Becoming civic superheroes
City Year's corps members get an intensive education in how to be activists. That means asking not just 'How do we change the world?' but 'How do we change ourselves?'
They were warned that once they put on the jacket, nothing would be the same. "You lose your name," said the speaker to the 166 young adults being sworn in last Oct. 1. "Your first name becomes City. Your last name becomes Year."Skip to next paragraph
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But the folks in red didn't flinch. They stood at attention and pledged to serve their community and country.
Thus began their transformation from private citizens to the kind of civic superheroes City Year's founders envisioned 14 years ago when the organization began in Boston. Since then, the program has spread to 14 sites and served as the model for AmeriCorps, of which it is a member.
If the new inductees thought that changing society would be easy, however, they would have to think again. They, like the 80 percent of college freshmen who do volunteer work each year, would have to learn how to turn idealism into action. And like their predecessors who joined the Peace Corps two generations ago, they would have to discover that being effective activists means asking not just "How do we change the world?" but "How do we change ourselves?"
Over time, these heroes-in-training would also need to understand that their red jackets were not the same as red capes. Coats, after all, often start out too stiff or too big, and they must be broken it in over time. But City Year corps members begin wearing theirs right away.
Within days, the new CYers would be heading off to the sites where they'd work for the next nine months as "social change entrepreneurs." For the 11 members of the PTC team, that meant East Boston, a tightknit, blue-collar community where Spanish and Portuguese are heard almost as often as English.
The team would be teaching classes in social justice at the Umana-Barnes Middle School and working in three after-school programs. They would also plan a Servathon day for later that month, orchestrate week-long camps for elementary kids during February and April vacations, and plan a spring service day for employees of PTC, their team sponsor.
That's a pretty heavy load for new activists, especially for a team so young - only two of the 11 had graduated from college and the rest were recent high school grads. They received a month of preparation in teaching techniques, leadership skills, and City Year philosophy, just enough to prepare them for the first fact of an activist's life: You learn on the job, usually in a baptism by fire.
Most of the team members had never attended a school like Umana-Barnes, where a majority of the students come from low-income families, many are recent immigrants, and more than a third speak English as their second language.
Still, the team was convinced it could make a difference by teaching these kids to reject prejudice and the "isms" - racism, sexism, etc. - and to start taking small, positive actions that would ripple out into their school and neighborhoods.
But first, it would need to overcome some schisms of its own, because the team members were from very different backgrounds, and not everyone seemed to be leadership material in the beginning.
Jesse Last did appear to have the boldness required. He'd grown up in Wellesley, Mass., an affluent suburb, and attended a private high school. The son of an environmental lawyer, Jesse wasn't shy about saying that the public-school system was seriously broken and it "teaches students to behave, not to think."
Talmadge Nardi also had an activist's pedigree. She had majored in feminist studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., where it was the norm for students to be outspoken about their views. Talmadge was concerned that corps members are not allowed to be politically active.
Zach Maurin had graduated from a public high school in Pittsburgh, where, he says, he had far too many bad teachers. He wants to become a school principal so he can make sure other kids don't have his same experience.
These three would need to blend their styles with others who didn't seem as confident - team members like Alexander Dorsk of Needham, Mass., who was so shy he wouldn't make eye contact when he spoke to people. And Vanessa Chambers, the only African-American, who felt the need to prove that she, unlike her sister, could finish the City Year program.