Week 7: New York

 

Photo: City Year New York corps members after a day transforming JHS302K in Brooklyn through leading employees from Aegis in an all-day beautification effort. Many of them serve every day at this middle school as tutors and role models.

 

 

In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation. – Iroquois proverb[1] 

“When I came here there were no murals,” Diocelyn Batista Rijo tells me proudly as we walk through the corridors of Hunts Point Middle School. “That was all City Year.”

Hunts Point Middle School, or MS424, is in the lowest-achieving 5% of schools in New York, with 90% of its students below the reading level expected for their grade. The school sits in a dangerous neighborhood in the Bronx – there have been two shootings in the past month on the walk between the subway station and the school.

And yet MS424 is a safe space, with few fights, a positive culture and personnel possessing dogged determination that have it trudging forward.

Diocelyn was a student there a decade ago, and he is now part of a team of City Year New York volunteers that serve full-time as tutors, mentors and role models in the school. City Year has had a team for six years, and the school’s former principal, Bronx native John Hughes, is now Managing Director for City Year New York.

Thanks to strong leadership and the commitment of of City Year volunteers, MS424 barely resembles the school Dio went to after his family immigrated to New York.

“It’s like night and day. The experience I had here was one of the worst in New York City – kids growing up too fast,” he says. “City Year really has made a difference.”

Part of the service the organization provides the city of New York includes school and community beautification in which volunteers are mobilized to paint, build and garden to effect visual transformation and basic structural improvements. The combination of these events and the consistent positive presence of City Year “corps members” have a noticeable effect on communities.

I joined a team of City Year volunteers who engaged corporate workers from Aegis in a project at JHS302 and PS345, a middle school and elementary school in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn. Walking to JHS302 (one of the lowest-rated schools in the city and the only City Year partner school graded an “F”) I noticed bars on most windows and doors, litter abundant and a neglected, broken fire hydrant spewing water into the empty street.

Then a child’s voice emerged: “City Year! City Year!”

It was evidently one of the elementary school students from the multiple schools in the area City Year serves, which feed into its new partner school JHS302. He had seen my City Year London jacket and his friends rushed out to greet me as well.

Cynics look at educational inequality in America and doubt meaningful systemic change will occur. Naïve armchair quarterbacks bark about easy solutions that should be implemented. And liberals and conservatives fight tooth and nail about funding, testing and teacher standards.

But there is also room for those who want to make a difference, whether it is for a full year (like City Year volunteers) or for a couple of hours each week (like the inspiring Top Honors tutors I met). These individuals “challenge cynicism wherever they find it,” understand the complexity of children’s circumstances and transcend political division because they know it’s not money or policies but human connection that underserved individuals need.[2] 

“We’re all people – we want to be loved,” says Thatcher Barton, a teammate of Diocelyn’s from Charleston, S.C. “We have something in common.”

Charlie Fick is a second-year “senior corps member,” and summed up this powerful, human-centric approach: “We want to avoid the kind of philanthropy with a blank check so ‘I can feel better about myself.’ We want to have a massive effect … and bring people together in a way that actually works.”

Charlie said he became a role model for one struggling student last year. “I always tell people how he asked me how to shave – his brother was involved in a gang and his dad wasn’t around.” That connection opened the door for impact, and the student subsequently passed all his classes: “City Year is creating students that are more engaged.”

The team at Hunts Point Middle School has four corps members local to New York, including Rosaura Elias-Wilson, who is also from the Bronx and has earned high school, college and masters degrees. She relishes the opportunity to set an example for children that may not see higher education as a realistic possibility.

“A lot of kids don’t know what’s out there,” she says. “I was that kid, so I can give back and bring a sense of hope.”

The team also has seven other members from a wide array of hometowns, allowing them to learn from each other and to model to the students and the world how diversity brings quality.

“We think about ubuntu and how it affects our students,” says Morgan Russell, who grew up in Egypt as the daughter of a diplomat. “It also affects how we learn from each other. It is such a cool feeling to be in a room with 300 people (the full corps of City Year New York) and know the one thing you have in common is giving a year to help in schools.”

While in New York I also had the opportunity to meet with Leslee Dean, a staff member of Storycorps, a group focused on recording, preserving and sharing people’s life narratives.

Leslee notes the benefit for the storytellers – “Many people have never been asked to tell their story and they feel valued” – and the wide audience inspired by the pursuit, as many stories are played on NPR and all are archived in the Library of Congress. “People are really impacted, because it reminds you of your common element of humanity,” she says.

Connecting to our past is crucial if we hope to connect to our future. City Year[3] celebrates the Iroquois proverb of “considering the next seven generations,” emphasizing that humans can grasp about three generations back (the parents of one’s grandparents) and three generations forward as the reason for using this number to describe our obligation to our descendants.

For Hunts Point corps member Barbara Smart, community must be built on the basis of our connection with the future. “Positive community focuses on sustainability,” she says. “Is what we’re doing good for the future? It’s before profit – it’s about planting seeds.”

Consider the idea of the split temporal self, the notion that I have consciousness only in the present, but past and future “me” is (are) equally real. I therefore have a responsibility to acknowledge, document, and make use of my experience, and to prepare the way for my future self.

This, I think, is helpful for understanding ubuntu and the notion of a real but transcendent “us” that exists without first creating “them.” Of course it is all actually “me,” but I will be at my best and happiest when I love and respect those temporally distinct selves, which existed in different environments, with different beliefs, abilities and desires.

During the week I visited a fourth-grade class in Brooklyn taught by my friend Laurie Basloe. Laurie’s students are from low-income families, but she teaches them that doesn’t limit their ability to be great by serving others. Her classes have held a “dance for diabetes” for six years in which they learn about and teach other fourth- and fifth-graders, raising money for AYUDA, a program she volunteered with in the past.

“I think helping others makes them feel good,” she says. “I think they realize even if they don’t have a nice car or an iPad that they have the ability (to make a difference). You don’t need money to make others happy.”

I explained Project Ubuntu to the class and we talked about identity, community and love. When the students were asked who they loved, Laurie was overjoyed when one eventually squeaked, “Myself!”

The love and celebration of oneself creates a meta-community that transcends time, and the foundation for viewing others as equally magnificent and worthy of celebration – the foundation for an ever-expanding notion of “us.” Indeed Walt Whitman[4] articulated this concept marvelously in Song of Myself, which begins:

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

 

 

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

 

 


[1] Popular paraphrase from language of “The Constitution of the Iroquois Nations: The Great Binding Law.” Created ca. 1500. Text translation by Gerald Murphy (1996) Available here.

[2] “PITW #1” from “Putting Idealism To Work” in City Year handbook. Available here.

[3] City Year Inc. (2012). “Founding Stories Book.” Puritan Press: Hollis, NH.

[4] Walt Whitman (1855) “Leaves of Grass.” Self-published. Available here.

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