This Year, City Year celebrates its 25th Anniversary. In this post, Kristin Walega, City Year Washington, DC Chief of Staff, recounts her “25th Anniversary Moment.” (Photo: Walega, back left wearing red, poses in Philadelphia with her corps “crazy team.”)
When I was first asked to write a 25th Anniversary moment for the blog I admit I was hesitant. I don’t have just one moment, I have thousands of moments. How do you sum up 16 years of service in 500 words or less? So I have spent the last week really thinking about this and every time I would think of a moment or lesson learned over the year it was closely aligned with a City Year Founding Story. I love that City Year has a strong culture that can unite people from diverse backgrounds and help inspire them to come back day after day in what is a challenging year of service. Founding Stories have always been my favorite piece of culture at City Year. They help to inspire, motivate and remind us of the fundamental motivations of our work. So I couldn’t write about my 25th Anniversary moment without weaving in a Founding Story or two.
When people ask me what keeps me at City Year after 16 years I often answer with “the service” and “the people.” And that is the truth, but as I began to think about it more I realized it isn’t just that the service we do is important and transformational or that the people that work at City Year are the most caring and hardworking people I have ever met – it is that both the service and the people have impacted me in more ways than I can illustrate. But they all boil down to our Founding Story, Ubuntu. “Ubuntu” (oo-buun-tu) is a shortened version of a Zulu proverb, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngamantu,” which means: “I am a person through other people. My humanity is tied to yours.” This is an often referenced Founding Story and I think it has taken me until this moment to truly understand what that means to me. It is my 25th Anniversary moment, I am the person I am today because of all the people and moments I have had over the 16 years that have helped to shape me. I believe that you cannot serve 10 months of City Year without it changing who you think you are and the beliefs you have held prior to that point because the people, the service and the experiences are going to push you outside yourself and make you rethink your place in the world. To me this is the essence of Ubuntu – I am a different and hopefully better person because of the impact you had on my life, who I am is now is because of who you are.
To illustrate this, there are a few moments I would like to share from the 16 years that have helped shape and impact me in this way. The first is when I was a corps member 16 years ago with City Year Greater Philadelphia. I came as many corps members have over the years as a college graduate having been told at graduation it was my time to change the world and make an impact. I had served before so I thought I knew exactly what to expect, but I was wrong. I learned very quickly that just because I graduated college, it did not mean I knew everything. Akil, a high school grad from West Philly, became my closest teammate my corps year and through our friendship, conversations and at times arguments I found myself and my voice. Akil did not end up completing the year with us but in the time he was on our team he taught me the power of tenacity, integrity, support and love of community. I am because of Akil and the countless other individuals who have challenged me to think beyond my initial notions and come out on the other side of that experience a more thoughtful and determined individual.
In addition to my flagship service, I and six other individuals helped to start up Young Heroes, a Saturday service learning program, in Philadelphia in 1998. The seven of us worked day and night for six weeks to get the program started by recruiting the children and then spent the remaining four months running the Saturday program. The experience of building something from the ground up is amazing and we knew we had made a difference because we could see the kids come every Saturday, serve their city, learn and grow as leaders, and because of the hundreds of kids that followed for years to come. But the true impact for me was when two of the Young Heroes from that first year went on to become corps members years later. I knew that Devin and Matt were making their own impact that would ripple out for years to come and that our work had impacted them. I am because of Devin and Matt; their commitment fueled my continued desire to serve.
My third and final moment is about the power of team. There are few memories over the years that cannot be tied back to a powerful team. We believe in teams and that we should “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Every team that I have served on at City Year has helped to shape me as an individual and a leader. I have witnessed the best of City Year by watching some amazing teams come together and rally around a lofty goal or idea such as the academy team, the cyzygy/summit teams and the teams at City Year Washington, DC when we pull together around MLK day and other events/initiatives – that is really when you see the power we have to make change and feel the connectivity we have to each other. In particular the cyzygy team of ’05 stands out in my mind as one of the most amazing groups of people I have had the privilege to work alongside. Five of us uprooted our lives and traveled to Little Rock, AR to live for three months planning cyzygy, an annual convention of Idealism that City Year used to hold. We spent almost all our waking hours together over that three months and hosted one of our most successful conventions. There is no way I could have accomplished all we did alone; there is power in numbers. I am because of Aaron, Mark, Jeff, Sarah and Lourdes. Their commitment in adversity has inspired me to believe in the power of team and shared vision.
City Year, the service and the people I have come in contact with over the years have shaped me into the person I am and I am grateful for all those experiences. My 25th Anniversary moment is the power of Ubuntu and the shared experiences of service and team.