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2020 Leadership Summit

Achieving equity in education and opportunity is a goal that is deeply rooted in the work of City Year. The Detroit site branch was incredibly excited to discuss what equity work looks like in educational, professional, and philanthropic spaces with a group of expert panelists at the beginning of December. Andrew Stein, Vice President and Executive Director of City Year Detroit, began the seminar with a statistic that sparked discussion and thought among the attendees.

“4% of schools in this country produce over 50% of non-high school graduates. Like Detroit, these districts predominantly serve Black and Latinx students and have been systematically under-resourced for years. This is one of the ways that educational equity and racial equity go hand in hand.” said Stein.

AmeriCorps members want to combat the inequities that create this type of national divide through their service. The issues marginalized students have been facing for decades has been exacerbated by the educational environment brought on by the pandemic. Traversing these issues has proven difficult, but City Year provides a platform for both members and students to have access to a constant support network. City Year personnel are given the materials to create resources essential to student success during this time.  

The panel discussion started off with introductions from the host, Michael Rafferty, President and CEO of New Detroit, Dave Meador, Vice Chairman and Chief Administrative Officer at DTE Energy, and two City Year Detroit AmeriCorps members, Jamaica Jordan and Claire Pustinger. Rafferty posed the overarching question for the discussion: “We’ve never seen equity in this country, so the big questions are what does it look like and what does it mean?” Another question posed in the virtual meeting chat was: “What does achieving equity mean in the business and education sectors, and how can the efforts align?”

Meador responded that as business leaders, large companies have the opportunity and obligation to propel change using their vast network of resources, whether that be through economic development, workforce opportunity, and/or providing educational resources. DTE, for example, has taken a step back to review potential biases present in their hiring and promotion practices. They have also created senior-level positions to facilitate equal opportunities for entry-level employees in their boardroom. Jordan commented that in terms of business practice, “diversity and inclusion must be a part of equity practices”. They need to be more than a face, incorporated into the initiatives and ideas of the company’s mission. 

Both Pustinger and Jordan provided a hands-on perspective on the education portion of the discussion. Pustinger spoke on how the differences in technical literacy, in comparison to peers of higher socioeconomic status, have added additional stress to students’ lives. Jordan noted that “equity in education is layered, and we cannot just lean on academics to close gaps as students are whole beings. Empowerment and wellness are also academic”. Jordan went on to say,

“Growing up in the city of Detroit, the city educated me. As a Black woman, I and other people who look like me have been left out of the conversation. Inequities are daily barriers to overcome, and my road to equity work has been searching for equity for my own community.”

City Year AmeriCorps is built off several values including, service to a cause greater than self, inclusivity, and empathy which are values that already make-up who I am as an individual. To be able to serve in a space that allows me to uplift and support the success of others through these values is incredible. As an AmeriCorps member in Detroit, I feel even more connected to the work as I grew up in the city of Detroit and attended Detroit Public Schools. As a student, I needed that person in my corner that was a resource and provided those affirmations towards success. I can truly remember each of my great teachers and mentors and those are the people that I owe any opportunity that I have had thus far. Students can detect genuineness, so it is important to respect student voices and have meaningful engagements to aid their success. What it means to provide equity is to move towards educational and academic justice. The concerns of students extend further than the scope of academic resources but also environmental, financial, and mental/emotional. These are conversations and points of contact with students that City Years are able to reach.”

Virtual classrooms have given AmeriCorps members the chance to foster reciprocal learning opportunities with our students, along with a unique window into students’ lives. We can see students attempting to work without a quiet environment to focus, competing with siblings for internet connection, and trying to troubleshoot technology issues. It is part of our responsibility to work with partner teachers to create plans for students to circumvent the inequities manifesting in their own living rooms. We are also able to connect with students on a more emotional level, as potential sources of stress or distractions are right in front of our eyes. 

In a TED Talk, that inspired me to serve with City Year, How America’s public schools keep kids in poverty, Kandice Sumner, M. Ed, states that “the quality of your education is directly proportionate to your access to college, access to jobs, [and] your access to the future”. She discusses how we as a nation believe that schools are the “great equalizer”, and that many consider the disparity in educational achievements to be caused by individual potential rather than environmental factors. “It’s not an achievement gap,” Sumner asserts.

“It’s an education debt, for all of the foregone schooling resources that were never invested in the education of the black and brown child over time.”

These injustices brought to light in the TED Talk comprise only a small portion of the inequality and inequity that we see between communities.

Therefore, Detroit Public Community School District, City Year Detroit, and our sponsors are working hand in hand to provide students with physical and emotional resources, so that the community can pay into this educational debt and invest in our student’s futures. This panel at the CYD Virtual Leadership Summit was not only a discussion of the current state of our country but also a call to action. Equity work should be a non-negotiable staple in education, healthcare, business, and many more. We must strive for access, opportunity, and advancement that is not limited by social and cultural identities. There is no checklist to achieve these goals; we must think beyond ourselves to create a network of community allies and corporations willing to embrace initial discomfort to drive systemic change.

Rachel Pfannes, with contributions from Jamaica Jordan
City Year Detroit AmeriCorps members

Miss the event? Check out the recorded Virtual Leadership Summit!

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