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Harnessing Ubuntu in a COVID World


Before the pandemic, City Year was all about connection. We talked to Kristen Szalontai, operations coordinator, and City Year Detroit Alumnus to talk about the importance of rebuilding our City Year Spirit as we begin to come back together in person. She said, “After a meeting we would all gather closer and “bring it in for a break”. In the mornings before school, we would get high fives and hugs from students who were just as excited to see us as we were to see them. We shared “joys” while standing in close circles and tapping the hand of the person next to us to signal their turn. It might seem like these small traditions wouldn’t make much of a difference, but when the pandemic made it unsafe to continue them, we felt a tremendous loss.”

During the pandemic, our organization switched to a virtual model as Detroit Public Community District School classes went online. Zoom quickly became the new tool for collaboration, creating team spaces, and the way we strived to keep the City Year spirit alive. It is no surprise that our tech-savvy staff were able to translate our culture into the Brady-bunch frames of a virtual call—but still, something was missing. As we continue to navigate the pandemic after nearly two years, we are excited to see COVID restrictions start to loosen. We are not out of the woods yet, but we are eager to seize the opportunity to get back to City Year roots.

Szalontai explains, “The City Year value “Ubuntu,” borrowed from the Zulu tribe of South Africa, describes the way that we are all tied to one another. We can find ourselves in other people, and “deepen our own humanity when we’re able to recognize and honor the humanity of those around us.” The work that we do at City Year is not often easy, and I’m not sure we could succeed without that sense of belonging. We find shared values, interests, hobbies, histories, and so much more when we can connect to one another. We are stronger because of those around us, and we are successful when we are all able to succeed.”

Ubuntu is why our City Year Detroit operations team, including Szalontai knew this was the year to bring us back together, in the flesh. What better way to celebrate belonging than to bring it back to the city streets where we all serve. During the first week of May, City Year Detroit gathered on the historic Belle Isle to… well… be together!

The ultimate goal of the day was to give our dedicated and resilient staff the opportunity to sit back and relax, without having to plan anything. Szalontai said, “It’s no secret that this year has been extremely difficult for everyone; the ongoing pandemic has kept the nature of our work constantly changing. We have an extremely dedicated and adaptable staff, full of individuals who give so much to contribute to our organizational goals and values. We wanted to make sure everyone knew how appreciated they are, and to make sure those efforts did not go unnoticed. Overall, it was a day where our staff could show up just as themselves and know that their presence alone makes a difference.”


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