Written by: Matt Axelrod, Dispute Resolution Partner at Linklaters, former Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General, City Year Boston Alumnus (’88)
The Power of Voluntary Service
Thirty years ago, when I was 17 years old, I was part of an idealistic experiment—a summer pilot program that brought together a group of 50 young adults from all corners of Boston for a common purpose: to spend 10 weeks as part of a diverse team in full-time service to our community.
In those early days, City Year corps members served in summer camps, homeless shelters and community gardens. We learned about the hopes, life experiences and challenges faced by our communities. Though our service experience was relatively short compared with City Year AmeriCorps’ 11-month commitment in schools today, it was profound for those of us who served.
When City Year started as a pilot program, there was some skepticism that it would work on a larger scale. First, people were doubtful that young people would actually want to commit to full-time community service. Second, the notion of having diverse teams of young adults from across greater Boston—from neighborhoods like South Boston and Roxbury to suburbs like Wellesley and Brookline, where I grew up—all on the same team, working shoulder to shoulder, was hard for people to imagine being a success.
But during those 10 weeks, we proved the skeptics wrong. We showed that young people could show up for full-time community service and do it with enthusiasm and optimism. We tested the idea that service can be a platform for people of different backgrounds and walks of life to come together, accomplish important work, and learn a lot about each other and about themselves. We proved that the City Year experience can change lives.
I remember working with a girl named Karen at Camp Joy, a camp for children with special needs, during my summer with City Year. Karen, who lives with Down syndrome, was coincidentally the sister of one of the best athletes at my high school. While her brother would awe crowds with the ferocity of his tackles and the accuracy of his jump shot, Karen was struggling that summer to learn to tie her shoes. Each day, Karen practiced, working to overcome the physical challenge that manipulating the laces posed for her. She was so proud when her hard work and perseverance finally paid off and she could consistently tie them. Being able to tie her own shoes was an important marker of independence and self-sufficiency for Karen -- she didn’t need a cheering crowd for her accomplishment to be meaningful.
City Year and Professional Development
City Year certainly changed who I was and who I’d become, both personally and professionally. After completing my summer with City Year, I went on to college and law school, then embarked on a career in public service that included clerking for two judges and working for the U.S. Department of Justice for more than a decade.
There's no way I could have done my jobs as successfully if it weren’t for my City Year experience. City Year not only helped me develop the skills to talk to and work with people from diverse backgrounds and experiences; it gave me a chance to think about how I could use all that I had been given in life to help open doors of opportunity for others. That summer instilled in me a passion for public service.
Read more about City Year's remarkable alumni and how their year of service helped to strengthen important skills for success in a career and in life.
Though I had lived in the Boston area for my entire life, I had never been to Dorchester before my first day as a City Year corps member. It was City Year that introduced me to the city of Boston in its entirety and its different neighborhoods and residents. It was City Year that showed me how powerful it is to be able to get to meet, learn from and engage with people I might not otherwise have the chance to get to know. And it was my City Year experience that made it so clear that working on a task, a problem or a project with people from a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives leads to better results.
As I've progressed in my adult life and career, the ability to talk to, learn from and empathize with people from all different walks of life has been critical to my professional success and personal growth. These skills helped me engage and connect with my clients when I took pro bono criminal defense cases. As a federal prosecutor, these skills helped me interview witnesses and talk to juries. When I interviewed prospective prosecutors as part of my office’s hiring process, I would make it a point to ask candidates about their experiences outside of the elite academic institutions they attended and the places where they grew up, many of which were like my hometown. I wanted to make sure these young lawyers were prepared to interact with people who had very different life experiences and educational backgrounds.
When I think about the last 30 years, I am proud to have been a part of such a positive and powerful national service movement. I came into my service experience with an open mind and heart and left humbled, with a passion for doing my part as a citizen and leader in my community to support positive change.
Now more than ever, I believe our country needs engaged, active and committed citizens. A year of two of voluntary national service offers a powerful path to creating deeper citizen engagement and more vibrant communities—outcomes that benefit all of us. I hope our country will continue to invest in AmeriCorps, making sure that the next 30 years are even more transformational—for our communities and for the young Americans who answer the call of service.