By Jeff Lafata '00,'01, Founder and Executive Director Empowering People for Inclusive Communities (EPIC), City Year Boston Alumni Board Member
PITW #92 - Seek to be as inclusive as possible. Inclusivity is the real test – and ultimate goal – of building the beloved community. Inclusivity means taking diversity one step further by learning to tap everyone’s strengths to achieve goals that are larger than ourselves. A purposeful and inclusive community is more than the sum of its parts.
One of the many things that attracted me to becoming an AmeriCorps Member at City Year Boston was the organization’s commitment to inclusivity. I was raised in a homogenous community that lacked the diversity and inclusion that I was seeking in my life. As an 18 year-old fresh out of high school I was passionate about social justice and service and knew that City Year was the place for me. But when I joined City Year in the fall of 1999, I had no idea how the organizational value of inclusivity would transform my year of service and ultimately set me on my career path.
My desire for an inclusive environment that led me to City Year suddenly took on a significance I wasn’t expecting when I was placed in a classroom of third through fifth graders with learning disabilities at the Nathan Hale Elementary School in Roxbury. In my classroom, I assisted students academically while serving as a mentor and support to ensure that they were able to meet their goals. However, I soon found I had an even more important role that was unique to my service experience.
The students whom I served were primarily in a separate classroom from their peers without disabilities and only shared time with their schoolmates in classes such as music and gym. However, even in these classes that were meant to be inclusive, the students I worked with were still physically separated from their peers. I realized that others might not see the greatness that I did in my students. I couldn’t fault them for this lack of vision because when people are separated because of their differences misunderstanding, bias, and prejudice become an unfortunate reality. But I was so inspired by my students that I came back for a second year of service this time as the team leader for the Social Justice Curriculum team, providing education on topics of oppression, including ableism. I entered the field of disability services after my second year of City Year ended.
Now I am the proud Founder and Executive Director of EPIC (Empowering People for Inclusive Communities), which I founded in 2011. Building inclusive communities was not just a great name for the organization but is the number one guiding principal in all of EPIC’s work.
At EPIC we are building inclusive communities for all young people though two avenues of education. First, EPIC’s young leaders with disabilities travel around the Greater Boston Area providing trainings for youth and adults on topics around disabilities. Secondly, EPIC engages the power of young people with disabilities to transform their communities through community service.
I have seen many organizations take about the idea of inclusivity and its importance within their work. However, we generally talk about it internally and it becomes more of a ‘feel good’ idea than an organizational practice. At EPIC we have young people with disabilities in our programs, on our staff, and on our board. The idea of inclusion for people with disabilities goes beyond organizational and classroom walls and takes over every aspect of our communities and is the responsibility of all of us. From making sure that you shoveled your sidewalk wide enough for a wheelchair in the winter to holding media sources responsible for portraying people with disabilities in a non-biased, not pitying, manner.
City Year’s value of inclusivity molded my service and changed my life. It is now my work to ensure that others understand and embrace the importance of the value and human rights issue known as inclusivity. Without inclusivity, the Beloved Community cannot be a reality.