing I guess at the same organization.


[00:17:27] SHARON: I was also… It’s interesting, it sounds like you’ve been there five years now and five years is how long I ran the AmeriCorps program. And I remember it coming in waves of realizing what I didn’t know. You know I remember the first year it was just drinking from a fire hose. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know what I should be freaked out about. I look back now and I realize how that program was the first year I ran it. Wow. I had no idea. If I was an experienced AmeriCorps Program Director coming into that, I might have quit on the second day.


[00:18:03] MICHAEL: You didn’t know what you didn’t know.


[00:18:05] SHARON: I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t know how messed up the program was. I didn’t know how much there was that I needed to fix before it could get stable again. I just jumped in and I was just like, “Oh they tell me I need to do these things, I guess I’ll just make it happen.”


[00:18:19] And I was enthusiastic and I had no reason to think otherwise so I just did it.


[00:18:25] MICHAEL: Right.


[00:18:25] SHARON: And the first year was sloppy and messy and crazy but successful and we ended the first year having done a lot of things and having actually gotten the program back on track quite a bit. And then the second year I finally actually kind of knew what should be going on.


[00:18:42] MICHAEL: Right.


[00:18:44] SHARON: It was maybe even a harder year because I thought “Oh man these things”.


[00:18:47] MICHAEL: “Oh these things aren’t happening”.


[00:18:49] SHARON: “These things aren’t happening and Oh my gosh we missed this or we’re behind on this”. And I was more stressed maybe. And then the second year I was able to really think about how I wanted to make it better because I knew enough to be able to figure out what solutions I want to put in place.


[00:19:05] MICHAEL: Right.


[00:19:05] SHARON: And the third year I finally got to actually really jump in with my solutions and try them out. And third year rocked. The third year was fantastic. You might have been… No you might have been the second year. The third year… some of my favorite people from AmeriCorps were in the third year because I was really able to bring in great recruitment, great retention, great training and I loved the third year. And then the fourth year the bottom fell out.


[00:19:36] MICHAEL: Right. A lot of stuff going on.


[00:19:38] SHARON: A lot of stuff happened. In the fourth year it was sort of just a whole nother realization of how much bigger this thing was and how much I didn’t know. You know even though I thought I had mastered it and I thought I had it handled right. And then the fifth year was sort of survival mode. How do we keep this thing alive?


[00:19:59] MICHAEL: Well I think throughout the years the scope of my thought, maybe your thought increased and maybe that’s why. I’m feeling a little bit of that. Like you’re thinking a little less of like “What are we going to do with this one person?”, To like “Ok, what do we do with this cohort?” And then it’s like well, “What do I do with this entire program?? And then how does this program fit into the, you know in AmeriCorps’ case like the National program. You know, as you say, your level of thought, once you can deal with the person on the ground, it’s like, “OK. We’re cool” and just your scope of work increases. Not even your scope of work but just how big you’re able to conceptualize your work.


[00:20:36] SHARON: Yeah and that can sometimes throw you right back to the beginning. You may get to the point where you go, “Wait. What problem are we trying to solve here? Is this even the right approach?” It is especially if you’re an over thinker like I think you and I probably both are. The tendency to want to just throw it all out and say, “OK I think I can reconceptualize this in a way that would be better.”.


[00:21:00] MICHAEL: Yeah I think that’s an accurate picture of the timeline of freak outs.


[00:21:06] SHARON: Before he left, I asked Michael what he thought it meant to be good.


[00:21:10] MICHAEL: You can cut this out,but don’t be a dick. But on a more serious note… I think good, bad. Yeah. These are all relative terms.


[00:21:24] But one of the things that I kind of try to think about whenever approaching any challenge, any question, any obstacle, because I think that’s really when these kind of qualitative questions like good or bad really come to the forefront, is when there’s a decision to be made or a challenge to be addressed. It’s just being aware that, for the most part, everybody is struggling with something, everybody has some sort of a personal challenge that they’re carrying around with them that you have no idea about, and everybody’s trying to make the best of it with those challenges in mind. So just thinking about that. Just like, just like being good would be keeping that in mind. That everybody is struggling with something and act with that in mind.


[00:22:07] SHARON: Thank you for listening to Do Good Be Good. For show notes on all of our episodes visit dogoodBegoodshow.com. And if you want some behind the scenes stories and insights, check out our show page on Facebook at facebook.com/dogoodbegoodshow. Thank you so much to Michael Chizhov for coming into the studio and sharing your story. On next week’s episode, my mentor, friend and former supervisor, Deidre Crawley will be sharing stories from the perspective of managing an AmeriCorps program as well as her current job as Dean of a public charter school. Here’s a little preview of that episode. I am very welcoming! I have an open door policy, don’t you see, you can talk to me at any time! Subscribe to the podcast so you get that episode as soon as it is released.


[00:23:04] Search for Do Good, Be Good in Apple podcasts, Stitcher, Google Music or your podcast app of choice. This podcast was produced with help from Sun Sounds of Arizona. Music in this episode is Bathed in Fine Dust by Andy G Cohen released under Creative Commons Attribution international license and discovered in the Free Music Archive. Until next week this is Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom signing off.