two hundred eighty-eight

This is the reason for my long absence.  273 AmeriCorps Volunteers completed their 10 months of full-time service three weeks ago with City Year Los Angeles.  288 fresh idealists will arrive in a month and therefore the last two months of my life has be dedicated to preparation in the form of training content design and revision, logistics, and carrolling busy people to get the answers I need to keep moving forward.  I am currently in the process of orchestrating how to ensure 30 of our staff members are prepared to facilitate daily for two weeks.

I am at the point where I work until I decide to get into bed, it is midnight and feel that it should be eight so that I could have four more hours before it be midnight.  I need to be on a planet that revolves on it’s axis 10 times slower.  It’s my new wish, sorry world peace move on over, expediency has taken priority.

The birthplace of all my content design has been from the idea of active citizenship to build greater democracy- the premise of City Year.  Truman, upon leaving his presidency said, “I’m not leaving the highest office in the land.  I am assuming the highest office, that of a citizen.”  Which of course, resonates with me. I believe the individual is most powerful in their daily decisions.  So, I get to support idealist young adults who make the remarkable decision to give 10 months of their lives to serve in under resourced schools and I help them make connections.  Connections of social justice to education, of daily work over time to impact, and to their recollections of influential people in their lives that they didn’t know were influential at the time to who they are now to the students they work with.  I help them remember to take a step back when a kid is manipulating them or hurting their feelings to the see the kid’s behavior as a result of their experience with people not them specifically- trust me my friend, the kid does not know you well enough to hate you in that way, that is what the kid has learned to do to survive.

So, I take idealistic people with a heart of service and ask them to be amazing for 12 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 10 months.  It is only fair that I work long hours for them for a few months.  I did just eat a bagel with pizza sauce, which tells you I am tired or lazy or hate grocery shopping- really it’s all three.

“Get Gritty”

Recently I have been learning about positive psychology.  Defined by UPenn as, “The scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.” It has been a keystone to the work I have been doing with City Year, Los Angeles.  We think about the work of Carol Dweck who is a leading researcher in growth mindset- the belief that one’s effort can lead to improvement (watch this 3:25min video of how this plays out with children), Angela Duckworth who has been looking at how character like grit, optimism, self control, and gratitude are more predictive of personal and professional success than IQ, socio-economic status, race, talent and to my horror- even good looks (watch this 6 min  Ted Talk video). Now that your world has been turned on it’s head, well, be encouraged.

Just when we were all about to surrender to being cut throat and looking out only for ourselves, we have figured out that being a better human increases our likelihood of success.  This is an essential mindset to internalize when working within a system that has been behind the curve in serving the needs of the communities I have worked with for 12 years.  I recently looked at a list of LA schools that have the highest rate of arrests and incarcerations and a good majority are schools that City Year partners with.  I am perplexed that a physical location can be a predictor of anything- a child can’t choose where they are raised.

So, I know some of you may have come from a rough background and didn’t have it so easy- that sucks.  Does it need to suck for everyone for the rest of time?  Is this life hazing we mandate/encourage/allow/turn a blind eye to need to continue? I know you may have made it.  I am telling you it wasn’t right that you had to go through all you did, and it still isn’t right.  I’m not asking anyone to be nice, by all means I’m not nice, but I will never go out of my way to be mean.  If you go out of your way to be mean, we can’t be friends.  If you are friends with people who go out of their way to be mean, we can’t be friends.  I mean, we may not even be friends right now, yet I’m asking you to consider how your everyday decisions cause ripples whether you want to recognize it or not.  What would you like your ripples produce?

Feeling small? Well, no need.

“Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation…. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage… [and]… belief that human history is shaped. Each time a person 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 that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

— Robert F. Kennedy Day of Affirmation Address University of Capetown · Capetown, South Africa · June 6, 1966

The greatest lie that the masses have believed is that one person is not enough, that one person’s act doesn’t matter.  That is very untrue.  You matter.  Others matter.  I am positive.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only the that ever has.” 

Margaret Mead

I am because we are, we are because I am.

My high school had a pretty complicated student government program.  There were the normal class officers for each grade level, but we had a governing body for the entire school that we called United Student Body.  There was an executive board, pres, vice, speaker of the house, interorganization chair, finance, and secretary, that was elected by the entire student body.  These then elected officials would then appoint commissioners- academics, assemblies and rallies, publicity, student store, and so forth.

The point, other than the fact that I grew up in a school system that expected us to succeed, is that this saying, “I am because we are, we are because I am,” was the motto that the president of my first year in USB decided for our group.  Now, I never had taken the time to understand, I just simply knew I didn’t understand (granted I was a freshman at the time).  I thought it was weird and I just let it go.

Now, 15 years later, I get it.  It’s ubuntu, a word from the Zulu language meaning “I am a person through other people; my humanity is tied to yours.”  This term, first introduced to me a few years ago because it’s the name of Linux’s rad open source software, then in a TED talk during my Peace Corps service, and now as one of the values in which the organization I work for is founded upon.

I work in education because others matter.  The greatest privilege I have had has been the high expectations my teachers and the adults around me have had for me while I was growing up.  I did not realize it at the time and I am sad to know now, that it was and is a privilege.  Not everyone has people believing in them, in their ability and their worth.  When did this become something to give and refuse?  Did you know that research has shown belief in self and having others believe in you is a more likely predictor of success than IQ or aptitude?

I believe in possibility.  I hope to one day believe in people.  I do good because I can, not because it is easy, because it is right, but really because I can.

Working the last 6 months in City Year has been a pleasure.  Just read the some of the values by which we operate:

Service to a cause greater than self

Students first, collaboration always

Belief in the power of young people

Social justice for all

I mean, for an idealistic cynic like me, these ideas are irresistible.  The best part, we work hard to embody them. We think about how to stretch ourselves, we stand in circles and talk things out, we work long hours, we take ownership for our mistakes.  I went to work today at 7:30am to support the training of the 288 new Americorps Members who will be serving in LAUSD, went to go to the office to do some more work and left at 8:30pm- not tired.

I came home, made shiro and silsi for the fresh injera the parking attendant at my parking garage brought for me because his wife just made it today and they know the first day of injera is my favorite way to eat Ethiopian food. Finally, I thought, well, I haven’t blogged in a while and I want to share how my work connects my heart to others. How there are good people.  How serving others can be a norm- 2700 young adults will serve across the nation in high need schools this year through my organization alone.  We can be good to one another.

I am because we are, we are because I am.

Do you like you?

A few weeks ago I was at a middle school during their after school program and two girls were interested enough to ask the nearest CM (Americorp Volunteer) who I was.  He said that I worked with City Year, that I’m nice and that they could ask me questions themselves.  They were, like 6th grade girls are, shy and giggly.  The CM told me these girls wanted to ask me a few questions so I went over.  After the first what do you do question, the next was a compliment.  One of the girls told me I was pretty.  I said thank you.  She said that she was not pretty.  I asked, “What do you think that means?”  We then got into a discussion about boys and boyfriends.  She told me that boys don’t like her.  I said that’s because they are stupid when it comes to girls and that you may feel that way longer than you think should be normal.  Then the girls said, “Ooo, you said a bad word.”

This 11 year old’s second response to me was about what she thought I looked like.  She also thinks that somehow being pretty is linked to having a boyfriend.  This compelled me to share with her that I, like her, don’t have a boyfriend and that somehow was reassuring.  It made me a bit sad to think about how the feeling of not being liked hurt this 6th grader and I couldn’t say that it would get better, because it doesn’t.  The more I’m in schools with kids, the more I am afraid we are not doing an adequate job of raising and building up good people who respect themselves and others.   No kid should think that pretty means enough to tell a stranger, judge themselves on it or think pretty is how you measure how anyone likes you- particularly the subset of boys. What happened to liking who you are, being a good friend, having fun learning (because learning is fun, promise) and playing?

Another CM shared that one of her students, who is nice, has decided that next year when she gets to middle school she will have to be mean.  According to her, it’s how it works in middle school, you can’t be nice because you will get picked on or be un-cool.  Nice girls don’t have friends.  This is a nightmare mindset for me.  As someone who has been systematically betrayed or screwed over without provocation pretty much yearly, twice a year if I was lucky, from 5th grade through my junior year of college, I am not a fan of mean girls.  Girls who are insecure and compete in a contest that only exists in their head and never tell you about it.  Girls who thought that I should never have anything that they want and sometimes it would be things that they didn’t really want, just didn’t want me to have it.  Another CM responded that at the middle school he works at the nice kids are the kids that no one really bothers.  It’s the mean kids that are mean to each other regularly and the nice kids get picked on every once in a while, so nice is a good way.  With a sigh, a pang in my heart and a bolt of anger I just said maybe she could ask her student which matters more, other people liking you or you liking you?

Do you like you? How do your actions reflect what matters to you?

May we be good to each other, simply because it is possible.

I shall pass th…

I shall pass through this life but once. Any good therefore that I can do or any kindness that I can show, let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I may not pass this way again.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Delete the Peace?

Naw, just replacing it with Ameri and making it one word.  After all, I do live in America now.

Now that I have returned from the “hardest job I’ll ever love” aka Peace Corps, I will be blogging about my current position working to build the capacity of Americorps Volunteers working with students in some of the most challenging schools in LA.  I’m happy to be working under a similar model as Peace Corps, where a very unique type of individual would dedicate a significant chunk of time to volunteer to meet a critical need in our schools.  God knows that I get a bit of the ride that comes with being a bit idealistic, having a heart for social justice, and sweating everyday in the hopes for minute change with little appreciation and no pay.

City Year has been working with youth since ’88 and recently shifted their focus to our nation’s drop out crisis by providing additional human capital (Americorps Volunteers) in the schools that disproportionately produce the highest percentage of drop outs. My position is new and was created to support, train, and build up the volunteers in their academic intervention with students so that we can be even more strategic and effective in our efforts.

My hope for the work that I am doing with City Year is to make it absolutely clear that it’s not about smart/stupid, ethnicity  or money, it’s about having the right resources at the right time.  We can’t expect excellence if we never teach how to be excellent.  Most people are not born with the ability to dream beyond what they see, that also may need to be taught.  I’d like us as a society to make a true investment in our youth and I believe it can be done through education.  I can’t imagine that anyone wouldn’t want to give a child a genuine opportunity to learn, grow and succeed.  A child doesn’t get to choose his/her parents, the neighborhood they grow up in, or whether they learn English as their first language.  Can we at least provide a safe school where teachers are given the right supports to meet the needs of their students?  I hope so, I hope policy is reformed in a practical and radical way.  Let’s not ignore the shortcomings of our country, of the school that is close by that you would never send your child to, let’s make more conscious decisions.


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