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?'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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."

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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