Week 4: Massachusetts



PHOTO: Charlie Rose, City Year’s Senior Vice President and Dean, has shouldered 17,000 young leaders in City Year over the past 24 years.



“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” – Isaac Newton[1]

In 1988, two Harvard law school students founded City Year on the belief that young people can change the world.

In the City Year community, Boston remains an electric city. The stories, standards and spirit are palpable in the home of the company that today mobilizes 2,500 young people in 24 cities across America to provide full-time support in 241 of the nation’s most underserved urban schools. The office on Columbus Avenue houses the impressive City Year Boston site team as well as the Headquarters staff for City Year, Inc.

I was able to share my perspective and gain insight from many of the organization’s leaders and staff members, and I spent time with several of the City Year Boston “senior corps members” (second-year volunteers) including running a workshop on identity, facilitating a Skype chat with their peers at City Year London and visiting a school where the CYB civic engagement team will lead a beautification project next week. I also had the great pleasure of joining much of the City Year Alumni Association’s conference for Alumni Board Chairs, which will lead to further alumni involvement throughout the remainder of my trip.

The vision of City Year is that service will one day be seen as both an expectation and a huge opportunity for young people. While that has remained consistent for the 17,000 alumni that upheld the company slogan to “give a year, change the world,” the organization’s mission has sharpened. City Year now focuses completely on addressing the high school dropout crisis: One child drops out of school every 26 seconds in the United States.

City Year has designed both short- and long-term impact goals, published this month in Education Week  magazine.

But what I find even more exciting than City Year’s outstanding service impact is the agents of change it builds. Through uniting talented, diverse young idealists in a grueling year of full-time service, City Year challenges its members to fulfill their immense potential as builders of positive community.

“It’s such an eclectic mix of people doing really good work,” says Elana Cockburn, an alum of the program now on the national admissions team. “There’s often something that’s triggered and really that’s when it sinks in why you’re here.”

City Year Boston senior corps member Josh McNeil sums up the positive challenge: “I got pushed to my limits but it pushed me to be a better person.”

Scott Jones, another senior corps member, points out this is a key element of ubuntu. “People focus on what they can do for humanity but also ‘humanity is because you are’ – so you should focus on yourself, and work on improving yourself not in vain but to improve humanity.”

Scott, one of many City Year members that has ubuntu tattooed to his body, references Nelson Mandela[2], who describes the philosophy as follows: “Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?”

City Year seeks to address this challenge through its one-year program. “Service without leadership development can be transactional. Leadership development without service can be narcissism,” notes Dr. Max Klau, the organization’s Director of Leadership. “The ideal is the seamless integration of service and leadership – you’re improving yourself so you can be of service.”

For three years I experienced the way being surrounded by such diverse and talented activists pushed me to new dimensions of love and ambition, and it seems the secret of City Year’s success is in the way its members nudge one another forward.

In 1951 Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.[3] wrote a letter to a friend speaking of schools, such as a school of painting, writing or music. He cites a university instructor who told him: “No man who achieved greatness in the arts operated by himself; he was top man in a group of like-minded individuals. … The school gives a man, Slotkin said, the fantastic amount of guts it takes to add to culture.”

It is remarkable to witness the way City Year allows individuals to rise up and strive for greatness. For many, it’s a place where destiny is discovered: senior corps member Isabel Barros asserts, “I’ve been telling people my whole life I was going to change the world.”

Boston is the hotbed of City Year idealism, both because of the excellence and history of City Year Boston, and the giants of social justice that fill its Headquarters offices. One surreal moment saw me shake hands with Dr. Hubie Jones, a living legend who at 79 is employed as “Social Entrepreneur in Residence” for City Year in addition to serving on its board and being involved with several other groups in Boston.

Dr. Jones didn’t shrug off my presence to carry on with his work. On the contrary, he pulled out his check book and contributed to Project Ubuntu on the spot.

Every member of City Year is surrounded by giants, and this heightens the ceiling of potential for the new generation of idealists.

City Year co-founder and CEO Michael Brown also met with me, and expressed his enthusiasm for the possibilities created by empowering young leaders. “I get really inspired by the civic energies of young people,” he says. “I just feel like ‘Wow! Look what kind of country it is and it could be.’”

Brown and City Year Dean/Senior Vice President Charlie Rose both directed me back to the Robert Kennedy[4] speech when he declared every time someone “stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Rose, one of the top supporters of Project Ubuntu, says in its 24th year City Year is hitting its stride. “It feels like all the ripples are coming together to start that mighty current.”

At the heart of the current has to be integrity and humility, and the only way to create the positive community produced by City Year is by understanding how to build positive community within it.

Senior corps members Damian Romney and Bri Gochenour offer key insights into how ubuntu fits into the City Year service model. “I think ubuntu is not just about finding things we have in common, it’s about building things in common,” says Damian. “It’s about dependence and recognizing we are all in this together.”

Bri adds, “I think of ubuntu in terms of service: I was (initially) really excited to work for the community, but there was a moment last year when my preposition changed to ‘with.’ I always think about partnership – you are moving together.”

In the United States, we tend to work very hard to secure positive outcomes for ourselves, our families or our immediate community. For better or worse, our country was established by European immigrants with this mentality. City Year alum and national admissions team member Yaa Acheampong notes this isn’t a phenomenon unique to white, upper-middle class Americans – for example, it may also be appealing to modern immigrant families.

“It’s interesting to see how much communities of color … value service,” she says. “A lot of other West African parents have plans for their children to thrive in America. You serve your family through becoming successful, such as a doctor or a banker. It’s important to understand that as we reach out to diverse communities.”

In exploring how to create a culture of ubuntu, Dr. Klau argues, “It’s a paradox – how do you mobilize people to just be? By expanding the circle of what you believe to be yourself.”

Senior corps member Sachi Takahashi-Rial thus provides an illuminating definition of the philosophy: “Ubuntu is when the feeling of unconditional love you get with family is the feeling you get from a stranger because you’re a human.”

City Year members are building that kind of community. Each time we reach out to our neighbor with a loving hand we create ripples, and these feed into a current. What can you do today?


 What do you think? Please share your thoughts in comments on the blog!

[1] The original penned quotation is “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants.” From Letter to Robert Hooke, 15 February 1676. In The Correspondence of Isaac Newton. Volume I. Turnbull, H.W. (ed.) Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1959.

[2] “Experience ubuntu.” Interview with Nelson Mandela (2006). Interviewed by Tim Modise, 24 May 2006. Available here.

[3] Kurt Vonnegut, “Look at the Birdie (unpublished originals).” Vintage Originals: London, 2010.

[4] Robert Kennedy, “Day of Affirmation Address at Cape Town University.” Delivered 6 June 1966, Jameson Hall, Cape Town. Available here.


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