Serving by Listening
Updated: Feb 9
Mia Ambroiggio, the Sustainability Fellow, explores the importance of listening in both service and in the effort to adjust to life in a new community.
This past November I boarded a plane to fly to a state I had never seen before to work for a city I had never been to. During my first days in Maine new coworkers in the South Portland Sustainability Office took me to Scratch Baking Co., followed by a swift walk to Willard Beach to look at Bug Light and the Islands that peppered the ocean view as we sipped our coffee. Everything was entirely unfamiliar to me.
Looking at myself now, two months later, not much has changed. I am grappling with the fact that that’s okay. Yes, I recognize South Portland streets a bit better these days and have a stronger grasp of my role in the Sustainability Office. But there is still so much to learn; there is still so much I don’t know. And there is grace and pause in that. Grace and pause in knowing that the most important thing I can do is listen.
Pursuing community engagement projects in a community I do not know is something I approach with hesitance. I do not know where neighbors gather, what parks or businesses they frequent, what services they rely on, what sites they consider pillars of community and connectivity. As I attempt to conceptualize facilitating community dialogue in my service role, I must center the notion that I do not know nor understand everything in order to listen and learn openly and thoughtfully.
My experience in community engagement as of now has been in communities I was already a part of: the neighborhoods I lived in, organizations I subscribed to, and so on. In the northside of Chicago, where I spent the four years of my undergraduate degree, I was involved with a neighborhood environmental non-profit. This connected me not only to sustainability conversation in a neighborhood I cared for, but also to its members, to my neighbors. One blistering hot day my roommate and I responded to a neighbor we had not met, but were connected to through the non-profit, to salvage some mint that was fervently overgrowing in his front yard. That mint helped make our midnight mojitos, or beach lemonade, and we grinned every time we passed the brownstone that belonged to him. Those are the moments I miss from the outside, from being new. Moving to Maine uprooted me from communities that I felt known in and a part of. And that is exciting! But requires a thoughtfulness I have not had to practice before.
I always consider my greatest weakness to be how long it takes for me to adjust to a new environment. I transparently mention it in interviews, almost as a warning, that it takes me a long time to learn my place and truly feel like myself in a new setting. I envy those who can adapt quickly, becoming social and comfortable almost instantly. However, I think this part of myself is a strength in thoughtful engagement and learning. I enjoy sitting back, absorbing everyone else’s input, and beginning to understand how an environment functions. I am hoping to channel this perceived weakness into a strategy to connect with community members, listen to their experiences and needs, and grasp what they consider the features of their community to be.
The difference between speaking for and speaking with relies on recognizing your position within a community dynamic and giving the space for others to speak about their experience without feeling pressure to understand it immediately.
I am eager to reflect on this moment in my service in a few months from now, what will I feel like I know? What will I feel like I belong to? Driving around South Portland I saw snapshots of communities I had previously only seen on maps. I looked at their garden centers, smelling of pine as the holiday approached, where families picked out wreaths and recognized the employees at the check-out desk. I saw resource hubs where community leaders connected with residents and provided packed meals and conversational support.
I am excited and thankful for the meaningful moments of community that I have observed so far. I am energized at the thought that there is so much more to learn. And most of all, I am grateful for the opportunity to connect with new people, listen to their stories, and help in any way they would like me to.
Mia grew up in Villa Park, Illinois, before moving to Chicago to earn her bachelor’s degrees in environmental studies and communication studies, with a minor in urban studies and sustainability, from Loyola University Chicago. During her time at Loyola, Mia was heavily involved in advocacy and education through Women in Leadership Loyola, an intersectional feminist organization, and wrote on climate and justice as an opinion columnist for the Loyola Phoenix. Off campus, Mia worked to create inclusive, transparent climate communications as well as sustainability programming and engagement through internships with neighborhood environmental nonprofits and large cultural institutions in Chicago. Outside of work, Mia enjoys creative writing, wandering to new places, re-watching comfort movies, and staring at the moon. Despite becoming familiar with sustainability concepts through academic coursework and internships, Mia is excited to apply her sustainability foundation to projects that will benefit the environmental, social, and economic sustainability of the greater Portland region, absorb the knowledge and experience of her host site coworkers, and expand her conception of resilience through collaboration with her cohort!