City Year Serves in Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. said “Life’s most persistent question is: what are you doing for others?”  These profound words from Doctor King remind us of the empowerment and joy one can receive through a lifetime dedication to service. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day stands as a national holiday to encourage civic engagement in service work that strengthens our communities and echoes Kings’ commitment to fighting injustice.

 

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On Monday, January 21, 2013 Seattle’s entire City Year corps, staff and over 40 volunteers gathered at Denny International Middle School in West Seattle to engage in physical service. We served as a a team of dedicated children, current and former City Year board members, and employees of Starbucks; including President of US Operations, Cliff Burrows and Regional Director, Mitch Evans.
 
Denny International is a new building with many blank walls. To create a more welcoming and supportive environment for our scholars, we spent the day painting a large mural in one of the school’s main stairwells. Assistant Principal Patricia Rangel spoke to the powerful artwork designed by Intensive School Partnership Coordinator for Seattle Public School District, Nate Sanders, calling the mural “A project that’s an evolving mirror to our entire community about the importance of knowing our history, remembering our heroes, and recognizing that we contribute to this journey of justice every day in the commitment we make to our students and our work together.”

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Across the street, at the park which is part of The Southwest Teen Life Center and former location of the old Denny School building, City Year corps members and volunteers got their hands dirty weeding and landscaping rain gardens.  Each of the sizeable rain gardens are critical to the ecological health of the community and provide a natural filtration of our region’s rain water before reaching Puget Sound.  The project’s lead coordinator, Gretchen DeDecker with Seattle Public Schools claims the job done on Monday translates to nearly three months of staff work time. DeDecker thanks the corps, stating: “Today you reminded me why I LOVE City Year! Your positive spirit, energy, organization skills, and endurance made such a huge difference at the raingardens.”

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Corps Member Sam Boutelle proudly reflects on the meaning and impact of our MLK day service: “The civil rights movement demonstrated the imperative for the unity of purpose in effecting social change.  Although we didn’t move mountains on MLK day, I do believe that the collaboration and fellowship we got to enjoy as we served made the day brighter for all involved and demonstrated the power that we share together.”

Written by Becka Gross, City Year corps member serving as a dedicated tutor and mentor this year to the students at Denny International Middle School.

A Case for Giving a Year

City Year alum, Rebekah Wilson, served with City Year Seattle/King County for two years. She now attends Middlebury College in Vermont and below shares her insight on her experience as a corps member.

City Year alum, Rebekah Wilson, served with City Year Seattle/King County for two years. She now attends Middlebury College in Vermont and below shares her insight on her experience as a corps member.

I first found out about City Year in the fall of my senior year of high school, while researching gap year options online. It’s been five years since then and I have a hard time conceptualizing exactly what prompted me to apply in the first place, but I remember looking at the application with an overwhelming desire to do something big. Yes, something good. Yes, something interesting and challenging and altruistic that would look attractive on my resume and hopefully broaden my college prospects. But mostly I was attracted to the idea of something larger than me that would sweep me up out of the small alcove of the world I had grown up in and land me on a different a shore, a shore that would involve an understanding of social justice issues on the ground level and a sense of what could be done about them.

Then, I never could have imagined how much I would learn. In many ways, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, even after I was accepted to the program in Seattle, even after I found a sketchy apartment and a (not sketchy) roommate, even after I boarded a plane with a one-way ticket in August 2008. I was eighteen years old. I had never lived on my own before. I had grown up in rural Iowa. I had never been to Seattle. Though my parents were public school teachers, I had no experience teaching. Truthfully, kids kind of freaked me out.

I’m still processing even now, two years after I graduated from City Year, all of the ways I grew during my City Years. Like most life experiences, it was both wonderful and truly hard, invigorating and numbing. Sometimes I came home from work manic and optimistic, sometimes I took off my work boots at the door and cried. The best I can do, I suppose, is give you just a few of the most significant lessons I learned:

1. I learned to love my host city in a complex way –  for its beauty, but also its challenges.

When you apply to City Year, you can choose to apply directly to one of 24 sites around the country (plus international sites in London and South Africa). I chose to apply directly to Seattle mostly because I had never been there. I romanticized the city. I had detailed fantasies about the dimly-lit coffee shops I would frequent, the days I would spend kayaking on Lake Union.

Though I did end up loving the city just as much as (if not more than) I thought I would, my understanding of Seattle as a city was made complex by the large urban area I covered on the job. My first year I spent between two and three hours per day commuting via public transit from my apartment in the north end of Seattle to my service site, a community center in the south end, and to City Year headquarters in a completely different area of the city. To this day, I can easily sketch a detailed approximation of most the city’s bus lines on a cocktail napkin.

Each Friday, the entire corps – 50-60 corps members – came together from our respective service sites for one large-scale service project or training. We painted murals in elementary school hallways, mulched public trails, decorated shelters for the holidays, harvested lettuce in community gardens, lead middle school students in environmental service with EarthCorps, and so much more. Because these Friday projects were held in a different place each week, often involving at least an hour of travel time from my home, I was introduced to neighborhoods, parks, and social service organizations that I might not have been otherwise, expanding my definition of what it meant to serve the Seattle area.

Working with at-risk public school students from all over the city added another layer of complexity to my understanding of Seattle. The tensions between socioeconomic and cultural divides in different neighborhoods, as well discrepancies in opportunity and access were made all the more real to me because I worked in public schools with children – the individuals for whom these injustices have the greatest impact. In the end, you will come to root for your host city and the students you love the way my brother roots for his favorite baseball team – with a compound, vehement loyalty, an understanding of their weakest points, and a desire for them to perform beyond adverse circumstances.

2. I learned how to work with anyone. Anyone.

Within each City Year site, corps members are broken up into teams of four to eight people. You will spend up to 12 hours (and no less than eight) a day with these people. You will work with children with them. You will eat lunch with them and talk about life and politics and love and occasionally have an emotional meltdown in front of them. Though you will not like all of them, you will learn to work with (or at least alongside) them simply because, for the most part, you all believe in the small, daily goals (i.e. help seventh-grader Monica understand improper fractions) and the larger goals (help Monica pass her math class, fill vital gaps in the larger high-need public education system).

Just like any college admissions site, City Year’s recruitment website talks a lot about the diversity of the corps. Beyond racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity, what I found remarkable about the diversity of my corps was the diversity of age, education, and experience. Over my two years, I served on teams that included a 21-year-old with some community college experience, a 22-year-old Princeton grad, an 18-year-old high school graduate, and a 24-year-old in the process of applying to graduate school. None of us were from the same area of the country, and none of us had exactly the same life outlook. Although this sometimes caused operational friction and promoted conflict, it also promoted dialogue, leading to insightful conversations on race, class, education, and privilege — issues we were all confronted with in our daily service.

3. I learned that there are some phenomenal public school teachers.

By the spring of 2010, the end of my second year, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. On an end-of-the-year outing with some students which should have been fun, carefree, and relaxed  – a celebration of our time and growth together over the year – I found myself snapping “Let’s play the quiet game!” at a group of sixth grade girls “singing” a Nicki Minaj song in the back of the bus. It wasn’t that I didn’t still care about the kids I worked with or didn’t believe in what I was doing anymore – I was just really, really tired.

I was struck by how tireless so many of the teachers whose classrooms I worked in could be – or, rather, how perseverant, patient, and passionate they could be in the face of exhaustion. I owe most of what I learned about working with youth in a constructive, compassionate way to these teachers. This opened my eyes to just how challenging it is to be a great public school teacher in our current system, prompting another realization…

4. …I learned what I don’t want to do for the rest of my life.

As fulfilling as direct service with students could be, and while I still have a passion for public education, I realized that, right now, teaching in a high-need, urban classroom isn’t what I see myself doing for the majority of my career. This is mostly a matter of patience and endurance (see anecdote above). Maybe this will mean pursuing an administrative role in public education. Maybe this will mean becoming a better-trained teacher or teaching in a different capacity. Either way, it’s comforting to be able to narrow my career focus to align with my strengths and weaknesses.

5. I learned that there is still so much work to do.

My City Year co-workers and I used to joke about our L.A.C.Y. (Life After City Year) plans. At the time, Life After City Year seemed unthinkable — we were so wrapped up in the City Year world: the (unique) culture of the organization, the intensive daily routine, our co-workers and students who became significant figures in our lives.

My L.A.C.Y. was Middlebury. This was not an easy transition. It was difficult to reconcile my challenging experiences — that opened my eyes to social injustice, specifically in education — with being in a college environment alongside kids two years younger than me, most straight out of high school. I had a hard time figuring out how to leverage my experiences into a meaningful academic career. Now, I’m trying to appreciate the friction I feel between these two worlds in a way that fuels my ambition to work in a social justice capacity after I graduate, having acquired complex yet applicable knowledge to make me an even better teacher and a more effective agent of social change.

City Year’s motto is “Give a year, change the world.” I would extend this appeal to anyone my age, beyond the context of City Year or any specific organization. I would genuinely encourage you to consider a year of national service as a step in your lifelong education and career path with the understanding that the good you do in that year (and beyond) will be two-fold – beneficial for you and those you serve. There are so, so many ways to “give a year.” For some of you (and I hope it is) yours could be City Year.

City Year Presents to Seattle Public Schools

This post was written by City Year Seattle/King County corps member, Becka Gross, who is serving with the JPMorgan Chase Diplomas Now team at Denny International Middle School.

City Year Seattle/King County corps members and staff had the unique chance to attend and present at a recent Seattle Public Schools Board of Directors meeting. Superintendent Jose Banda was in attendance along with the complete Board of Directors including: Sharon Peaslee, Sherry Carr, Harium Martin-Morris, Michael DeBell, Kay Smith-Blum, Marty McLaren, and Betty Patu.

The Seattle Public Schools Board of Directors

The Seattle Public Schools Board of Directors

This meeting offered voice to City Year as a community partner working closely with the District. Board president Michael DeBell warmly welcomed the corps and acknowledged their strong presence, stating: “there can be no mistake about those red jackets in the room.”

City Year’s corps members, wearing their distinctive red jackets, attended the October 17th Seattle Public School Board meeting.

City Year’s corps members, wearing their distinctive red jackets, attended the October 17th Seattle Public School Board meeting.

Executive Director Simon Amiel presented an overview of City Year’s progress and goals, explaining: “A human capital solution is required to close the implementation gap– and that’s where City Year comes in. With a second set of full time, highly-trained, and caring adults in schools–committed to change.”

Corps member Mohamed Adan spoke to the board on his passion for service with City Year. Adan painted a picture of his own life in relation to the scholars he works with, stating “The kids I serve at Emerson Elementary remind me a lot of myself. Like them, I grew up in the South End, like many of them I was an immigrant, and a student of color. I also struggled academically.” Despite the setbacks Adan experienced, he learned to excel in school and has a promising future ahead of him. He did not fall through the cracks like many students facing similar challenges unfortunately do. “Why?” Adan asked. “Because people believed in me and invested their time in energy to build me up.”

City Year corps members support Seattle students as tutors and mentors

City Year corps members support Seattle students as tutors and mentors.

The Principals from each of City Year’s six partner schools came to show their support of the organization. Aki Kurose Middle School Principal, Mia Williams, spoke to the board about the significant gains her school has achieved with the assistance of City Year. “I want to wholeheartedly say that having City Year in our building has been a very cost-effective way to transform our school.” Mia described Aki’s improvement in academics, behavior, and attendance over the last several years, explaining “we’ve had tremendous success with our students on their social-emotional and academic goals by having the near peer coaches right in the classrooms.”

Perhaps the most compelling of all the presenters was Jessica, a 4th grade student from Roxhill Elementary. “We call each other scholars,” Jessica proudly claimed. “A scholar is someone smart, organized, responsible, respectful to others, and honest.” City year has served at Roxhill Elementary for the past three years and according to Jessica, has helped her and her friends become scholars. “When I get older I want to help kids just like me,” Jessica told the board. “Maybe I’ll be a City Year too.”

Amiel concluded City Year’s presentation by answering board members questions about funding, suggesting that the work we are doing is scalable, and inviting each board member to visit one of our six schools to see City Year in action.

Seattle School Board Members, Betty Patu and Kay Smith-Blum visited City Year corps members at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School.

Seattle School Board Members, Betty Patu and Kay Smith-Blum visited City Year corps members at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School.

Each Director expressed a deep appreciation for the work and accomplishments of City Year. Director Harium Martin-Morris thanked the corps members, stating: “We spend a lot of time talking about: how do we change things? And how do we make things better? The answer to that quite honestly is through service. You individually are showing that one person can make a difference. I applaud you for that and thank you for your service.”

Why I Serve

City Year Seattle/King County corps member, Anna Akers-Pecht, serves with the Microsoft Diplomas Now team at Aki Kurose Middle School. In her blog below, she explains how her experience growing up in rural Southern Virginia inspired her to make an impact in public education, work to break down racial barriers and commit a year to service.

City Year Seattle/King County corps member, Anna Akers-Pecht, serves with the Microsoft Diplomas Now team at Aki Kurose Middle School.

City Year Seattle/King County corps member, Anna Akers-Pecht, serves with the Microsoft Diplomas Now team at Aki Kurose Middle School.

I serve because, while Brown v. Board of Education desegregated schools, it never fully integrated them. Growing up in rural Southern Virginia, I experienced firsthand the lasting, harmful effects of segregation. After the Brown v. Board ruling, U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr., called for a campaign of “Massive Resistance” in Virginia, during which white Virginians resisted desegregation at all costs. Rather than integrate, a neighboring county, Prince Edward, shut down its entire public school system for five years. In my own county, Brunswick, many white parents created a private academy that still exists today.

I attended the public school system, where the student population was roughly 80 percent African-American. The majority of students qualified for free and reduced lunch, and our school system constantly struggled to meet federal benchmarks on standardized tests. I was always frustrated that my school never received the full community support it deserved, as many local businesses support the academy and not the public schools. Perhaps most frustrating to me were the teachers who worked in the public school system, yet sent their own children to the academy. One day after school in the tenth grade, I was talking to my English teacher’s daughter, who attended the academy. As we spoke in the hallways, she told me, “Mama doesn’t like me hanging around here after school,” expressing concern about drugs and violence. I felt hurt and infuriated that my own teacher would characterize our school in such a negative way.

Growing up, I only thought about how the academy’s existence negatively affected the public school system. Now, however, I realize the academy is only a symptom of the lingering, underlying racism that has seeped down like a poison through the generations. Beyond the schools, this poison has prevented our entire community from growing and reaching its full potential.

Making the distinction between desegregation and true integration, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Desegregation will break down legal barriers, and bring men together physically. But something must happen so as to touch the hearts and souls of men that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right.”  I serve to break down these destructive barriers between groups of people, so that our country will one day fulfill Dr. King’s dream of “a truly brotherly society…a beloved community.”

City Year Celebrates Opening Day 2012!

City Year Seattle/King County corps member, Becka Gross, is serving with the JPMorgan Chase Diplomas Now team at Denny International Middle School. Below she recounts the power of City Year’s Opening Day.

On Friday, September 21, the 2012-13 City Year Seattle/King County corps ran through the doors of City Hall joining an audience of friends, family, board members, donors, and elected officials to officially kick off the start of full-time service in schools. City Year Executive Director, Simon Amiel, fired up the audience and corps, leading them in a chant: “More kids, in school, and on track to succeed!”

City Year corps members, staff, elected officials, donors and community members came together to celebrate Opening Day.

City Year corps members, staff, elected officials, donors and community members came together to celebrate Opening Day.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn shared his support for City Year and the impact he believes our service has on the community. Comcast sponsor and City Year board member, Steve Holmes, also shared his gratitude for the incoming corps, stating that the work of City Year is “changing the forecast for a generation to one of hope.” Another highlight from the event’s program was Jessica Silye, a City Year alumna, who shared the stage with a former student she worked with, Sam Martin. Together they described how both of their lives were profoundly impacted by their experiences together and the work of City Year.

City Year alumna, Jessica Silye, and her former student, Sam Martin, talk about the experience they shared together through City Year.

City Year alumna, Jessica Silye, and her former student, Sam Martin, talk about the experience they shared together through City Year.

The keynote address came from corps member and recent graduate of Garfield High School, Mohamed Adan, who inspired the crowd with his life story and passion for service.  After fleeing chaos and violence in Somalia, Adan’s family sought refuge in Kenya and eventually was granted political asylum in the United States. Adan entered Seattle’s public school system at six years old and found in the years to follow that the new language and culture created great barriers against his academic success. While recalling teachers suggesting to his class that they ask their parents for homework help, Adan said with a grin, “my parents didn’t speak a lick of English and attempting to solicit their help on my homework would have resulted in blank stares or a whole lot of head scratching.” Though his teachers were supportive and dedicated, they did not have the resources to provide the individualized support necessary to foster each student.

City Year corps member, Mohamed Adan, shares his experience of growing up in Seattle and what inspired him to serve his community.

City Year corps member, Mohamed Adan, shares his experience of growing up in Seattle and what inspired him to serve his community.

Adan reminisced about the people in his life who believed in him, helped him overcome the setbacks he encountered, and ensured his success. People in his school and community “who dedicated themselves to education. Who believed in the potential of every student to succeed, and who worked hard in difficult situations and with limited resources because they knew the tremendous impact education could have upon their students.”

The community support, words of encouragement, and palpable enthusiasm of Adan reminded the corps, and each member of the audience, of the vital importance of the mission they are embarking upon. We can’t wait to see the impact that each of our 67 corps members makes this year!

*To see more photos from Opening Day, click here.