Week 3: New Hampshire
PHOTO: City Year New Hampshire Executive Director Pawn Nitichan (in jacket) with Corps Members Josh, Vinor, Jazmine, Kate and Alex. READ MORE
“If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be ‘for’ or ‘against.’ The struggle between ‘for’ and ‘against’ is the mind’s worst disease.” – Sent-ts’an, c. 700
Alex Richard, 23, grew up in foster care in Massachusetts because both her parents were paralyzed by drug addiction. Before she reached her teenage years, Alex was hit by a car while cycling and suffered a spinal cord injury that put her into a wheelchair.
It hardly slows her down.
Alex is one of 52 young people serving the city of Manchester, NH as a full-time volunteer in a public elementary school. Paid only a meager weekly stipend, the City Year New Hampshire corps members transform the lives of struggling students through patient tutoring, classroom support and mature role modeling in teams of diverse, talented young idealists.
“Every person brings something valuable into the world,” she said. “This is just my life.”
Alex has degrees in psychology and criminal justice, advocates for the disability community through Easter Seals Massachusetts, and aspires to become a lawyer, judge and senator. She and the rest of the City Year corps are empowered through the program’s weekly leadership development days, opportunities to lead projects in school and in the community, and the difficult, diverse environment they have dived into for 10 months.
Part of what makes City Year great is the diversity of inspirations to which members dedicate their year of service. Take the McDonough Elementary School team: Program Manager Brandon, 25, to the fulfillment of dreams; Team Leader Kate, 24, to her mother and sister who always supported her; Daniel, 22, to his friends back home in Miami; Camilla, 23, to a teacher who pushed her; Caitie, 24, to a Kindergarten class she volunteered with in New Orleans; Dianne, 23, to the idea of change and the power of education; Chris, 23, to his alma mater Nazareth College; Brian, 18, to his recently deceased grandfather.
City Year New Hampshire welcomed me into their remarkable community and engaged me in a number of ways, including participating in a reflection session and service event on 9/11; running a teamwork and personality training for their Team Leaders and “senior corps”; presenting my project and vision to their staff and senior corps; visiting schools and sitting in on meetings with teachers and a principal; facilitating a Skype chat with the City Year London corps; meeting with staff members to discuss social media and recruitment strategy; supporting City Year members volunteering for a 200-mile relay race; and joining an alumni social at the conclusion of the six-day week.
It was a month crammed into one glorious week.
Along the way, I was profoundly shaped by conversations with the organization’s volunteers and staff, each of whom possesses an inspiring story and a fierce drive to alter the injustices of the American public education system. My visits to Manchester public schools revealed the heroic efforts of those at the front lines of an abysmal situation.
At Gossler Park, I sat in on two meetings with teachers and corps members, in which the professionals praised their counterparts’ enthusiasm, ability to connect to students and willingness to work in particular with “focus list” children. Then at McDonough, a school with students from 35 countries and five continents, three corps members discussed the state of poor students in their respective hometowns.
Camilla noted that she is from Rye, NH, where property tax supports extremely well-funded schools (New Hampshire has no sales or income tax, so poor towns equal poor schools) despite being down the road from the financially deprived Manchester district. Chris said that in his hometown of Rochester, NY, it is common to lie about your address to get into a better school. And Dianne stated that her father wouldn’t allow her to go to her brothers’ rough school in Orlando, FL, but she was able to get a minority transfer to a better school in another part of the district.
After leaving McDonough, I drove past a clumsy mid-afternoon drug deal being conducted on the neighborhood streets.
Then I arrived at Wilson, where classrooms with 40 students mean teachers and corps members are stretched well beyond their reach. While I was meeting with the principal, word came in that the district had mustered up the funding to send three new teachers to the school, a month into the year. It was like Christmas Day.
The imminent reinforcements wouldn’t provide adequate resources, but such is the state of things that relief, not joy, is the highest possible outcome.
If we chose any way to pursue community in a nation built on “the American Dream,” surely it would be through our school systems. Yet 58 years removed from Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Manchester schools provide an apt microcosm of the incessant reality: Our schools are separate and unequal.
A chief strategist for influencing these systematic struggles is Bobby Kessling, Senior Director of Impact for City Year New Hampshire. Originally from Texas, he has served the communities of New Hampshire through CYNH since 2004, and possesses an unparalleled zest for developing young agents of change.
“I came here and my mind was blown,” said Bobby. “It tested me like nothing else. It forces you to grow but supports and develops you. That was so white-hot compelling for me.”
He noted the collectivity of the City Year (2,500 annual volunteers) and the AmeriCorps (over 85,000) movements was inspiring, just as envisioned by William James who wrote in 1906: “All the qualities of a man acquire dignity when he knows that the service of the collectivity that owns him needs him. … Individuals, daily more numerous, now feel this civic passion.”
James’ essay outlines an army of peacemakers and ultimately was a pivotal first step toward an American creation of non-violent national service.
However, any reductionist notions I may have left with of the solution being an “army” to combat social ills were uprooted on the sixth day of my trip. I joined CYNH Executive Director Pawn Nitichan on a tour of volunteer stations across the state, where City Year members helped facilitate the 200-mile, 36-hour “Reach the Beach” relay race. In addition to witnessing the delight she created in her organization’s members throughout our crazy 15-hour trek, I benefited from Pawn’s insights into the broader questions of social injustice.
One such insight regarded the Prisoner’s Dilemma (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner’s_dilemma). I had previously thought of society mirroring this dilemma at the individual level, and admired the people who embody ubuntu by choosing cooperation even though others choose to get ahead. But Pawn pointed out that were the not-for-profit sector abolished, there would be so many social disasters that the profit sector would not be able to exist in its current state. Thus the not-for-profit sector’s existence empowers the profit sector to exist and to reap financial reward. Meanwhile, of course, the not-for-profit sector is funded by private corporations, government support and wealthy individuals.
This is an important illumination because if we want to progress – in Pawn’s words, achieve “the elevation of humanity” – we must recognize the need to engage all participants of society. I’ve said before that we must empower loving people, and inspire love in powerful people. But it now seems perhaps equally important to inspire non-powerful people.
If the not-for-profits’ existence allows the for-profit to exist, then, we are actually operating in sort of a macro-level ubuntu: They are because we are; we are because they are.
But that wording still takes us to a notion of “us” and “them.” And it fuels a little bit of contempt. Cue Pawn’s next pearl of wisdom, the Chinese proverb: “Beware when fighting dragons that you do not become one” (famously paraphrased by Nietzsche: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster”).
It seems relevant when one considers the plight of schools in New Hampshire. We reinforce “us” and “them” when we get angry about taxes, and similarly by positioning ourselves on a moral high ground. Folks working in non-profit roles are commendable, but not in a way that makes anyone else less commendable. We are, after all, existing because of one another.
“Ultimately (focusing on) the ideas of justice and equality and the ideas of right and wrong doesn’t really work,” said Pawn. “The only thing that works is love and compassion.
“There’s a way in which we are simply human, all on equal ground, and if you can find a way to meet people there, you experience relations in a very different way.”
What do you think? Please share your thoughts in comments on the blog!
 Unofficially cited in various locations, for example, here.
 William James (1906). “The Moral Equivalent of War.” The Constitution Society. Updated Nov 5 2011. Available here.
 Will Marshall and Marc Porter Magee (2005). “The AmeriCorps Experiment and the Future of National Service. Washington, D.C.: The Progressive Policy Institute. Available here.
 Unofficially cited in various locations, for example, here.
 Friedrich Nietzsche (1886) “Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146.” Available here.