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Imagining a world where ubuntu is the norm

One of City Year’s founding stories is Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a shortened version of a Zulu proverb which means “I am a person through other people. My humanity is tied to yours.” I first discovered this term long before my encounter with City Year. I was confronted with the term “ubuntu” after the death of Nelson Mandela, the first president of South Africa to be elected by a truly representative democracy. In many ways the concept of Ubuntu came to signify Mandela’s life work of freedom and equality in his native country. I was immediately drawn to the Zulu proverb. Never before had I encountered a word that so perfectly encompassed all the values that I strive to embody in my daily life. As the spiritual foundation of South African society, Ubuntu involves a belief in a universal bond of sharing and respect that connects all of humanity. I was overwhelmed by the power of this simple life principle—when fully put into practice—to dissolve any and all forms of marginalization. If we lived in a world structured around the principle that my happiness and well-being is inextricably tied to the happiness and well-being of everyone—and I mean everyone—I wonder how poverty, prejudice and even privilege could possibly exist. That is why I feel that this Zulu proverb is essential to my motivation for participating in a service year with City Year. Encountering Ubuntu as a founding story of City Year on my very first day of service served to reaffirm my decision to dedicate this year to a cause greater than my own self.

Ubuntu can be a life principle that is difficult to implement consistently, especially in this role as a City Year AmeriCorps member. Most of our Corps here in Columbus don’t come from the communities that we serve. My environment growing up was very different from that of my students. I was blessed to be raised in a stable two-parent home. Although we didn’t have much, my parents made just enough money for us to be poor in the suburbs as opposed to the inner city. I didn’t always have the newest gadgets or fanciest clothes, but I never had to worry about things like where my next meal is going to come from or if I’d have heat and electricity at home. As a result, I was able to take full advantage of the academic resources around me, with little to no distractions.

My students at South High School don’t all have those same privileges. This means that their understanding of the importance of education can be very different than my own. When you have to worry about your own safety and security—and maybe even the safety and security of your family members—when you’re only fourteen years old, it’s hard to see why it’s important to know how to write a good essay. It’s easy to get frustrated when students don’t want to do the work that to me seems like a simple task, but I have to constantly remind myself that for them learning is not always a priority. It can’t be a priority when they lack the structure and stability of the average suburban life. That is why every time I have a student that is acting out, or sleeping in class, or missing a lot of school I am intentional about taking a step back and remembering all the factors that may be affecting them in that one moment. I have learned to meet my students right where they’re at. This means paying attention to their body language and checking in with them in order to meet their basic needs as much as I can. It is only then that I can feel comfortable asking them to really focus in on the academic work we need to do together.

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