New appointees Mary Tobin, Senior Advisor for Wounded Warrior, Veteran, and Military Family Initiatives and Atalaya Sergi, Director for AmeriCorps Seniors, discovered their passions for national service taking different paths to their new leadership roles. Tobin and Sergi join 11 total new appointees selected in January by the Biden administration.
Pioneer for veterans and their families, Tobin is an alumna of the United States Military Academy at West Point and the New York Institute of Technology, a combat Veteran, and a stalwart social justice advocate. For more than two decades, she’s devoted her time and energy to serving others, and she carries forward that dedication to AmeriCorps.
Sergi found her path to service through leadership roles in public school districts and the nonprofit sector, where she connected private and public organizations to ensure citizens of all ages and those in underserved communities thrive.
Both made time to share some of their experiences and offer advice to aspiring national service leaders.
Throughout your professional experience, you’ve been committed to public service; can you share what inspired you to choose a career dedicated to serving others?
Atalaya: When I think about what inspired me to have a career dedicated to service, I would have to say that watching my parents serve our community as a young child. I remember joining my mother, Pheaby Jones, to deliver food to those in need. But what I remember most is that every year she would collect woven baskets from yard sales, friends, families, thrift stores and deliver the food in those baskets. It was her way of communicating dignity, value, and the humanity of every person and family. That taught me that need does not take away a person's humanity or dignity and that when you serve them, it's important to remember that. To approach them with respect and to always engage with them from that stance.
Atalaya's parents, Cornelius and Pheaby Jones
Can you tell us about someone in your life who you consider a role model? What quality (or trait) do you admire most about him/her, and why?
Mary: My mother is my first role model. She taught me how to build resilience in the face of great pain and struggle, how to find joy and laughter in the darkest of moments, and how to research problems and develop solutions that are authentic to who I am. She taught me to be proud of being me and being the best version of myself is all she ever required of me.
If you could have a conversation with one iconic Black pioneer who would you invite to have a chat? What would you discuss?
Atalaya: James Baldwin. When I read and listen to James Baldwin, I feel like every speech and every chapter is like being in a master class on race, equity, and the Black experience. Though he left the country to escape oppression and racism, he returned to try to bring about the America he hoped it could be. I would be happy to sit and listen to anything he wanted to share, really anything. But the topics I would inquire about are his reflections on where we are today. And would he do anything differently today than he did before? I would want to know what sustained him throughout everything that he endured, everything he saw, his experiences, and through all the friends that he lost. He is such a profound thinker and writer, and I'd also like to know how he cultivated that gift. Who inspired him and why? What did he read for relaxation? I enjoy mystery novels and science fiction. What did he read when he just wanted to relax? I would like to know the one piece of wisdom that he didn't share. If he had more time, what more would he have told us?
What does stepping into this new leadership role at AmeriCorps mean to you, particularly as one of the first women of color appointed to serve in this position?
Mary: Stepping into this new leadership role is the culmination of my 20-year professional journey as a public servant. I have served this country as a combat Veteran, a non-profit leader and founder, and a federal government employee. And now, to be given the opportunity to [missing a word] for the federal agency devoted to national service is more than an honor. It feels like destiny. To be the first woman of color in this role is a testament to all those who have come before me, fighting for civil rights and equal opportunities for Black Americans in this country. For example, my Black mother, who fought for civil rights as a college student, with the hope that one day her children would have a better life. I am her hopes and dreams manifested.
Mary visits after school program for young girls, Girls, Inc., and is "bear-hugged" by program participants
Can you share a piece of advice on what others looking to follow in your footsteps can do to become a public servant and leader, like yourself?
Mary: The motto I live by is a quote by the World Champion Boxer, Muhammad Ali, which says, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” So, to anyone who wants to follow in my footsteps and become a public servant and leader, I would say follow one key principle: Follow the breadcrumbs. Whatever makes you happy, sad, angry, cry, and whatever you are passionate about point to the breadcrumbs or purpose. The very things that break your heart or make your heart sing are the things you were created to impact.