By, Eli Goldman, City Year Philadelphia '12
The greatest threat to creating a more just, stable and collaborative society isn’t a Democrat, Republican or foreigner. It is citizens being unable, or unwilling, to work with others and approach social issues from an empathetic standpoint. That is exactly what my time with AmeriCorps’ Bonner Program, and later City Year, taught me to do.
When I was a senior at The College of New Jersey in 2010 I joined the Bonner Community Scholar Program. Receiving sponsorship from AmeriCorps, the program required me to do 300 hours of community service in the Ewing/Trenton Area in exchange for a modest bi‐weekly stipend of $100. However, what it taught me and how it prepared me for City Year and my current position at Safe Horizon in New York City, was far more valuable.
The Bonner Program at TCNJ was full of diverse people from all segments of society. Black, White, Latino/a, Asian, rich, low‐income, straight, queer, transgender and more – it fostered a truly diverse group of people, much more representative of society than anything you see on T.V. We came together, united around the issue of “service to others” and fostered a community on campus which helped to enable social actions to be taken on everything from environmental sustainability to educational equity.
In today’s workplace, especially in a program like City Year, there is no “typical” applicant. Sure, maybe most people will come from certain demographics that cut along racial, income or religious lines, but City Year, the workplace and the world are increasingly becoming more dynamic places that are bringing people together from all walks of life. This can present challenges and cause friction, but the pros and possibilities far outweigh the cons in my opinion.
For someone to thrive in such an environment and effectively work with others, particularly a white privileged male like myself, it’s essential to learn valuable skills such as how to approach a situation from the perspective of others. You should speak less and listen more. Only talk once until everyone has had a chance to speak. Do not dominate a conversation. Seek to validate and understand rather than judge or dismiss. Understand your humanity and well‐ being is tied to that of others. Do not “control” the narrative of the marginalized but instead seek to help them promote their own story, on their own terms, in their own ways. My time at Bonner taught me exactly how to do this. It was the perfect program to segway me into serving another AmeriCorps year with City Year Philadelphia.
If Bonner was an introductory course to working in a diverse environment, City Year was a graduate level class. With over 250 people from across the nation, we did a “privilege” line during Basic Training Academy. I had never been witness to the passion of so many people that was fully expressed, across multiple spectrums, from such varied perspectives in the follow‐up discussion. It was challenging and involved a lot of “checking” my own ego, but overall City Year was possibly one of the most rewarding things I have and ever will participate in.
After City Year I served another two years as an AmeriCorps VISTA in Newark, NJ and San Jose, California. Now I am the Coordinator of Donor Communications & Stewardship at Safe Horizon, the nation’s largest nonprofit that supports victims of violent crime and abuse. We have 57 programs and locations around New York City and serve over 250,000 people annually. It has been quite the ride so far. Without Bonner, and later City Year, I doubt I would have developed the skill‐set or mentality that got me here.
In today’s world we need to be able to step outside of ourselves and extend a hand to work with others who are different from us if we hope to have a chance of ending issues such as the high school dropout crisis, racial strife, domestic violence, income inequality and global warming. We cannot simply rely on our own “interest” groups, or those we most closely identify with. Programs like Bonner and City Year are critical in helping young people develop that mindset. Imagine if every youth in America participated in them.