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?'
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The team dived into the work. It included lots of meetings about the classes they'd teach and about Servathon, where they'd be leading hundreds of local residents in a one-day cleanup/fixup. They had to decide what they'd present in class, who would lead which part of each class, and how to adapt their lessons from the City Year curriculum.Skip to next paragraph
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Discussions ranged from careful, don't-want-to-hurt-anyone's-feelings talks to blunter chats in which underlying issues were dealt with directly. Emily Cherniack, the team's manager, moderated when needed, but she wanted them to become self-sufficient. That's why Emily, who had been a corps member two years earlier, drove home the idea of communicating.
"Communication is essential," she would tell them many times. "But communication isn't easy, and it isn't something you can learn in a day. Think about what you need from the rest of the team and what you can offer. Your greatness will lie in your ability to support each other."
In the classroom, the group's baptism was indeed by fire, and sometimes the team members got a bit singed: A children's book was read without first telling the students how its theme related to their subject matter. And a discussion on racism and prejudice asked the students if they had ever been discriminated against, but not if they had discriminated against others.
A harder lesson - about maintaining discipline - came two days before Christmas vacation, when a restless bunch in one class ignored the CY presentation and found their own "entertainment." A girl pinched the boys until one of them hit her.
But along the way, the 11 began to function as one, picking up on one another's cues and redirecting students before trouble arose. And there were times when a CYer would impart a powerful lesson by taking a personal risk.
Such was the case in December, when Talmadge, Vanessa, and Zach were teaching a group of eighth-graders who'd been designated as emotionally challenged. One student had just returned to school after being arrested for assault and battery.
"What did you get out of that?" asked Zach. "Are you happy with your decision to fight?"
It was a smart move, but now the team had to make a strong point and make it fast. Vanessa stepped forward, demonstrating why City Year wants its members to have diverse backgrounds. She told the group about her own arrest during her senior year of high school for hitting a fellow student who had egged her on. She described standing before a judge, paying a fine, and being ordered to complete City Year - or face jail time.
"Fighting leads down a pathway where you have nowhere to go," she bluntly told them. "The one who throws the first punch is the one who causes the problem. Fighting makes no sense."
The room went silent, and then the students broke into applause. Mission definitely accomplished.
Connecting with young people is an aim of City Year. It may also be the program's biggest strength, according to William Galston, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).
"In areas that CIRCLE has studied," he says, "peer-to-peer contact is arguably the most effective mode of communication. If you see people who look like you and who share your life experience, the power of that is greater than someone who is two or three times older than you."
The kind of values City Year promotes may not take hold in students until high school, Mr. Galston says, but "middle school is not too early to begin introducing notions of social responsibility."
The East Boston team would agree that it is planting seeds. After all, City Year sees its mission as helping the community and training future activists for a lifetime of service. And the most difficult part of that training is learning to work as a team.
"It's hard to teach with other people and plan with them," says team member Vidya Sivan, who has a bachelor's degree in education. "Sometimes we have to agree to disagree."
Autumn Soucy echoes Vidya's last comment, but she has also learned that at times it's important to reach a consensus.