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City Year Founding Story: Moccasins

Art by Alexandra Spanier

Oh Great Spirit, grant that I may never criticize my brother or my sister until I have walked the trail of life in their moccasins.

– Adapted from a Cherokee prayer

Empathy, understanding, and an aggressively nonjudgmental world outlook are essential attributes to leading social change. The metaphor of walking in the moccasins of another person before offering criticism is a remarkably useful leadership tool, as well as a moral imperative. As Robert F. Kennedy noted, “The task of leadership, the first task of concerned people, is not to condemn or castigate or deplore; it is to search out the reason for disillusionment and alienation, the rationale of protest and dissent—perhaps, indeed, to learn from it.”

Service is a common ground on which all people can come together to begin the work of building a more just society—work that depends on striving to truly understand one another. Service also is a powerful pathway for having our “moccasins” prayer answered: through the common ground of service, we can all walk in each other’s moccasins, and once exposed to the experiences of others, we are more likely to understand perspectives and points of view that are different, foreign, or even hostile to our own. It is essential that we learn to “moccasin” the world we encounter, to seek a broad inclusiveness in all endeavors, and to nurture a deep empathy within ourselves. Doing so generates wisdom, reconciliation, and social trust—vital elements for achieving human progress and lasting, positive social change.

About the Artist: Alexandra Spanier was a City Year AmeriCorps member in Los Angeles during the 2011–2012 school year. Her sister Kim served with City Year in Chicago, and this painting was inspired by their years of service. She said, “Although we serve at different times in very different situations, we still get to walk as one.”