Week 12: DC

PHOTO: Daniel Becton painting with the City Year DC civic engagement team at DC General.

You must be the change you wish to see in the world.  -Mahatma Gandhi[1]

A capital city with state-less status, Washington, D.C. is a peculiar place. Guests to the transient city include diplomats, lobbyists and well-fed politicians that sweat through their suits, while low-income families live a mile away and a world apart.

I spent a week with City Year Washington D.C., a remarkable engine for social justice in a city with a remarkably disparate social structure. They deploy 160 young adults in 16 schools full-time in an effort to curb the dropout rate from D.C. Public Schools.

Despite growing up in the backyard of those hired to make our country and world great(er), children in D.C. face an abysmal lack of educational opportunity and an uphill battle just to survive the streets. Nearly every student in a class I spoke to at Ballou High School mentioned “gunshots” in an “I am from” poetry exercise, and during the week DCPS announced it was closing twenty schools at the end of term.[2]

The schools to be closed were underperforming and under-enrolled, so it seems like a good idea to consolidate resources. But suddenly children who walked to school will be expected to take two buses to an area that may be hostile.

“I really want to know where these kids are going to go,” says Daniel Lawson, Civic Engagement Manager for City Year and a D.C. native. “Spring Garn High School is now split up between Roosevelt, Eastern and Dunbar. Those are three completely separate neighborhoods.”

The streets of D.C. often produce localized gangs called “crews,” which present an obvious challenge to safety in schools, not to mention attendance.

“Every block has a crew,” says Lawson. “That identity is so important here. How are these kids going to mix and be split into three different identities? They’re not going to have two-thirds of their neighborhood.”

Even in the wealthier northwest quadrant of D.C., shocking school conditions can be found. While riding the metro one day I looked down at a newspaper[3] and saw that the principal of Coolidge High School had been placed on leave after allegedly punching a former staff member at a Coolidge football game! Although her role as a fellow attacker is disputed,[4] it is apparently stipulated that her employees physically assaulted the victim, whose brother is an assistant principal at the school.

All this in the city with the motto Justitia Omnibus (Justice for All) can create a bitter cynicism toward community projects.

“It’s part of the identity of our city that nothing you do matters,” says Lawson. “That’s why we have over 2,000 non-profits in our city yet we have more problems than most major cities.”

As the license plates note, D.C. residents provide “taxation without representation” – and Lawson is one of many who points to that oddity as problematic.

“A lot of that is trickled down to not having representation,” he says. “If your leaders feel disempowered and (like) nothing they do matters, it creates that mentality.”

City Year works to challenge the perceptions about young people’s ability to make a difference by mobilizing diverse “corps members” in teams to serve as tutors, mentors and role models. The leaders they deploy bring knowledge to children in D.C. schools from a combination of local and non-local backgrounds.

Danika Scott is serving at Garfield Elementary School, which she attended as a child, so she has had unique access to children in the school from the first day.

“They know where I lived and they come to me,” she says. “We have two people from D.C. They respond to us, and they see their parents in us.”

With time, though, her teammates’ positive presence – and the example of Scott working alongside them – has created a curiosity among the students about other areas.

“I always refer to (other corps members in order to encourage students) to learn other things outside of D.C.,” she says. “Most of our kids never travel to other areas of D.C. but they’ll say, ‘My City Year lives there,’ and they’ll want to go.”

The vast differences between neighborhoods in the District and suburban Maryland and Virginia can create an “us vs. them” quality, but organizations like City Year encourage transcendence of that division.

“There’s not a divide in the corps,” says Matt Repka, a D.C. native and a Team Leader in his second year serving with City Year. “You know where the locals are,” he laughs, “but everyone’s here for the same reason. Everyone signed up for the same thing.

“That’s what I love about it: No one’s here for a paycheck. Volunteers do this because they really care. And you feel that. That’s why I came back to do it again.”

Jachin Leatherman, a graduate of Ballou High School, spoke to the corps while I was visiting about his experience growing up in southeast D.C. and spurning opportunities to go to private high school in Maryland.

“I wanted to make sure everyone saw someone could stay in Southeast and come out,” he says. “We do have some good teachers and I wanted to tell their stories through me. I wanted people to see ‘Wow I can make it from here.’”

Leatherman and his best friend Wayne Nesbit were honors students and athletic stars who both went on to play football for Holy Cross University, a story spread by the Washington Post.[5] 

“We knew it would be so much better if we could do it because everybody got shipped off (to a private school) and they never heard those stories,” he says. “We knew we could go to a better private school but why not try to do that at your neighborhood school? Why not do it here and make a better name for Southeast?”

Leatherman says his conviction to stay in his area “came from struggle, it came from pain. It came from walking past drug deals, and people pulling out guns. I wanted to make sure people saw, ‘This isn’t my only way out. Education is another way.’”

He will continue to be a positive role model for children in the area, which is precisely what’s needed to redefine and recreate their pathways of opportunity. I visited one of those great teachers at Ballou, a City Year alum named Shajena Erazo who is one of three finalists for D.C.P.S. Teacher of the Year. Her classroom is filled with college banners and she addresses her students with an expectation of maturity and excellence.

That approach is in stark contrast to the expectations placed on the same children by the world rushing around west of the Anacostia River.

I spent a full day at Browne Education Campus, where City Year has its oldest school partnership. Any doubts one might have on the impact these young role models have would vanish upon witnessing the team walk into the school gymnasium in the morning: Every corps member is swarmed by adoring children, giddy to see their caring mentors.

“The kids are able to develop a different relationship with a corps member than a teacher,” says Kristen McDonough, who manages the team at Browne. “You have that education piece but also the support piece.”

Anise Walker, the school’s Transformation Specialist, emphasizes City Year’s contribution. “We have a great corps,” she says. “They work really hard, and they give a lot of human capital. That one-on-one, that near-peer connection with the kids (is powerful and they) support the social/emotional and the academic pieces. It really helps a lot.”

City Year prioritizes increasing students’ Math and English scores as well as their behavior and attendance. The team has helped the school boost attendance from 86% to 95% this year and Browne ranks third out of 250 schools in the national Get Schooled contest that measures attendance and student engagement.

In the fifth-grade class I supported, I met a girl who does not receive any food at home, a girl who doesn’t speak English, a boy whose sibling was recently sexually abused and another who struggles to count up by 5s.

I didn’t experience the learning environment any of those students are navigating. But wearing that City Year jacket eliminated the unfamiliarity between us from the moment I entered, and allowed me to connect with those children as a fellow human being.

I played a multiplication game with kids that I learned from a tutoring program I visited in New York, I managed to explain in broken French a science activity to the ESL student, who is from Cameroon, and I answered questions about what City Year is like in London (“If I give you a dollar will you take me back to England with you? I’m pretty sure I could fit in your suitcase.”).

Children are intuitive and honest, and they sense when a person is interested in helping them. Thanks to all the red jackets that had been in that school before me, they expected me to be caring and to want to challenge them to grow.

The classroom I visited is the home of corps member Debarshi Das, a pre-med graduate of Rochester University who took an extra year to study humanities courses such as Religious Studies. He linked the ubuntu concepts to both Hindu and Buddhist approaches to interconnectedness.

“We’re all meshed into one,” says Das. “Everything is impermanent. Because of this, things exist in relationship to each other – the floor is only the floor in relation to the wall, etc. You never get to the ‘it’. Nothing makes us ‘us’ – (we are only ‘us’) through others.

“That makes us more rich.”

Das thus illustrated the concept of pratitya samutpada, dependent origination or interdependent co-arising, which Thich Nhat Hanh[6] aptly explains:

Pratitya samutpada is sometimes called the teaching of cause and effect, but that can be misleading, because we usually think of cause and effect as separate entities, with cause always preceding effect, and one cause leading to one effect. According to the teaching of Interdependent Co-Arising, cause and effect co-arise (samutpada) and everything is a result of multiple causes and conditions… For a table to exist, we need wood, a carpenter, time, skillfulness, and many other causes. And each of these causes needs other causes to be. The wood needs the forest, the sunshine, the rain, and so on. The carpenter needs his parents, breakfast, fresh air, and so on. And each of those things, in turn, has to be brought about by other causes and conditions. If we continue to look in this way, we’ll see that nothing has been left out. Everything in the cosmos has come together to bring us this table. … One cause is never enough to bring about an effect. A cause must, at the same time, be an effect, and every effect must also be the cause of something else. Cause and effect inter-are.

There may not be such vast worlds between the politicians on Capitol Hill and the people at the bottom of it, after all. We are through each other, and all of us are capable of connecting to others through that lens.

If we do so, it seems compassion is the likely result, and nothing is more inspiring than steely determination in a city with an identity that nothing you do matters. The real heroes in society are the ones that take responsibility for their role in our interconnected social web.

I spent a day with City Year’s civic engagement team, where I helped touch up murals they had led volunteers in painting at D.C. General, a former hospital that is now a family shelter. One of the team members is Lauren Morris, who moved to D.C. from Michigan to study at Howard and plans to stay in the city to study public policy at American University.

“I dedicated (this year) to my family and especially my goddaughter,” she says. “I’m doing this for her. She’s growing up in the system that I grew up in. I really want her to see though I’m not at home I’m making a difference and a ripple effect that’s going to come back to her.

“I want to change the system,” says Morris, “and I’m going to change the system.”




[1] This quote is commonly attributed to Gandhi but is disputed according to Wikiquote <http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Mohandas_Karamchand_Gandhi>.

[2] Emma Brown. “D.C. schools targeted for closure.” Washington Post. 13 Nov 2012. Accessed 20 Nov 2012. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/twenty-dc-schools-targeted-for-closure/2012/11/13/377eb832-2d12-11e2-a99d-5c4203af7b7a_story.html>.

[3] Scott McCabe. “D.C. principal accused in parking lot beat-down.” Washington Examiner 15 Nov 2012. Accessed 20 Nov 2012 <http://washingtonexaminer.com/d.c.-principal-accused-in-parking-lot-beat-down/article/2513569#.ULL1QoeClyQ>.

[4] Peter Hermann and Emma Brown. “D.C. principal charged with assault.” Washington Post. 15 Nov 2012. Accessed 20 Nov 2012 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/crime/dc-principal-charged-with-assault/2012/11/15/99bef848-2f58-11e2-9f50-0308e1e75445_story.html>.

[5] V. Dion Haynes. “Legacy of hope: Two friends made it cool to be smart at Ballou. But what happened after they left?” 24 Oct 2010. Accessed 20 Nov 2012 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2010/10/21/ST2010102105382.html?sid=ST2010102105382>.

[6] Thich Nhat Hanh (1999) “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching.” New York: Three River Press.

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