My week in Washington, DC was dynamic and fulfilling, as most weeks tend to be with City Year. I participated in a Unity Rally at Kramer Middle School, painted touch-ups with the CSX Civic Engagement Team at DC General Family Shelter, met former corps members at an Alumni Board event, joined a Breakfast of Champions event, spent a full day at Browne Education Campus, spoke to two classes at Ballou High School and engaged in a slew of meaningful conversations with the site’s talented staff and corps.
As I visit organizations across America that embody the spirit of ubuntu, I continue to investigate three concepts that fascinate me: community, accessibility and mobilization. To build inclusive community by transcending “us” vs. “them” is the quest of my project; accessibility of knowledge, space and opportunity is the pursuit’s most essential framework and mobilization of good will its most effective mechanism.
In a week where I was welcomed into the City Year Washington, DC family, I was inspired by how the site embodies each of these concepts.
From the all-corps cry of “Purpose to build community / Pride to demonstrate unity” on Monday morning to the prolonged goodbyes of Friday afternoon, City Year Washington, DC is an organization that bears witness to a commitment to be resolute yet inclusive; unified, yet welcoming.
First-year corps members Monet Hinton and Melissa Aponte shined in front of a group of visitors in the Breakfast of Champions, but each took the time to email and thank me for speaking to them afterward. Similarly, the team at Browne Education Campus showed remarkable resolve in another crazy, exhausting day of City Year service, but took care to give me a ride to the metro and to prepare a card for their sick teammate.
Senior corps members, staff and alumni were no different. I had the immense privilege of spending extensive time with Senior Corps Member Alex Richards and with the six-strong CSX Civic Engagement Team, in addition to conversing with several staff members and alumni. Every one of those individuals is bursting with passion, humility and a unique but powerful skill set.
Bringing together talented, diverse people who (as they pledge each month) “serve with an open heart and an open mind” is a formula for positive community. It’s also a recipe for an environment where all participants can’t help but grow and learn each day. Crucially, everyone seeks to grow themselves in order to serve others better.
The goal of a social justice vehicle is never to reach as many people as possible, but to get as close as possible to everyone. That means rather than starting from the default and extending outward (which privileges those who are “normal” and already empowered), one must begin by establishing parameters that know no bounds. After all, City Year’s mission is to target the students that are left behind, and one must look extra hard to see who is invisible.
At Browne Education Campus, I met a girl who does not receive any food at home, a girl who doesn’t speak English, a boy whose sibling was recently sexually abused and a fifth-grader who struggles to count up by 5s. That was all just in one class.
Public education should never be viewed as a “here, come and take it” state of affairs. The reductionist expectation that success in America comes to anyone who “just works hard” is an ignorant atrocity, a disease that overlooks the one million children who drop out of school each year. How can we expect merit to matter without making education accessible to children challenged by social inequality?
Corps members themselves have unique access – walking into the gym for morning greeting, each member of the Browne team is swarmed by delighted students – which they utilize to find and address those needs. Moreover, the team has helped spearhead an effective strategy to get students into school and get them involved. The national competition Get Schooled challenges campuses to raise attendance and student engagement. Browne has raised its attendance this year nearly 10 points to 95% and ranks third in the contest out of 250 schools.
To reach the 12% of schools in the US which account for half of the nation’s dropouts, City Year is scaling up and increasingly mobilizing young people to flood the city’s toughest schools in a sea of red jackets. The organization seeks to harness the power of young people and to leverage their unique talents to counter the country’s dropout crisis.
One of the most exciting ways City Year mobilizes good will is by its commitment to leadership development, producing alumni who are “leaders for life.” I met several City Year alumni on the night that D.C. Public Schools announced they would close 20 schools, and it was clear from the concerned conversations that corps members’ service doesn’t end at 10 months. City Year alumni are passionate and empowered, individually mobilized for their own journey of improving the world.
Shajena Erazo, co-Chair of the City Year Washington D.C. Alumni Board, invited me to Ballou High School where she has earned recognition as one of three finalists for DCPS Teacher of the Year. Her ninth-graders adore her and respond to the challenges she presents to them, cultivating ambition within them and filling her classroom wall with college banners and City Year information.
The City Year Washington, DC alumni will be part of a massive service effort on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, organized by the Civic Engagement Team. Service days are yet another way City Year mobilizes agents of change, through meaningful one-day projects that engage diverse volunteers and transform schools and public spaces. The team has already executed several successful events this fall, and expects to unite 1,000 people in service on Saturday, Jan. 19.
With its positive community, commitment to accessibility, and the ability to mobilize, the only limitation for City Year Washington, DC is the scope of its dreams.
Photo: Becton poses with the Comcast NBC4 Team serving at Browne Education Campus.
Read the Press Release.