When Jason Forges was accepted into AmeriCorps, he was given two options: Either work in sunny Sacramento, California, with a population of about half a million people — or work in Darby, Montana, whose population is about that of a large Sacramento high school.
Forges, a Miami native, was attending college in Delaware. His instinct was to take the position in Sacramento. It was a big city in a sunny place, and he had some idea what to expect.
“But I paused,” Forges said. “I stopped and started looking more into Montana.”
As an AmeriCorps leader, Forges worked for Montana Campus Compact, which puts AmeriCorps leaders in K-12 schools to connect the students with college graduates. The experience is supposed to help normalize the idea of going to college for students in areas where it might be hard to find paths to higher education.
Part of the program includes taking the students to visit the University of Montana. For some of the students, it was the first time they would visit Missoula, let alone a college, he said.
“They’re in this town and they don’t know anything bigger,” Forges said. “It’s hard to see the dream.”
Forges is a first-generation college student from a low-income household, similar to many of the students he was working with. His philosophy didn't involve pressuring the kids to go to college, but rather to spend time thinking about what they wanted to do.
“I had to find my passion. That's what helped me and I wanted to help other people with that,” Forges said. “I wanted to connect with the students on that level.”
Forges was a psychology major at Wesley College. His focus was in industrial psychology, which is about how people behave within offices and their careers.
“I always loved the mind,” he said.
One of the last projects Forges worked on was a study on human pheromones, in which people smelled shirts that had been worn for three days straight.
“Fifty people went ahead and smelled armpits,” Forges said.
Forges enjoyed conducting studies, but to do that professionally, most people need to get a master’s degree. Forges wasn’t ready for more school and started working for Amazon out of college. He was waiting for a position to open up in the company’s human resources department, so he could start to use his degree more in his work, when he was first introduced to the idea of joining AmeriCorps.
“I thought, I can do anything I want, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Forges said. “I just knew I didn’t want to be living for someone else’s dream anymore.”
In AmeriCorps, Forges had the chance to better use what he learned in college, taking on the Darby school district’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day curriculum. The 2010 U.S. Census Bureau reported the town of Darby was about 91 percent white, so to better explain racial discrimination, Forges used wristbands to separate the students into different groups. Some of the students got ice cream sundaes at lunch, some of them didn’t.
“A couple of the kids got pretty angry,” Darby said.
Then he had the kids watch "Selma," a movie about voting rights marches in Alabama in 1965. The movie showed state troopers attacking the marchers with tear gas, trampling them with horses and attacking them with clubs, Forges said.
After the movie, Forges explained the discrimination many people face throughout their entire lives. The feelings some students had when they didn't get ice cream because of something as arbitrary as a wristband was the same feeling some people had to face forever, he said.
“One of the kids said, 'That happened a long time ago. That doesn’t happen anymore,’ ” Forges said. “I told them there might be less mass violent attacks like the one in the movie, but discrimination is just disguised differently now.”
Forges shared his own experiences, including a story of watching less qualified coworkers get job interviews before he did.
“Letting the kids experience it, that was the best way for them to learn,” Forges said. “You can tell someone about discrimination, but it is something you need to feel to really understand.”
Forges has chosen to extend his stay in Montana after his year of service in Darby. He accepted a senior leadership position with AmeriCorps in Missoula. He will be overseeing other AmeriCorps leaders in Montana; he thinks this will help him have a bigger impact in how the program helps people.
He would encourage others to join AmeriCorps, as long as they remember that wherever the program takes them, they are going there because there is a need and they are there to help.
“Help others, while you start to understand yourself,” Forges said.