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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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When the two were helping to revise the City Year curriculum, Vidya was concerned about how to label the goals and purposes of each activity. "I like things to be quantifiable," she says.

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But Autumn, after listening a while, pointed out that they also needed to help students "see how the City Year stuff relates to the rest of their lives."

Some might wonder how relevant City Year's social-justice curriculum is, especially when state and local governments are increasing class sizes and cutting back on basic instruction

Michael Brown, co-founder and president of City Year, says that now, when so many services are being cut, is the perfect time for the organization's message. He points out that City Year's larger mission is to promote the idea of a year of service for all young people and to activate "people's justice nerve" in a variety of ways.

Service, says Mr. Brown, is the "missing link in making America's democracy effective. Often there's a disconnect between being a citizen and really participating and having a stake in democracy."

But is the $35 million price tag for all 14 City Year groups - one-third of which comes from AmeriCorps, the rest from private funding - really worth it? A partial answer can be found in East Boston.

Since last October, the PTC team has made noticeable physical improvements, repainting the school's auditorium, gym, and skateboard park. It has removed graffiti on school grounds and has filled two dumpsters with trash from behind the school. It has started a newsletter with students who participate in an after-school program for recent immigrants, and it has overseen the installation of new software on the library computers.

But what about the children the team has worked with? Ruben Sosa adores them, saying simply, "They're great."

Many of his peers agree, as does teacher Cristina Chan. "The kids love it," she says of the program, which encourages students to speak in public and to express their views aloud. "It can be a little chaotic, but it helps with behavior and discipline, especially when [the students] learn that what they're doing here relates to the larger community."

The team's sponsor, PTC (a software company), also has high praise for the group. "They really have an impact," says Margaret Pantridge, the firm's director of community relations. "They encourage everybody they meet to be active...."

The team itself has also come a long way. Boldness has mellowed into confidence, and as group members reflect on what they've learned, there is wisdom in their voices, along with energy.

Alex, who was once so shy, is now equally comfortable with children and adults. "Everyone can do something," he says, without breaking eye contact, "and it's important to be patient with people who aren't as proficient in certain things instead of leaving them behind."

Vanessa, who worried about making it through the year, has decided to sign on for a second year - as a recruiter.

Jesse, who was so quick to criticize the public schools, now hesitates to do so. He acknowledges how hard it is to deal with large classes and little money.

Talmadge thought about quitting at Christmas because City Year didn't have an outlet for her interest in feminist causes. She stayed, however, and began teaching guitar lessons at the Salesian Girls and Boys Club. She still has doubts, but has decided that "day to day, we change kids. You can see their minds changing, the light bulbs going on."

But perhaps the most eloquent statement came from a team member who has learned to be a quiet leader. Michelle Devine's family once depended on welfare and food stamps to get by. She describes the most important part of her CY job as "simply being there" and showing the students another option in life.

"I'm 19 years old," she says, "and I'm not in a gang, I'm not out on the streets, I'm not like the kids they see in high school that they are influenced by. I'm not a superhero. I'm just like them, trying to make them see they're important."

Clearly, her red jacket - and the others' - fits well now. And when that happens, a civic superhero doesn't need a cape at all.