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City Year Founding Story: Up the River

Photo by Elliot Haney

There once were two villages built on the banks of a wide river. Over the years, the villages grew in size and became known as Upriver village and Downriver village.

One day, the people of Downriver village saw a man from Upriver village drifting down the river, calling out for help. Quickly, two of them jumped in and saved him. The next day, three more people from Upriver came floating by, and the Downriverites again dove in and saved the three floundering people. These incidents began to occur every day.

One afternoon, a young boy whose family was new in Downriver asked a question no one in town had wanted to raise: “How come people from Upriver are always falling in the river and almost drowning?” He asked one of the Upriverites, who had just been saved by the Downriver people.

“Our town is built along a cliff,” the Upriverite answered, “and whenever it rains, lots of people slip into the river. Only a few children and none of the adults in town know how to swim, but we are grateful for the way people in this village save us.”

The boy went to a town leader. “Why don’t we help the people of Upriver build a fence along their cliff so they don’t fall in?” he asked.

The leader told the boy to be quiet and not to worry. “We know how to rescue people, but we aren’t expert fence-builders. What happens if we don’t do a good job building the fence and someone falls through it? We would be responsible. This system works, everyone is happy with it and no one is drowning. It is better to leave well enough alone.”

So the boy went to a worker at the Downriver Village Rescue Service. “Why don’t we teach the people in the village of Upriver how to swim?” he asked.

The worker shook his head. “That’s not our job. Our job is to rescue people from the water. Our people are trained to rescue people, not teach people how to swim. What if we don’t teach them properly—someone might drown and there will be no one to rescue them.”

The boy felt a bit discouraged. He thought his plans had been good, but there were no adults who would listen to his ideas. He sat down on the riverbank and put his head in his hand, staring into the current. Then a voice asked, “Why do you look so sad?”

A girl from Upriver village stood nearby. The boy explained that he was sad because people kept falling in the river, but no one in his town would do anything to solve the problem. The girl listened carefully, and then said, “Well, I’m a good swimmer and I’ve seen you swimming in the river. Why don’t we start some swimming lessons, ourselves?” At this, the boy grew excited. He ran around Downriver village, collecting all his friends, and the girl went to Upriver village and brought together her friends. They began to teach their friends how to swim.

Soon, the children of Upriver and Downriver were excitedly telling their parents about the swimming lessons they had started. More and more children joined in each day, and one day, some adults came by and they joined in the lessons, as well. Soon, many of the people falling into the river could swim to safety, but the boy and girl felt that as long as people were falling into the river, there was more work to be done.

So the children went up the river and asked their friends and families to come and help build a fence along the edge of the cliff. They built a strong fence that stood as a barrier between the village and the river.

From that day forward, very few people fell in the river, and those who did almost all knew how to swim.

— Author unknown, Adapted from a retelling by Erie Chapman

Direct response to crisis and need is an essential task and an urgent human responsibility, as it changes and even saves lives. But “downriver” interventions require a significant commitment of resources, often create new problems to solve, and do not reach, much less cure, root causes of problems and conditions. It is important, therefore, to go “up the river”—to think critically and systemically about the problems we encounter, and to focus on prevention and root causes, even as we meet the challenges of the day.

We must be prepared to face challenges to new ideas and creative problem-solving, as existing systems are resistant to change. People are often so embedded in the current systems in which they work that it is difficult for them to accept creative thinking or a systemic approach, particularly when it comes from young people. Nevertheless, critical thinking is essential to the work of social change. Systemic solutions may be difficult to identify and harder still to implement—and it may take time to see the results we seek—but they are the only way to enact true and lasting change.

About the Photographer: Elliot Haney works on the marketing team at City Year Headquarters where he works as a photographer and graphic designer. Elliot joined City Year in 2009 as a City Year AmeriCorps member with City Year Boston. The photograph was captured from the Longfellow Bridge that spans the Charles River, separating Boston and Cambridge in Massachusetts. It depicts a common scene on the Charles just after sunrise—Bostonians rowing ‘Up the River.’