A story of service in 2020 By Siddarth Paladugu
I wasn’t alive in 1968, yet I can recall many vivid images from that year. In grade school, I began to notice a pattern: every distinct thread of 20th-century American history appeared to experience its climax in 1968. Americans began to condemn their own presence in Vietnam; Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and then Robert Kennedy a few months later; humanity disarmed itself of nuclear weapons, and then reached the moon a few months later. After decades of intermittent history lessons, in classrooms or elsewhere, I’ve assembled in my memory a small repository of 1968’s grainy documentary footage: protests, rocket launches, and funeral processions that occurred almost thirty years before I took my first breath.
A little over halfway into 2020, I’m certain that I’ll remember this year as vividly for the rest of my life, and that my future kids may similarly see it as a climactic episode in recent history. It was the year that a pandemic tore through the fragile patchwork of systems our globalized economy built to sustain itself, exposing the deep inequities that buttressed them. In America, it was the year citizens decided to end the systematic, targeted abuse employed by certain authorities through open and constitutional defiance.
It was also the year I, after living for 20 years in California, compressed my entire life into the trunk of a Subaru Forester and drove 1,200 miles to a small city named Missoula—in western Montana, within earshot of the Canadian border—to serve in the AmeriCorps.
On March 10, I finalized an immaculately constructed plan. In the morning, I would begin my 700-mile drive from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, lodge for the night, hit the road again, and arrive in Missoula in the early evening of March 12. That night, I would visit the local Wal-Mart Supercenter with a prepared shopping list to quickly and cheaply populate my new home.
Technically, every part of that plan materialized as scheduled, but I failed to anticipate significant changes in context and circumstance. On the morning of March 11, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. As my engine warmed up and I hit the Interstate 10-E towards Las Vegas, every major city along my journey was logging its first confirmed cases and rapidly enforcing closures of major public services.
By the time I reached Salt Lake City, paranoia and dread had thickened the air. Few were speaking to one another; interactions that did occur were curt and emotionally distant. Dining rooms were empty, as were most roads. In the sanctuary of my driver’s seat, I attempted to assemble a narrative, hypothesizing that Americans had begun to isolate at home to await guidance from their leaders. In reality, Americans hadn’t sheltered in place, at least not yet. They were spending the two days I had allocated for my drive gathering in grocery stores to stock up for a long, painful spring.
The following evening, I reached Missoula, unloaded my belongings into the center of the living room of my empty apartment, and drove to the Wal-Mart. Here, my plan disintegrated completely. The shelves were practically empty. Yet, hundreds of families dotted the aisles, scrambling to claim what essentials did remain. Panic set in during my half-hearted search for kitchen utensils as I realized I would soon brave an international health crisis alone in an unfamiliar environment thousands of miles from home.
I arrived back at the apartment and scrounged for what I needed to make it through the night. I had just purchased an air mattress—unboxed conservatively so I could perhaps return it later—and dug up a single bed sheet for cover (it was an old, stained one that I primarily used as a picnic blanket). I listened to music on my earbuds to ease myself asleep as my air mattress sagged into the hardwood floor and a powerful windstorm scratched away at every window.
That week, I met my VISTA site team virtually (I’ve still yet to meet most of them), and our first conversations were difficult to navigate. My site is a resource center for Montana’s rural and Indigenous entrepreneurs and small business owners. I had been brought on to help the team improve its outreach efforts across the state—which included a number of on-site reservation visits—and now, these efforts would be impossible to execute for months. For a brief moment, in the midst of my arrival, we appeared to be at an impasse.
What is most special about good public servants is their ruthlessness in pursuit of a mission. I made a substantial career pivot to join the AmeriCorps because I sensed this attribute in myself. For these folks, setbacks and obstacles only hasten the drive towards their goalposts, not lead them astray. In their core, these individuals find it impossible to stand beside their chosen causes as witnesses.
So, despite a total lack of guidance or precedent to consult for the months ahead, my team set forth in efforts to be useful in whatever ways it could. We first leaned into our existing network of business owners, surveying them to determine what pain they were experiencing, what they feared would come, and what resources they most needed in this moment.
Together, we brainstormed solutions to every issue conveyed to us, and then executed them quickly. We hosted countless “office-hours”-style webinars in association with pedigreed lawyers and accountants, offering top-tier business advice for free. We spoke one-on-one with entrepreneurs to triage their most significant pain points. We put folks in touch with one another so none had to weather this storm alone. As governments put up public assistance programs, we helped vulnerable business owners obtain the funds they needed.
My first 48 hours in Missoula, strange and beguiling in nature, would portend an equally tumultuous spring for me. My first three months of service were a dizzying whirlwind of Zoom meetings, CDC infographics, and hand sanitizer. They were conducted with minimal words spoken to other human beings in person, and largely within an apartment with modest—albeit steadily increasing—levels of hospitability.
By the third month of my service, my apartment was furnished, and I had made precisely two friends in Missoula. On June 1, Montana reopened for business; it was among the first states to do so. The folks we worked with had endured months of hardship, but they survived. Many emerged stronger: more knowledgeable, more adaptable in a crisis, and more equipped to challenge existential threats to their livelihood.
These days, as America’s recovery from crisis and recession stumbles forward, I realize with ever-greater clarity that my historical interpretation of 1968 was deeply flawed. The events of that year weren’t climactic. They were moments of transition. Across politics, society, and technology, Americans that year collectively scorned the status quo and the artificial limitations it placed on their contentment. They subsequently willed a new reality into existence.
My misunderstanding stemmed from the assumption that Americans that year fell victim to chaos and uncertainty beyond their control. In reality, they weren’t passengers aboard a turbulent journey; they were piloting the flight. Individually, and as a collective body, they took action to give shape to their future.
In 2020, Americans continue to do the same. Young people march to bring light to injustices and motivate systemic change by their leaders. Business owners of limited means fight to sustain their community’s economy amidst an unprecedented health crisis, holding each other accountable for maintaining safety standards.
I’m beginning to feel I may remember 2020 this way. Not as a grainy montage of painful experiences borne by Americans, but as memories of Americans finding small, meaningful ways to reshape their world, with full clarity, intention, and focus. I might remember myself—alone in an unfurnished room, far away from the streets I know well—as part of this movement, as a volunteer in service to America. This is not to discount the awful events of the year, which include the many deaths brought on by COVID-19 and the deaths that motivated recent protests. It’s to bring light to the efforts of Americans to make it all mean something. I hope to remember it as a moment of transition, in ways both intimate and epic, for both myself and the world I live in.
I sleep on a proper mattress these days, atop a bed frame, which is a luxury I can no longer take for granted. That said, I never returned the air mattress. I keep it in my closet as a precaution, having accepted that I cannot accurately predict what my service term has in store for me.