Building a Beloved, Bilingual Community in Philadelphia
MLK Day of Service and the start of a City Year journey
This year, the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service looked different at City Year Philadelphia. Typically, during the site’s largest physical service engagement day, part of a larger national initiative led by AmeriCorps, participants from all around the Philadelphia area would show up early to a school or community center buzzing with movement and energy—ready for a full day of community service.
Due to COVID-19 health and safety precautions, however, this year City Year Philadelphia convened a Zoom call for a morning program. More than 500 community members came together in this virtual space to celebrate student and AmeriCorps accomplishments and have an in-depth conversation about King’s legacy related to the dire need for educational equity in this country.
Brianna Moran, a City Year AmeriCorps member serving a second year as a team leader, shared her story that day. Brianna’s parents emigrated from Peru and while English is her first language, she learned Spanish in childhood. She lost that connection to her heritage, however, when she started attending elementary school and her parents tried to reinforce what she was learning by speaking English at home.
“We want to make sure that they know we’re a part of their community and that we care about them as students and people.”
-City Year Team leader Brianna Moran
As it happens, Brianna was first introduced to City Year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service in 2016. Then, she was a sophomore at the University of Delaware, double majoring in psychology and Spanish. She had never heard of City Year before, but her friends convinced her to sign up with their group with City Year Philadelphia. She was put to work painting a mural as a part of a larger school beautification project and recalls that the fun environment, conversations with students and corps members, and positive energy from other community members made an impact on her.
“I remember coming away from MLK Day thinking that City Year was such a great organization,” Brianna says. “And when it came time for me to start planning what I would do after undergrad, I already had City Year in mind.”
Brianna accepted her invitation to serve with City Year Philadelphia during her final year at the University of Delaware.
Service centered in empathy and informed by social justice
Brianna began her service in the fall of 2019 on a team of 15 AmeriCorps members at Philadelphia’s Southwark School—a vibrant multilingual and multicultural school community in South Philadelphia. Brianna was placed in a third grade Spanish and English bilingual immersion class—the first corps member in City Philadelphia to serve in such a capacity at Southwark school. She says at the beginning of the year, classroom instruction was mostly in Spanish. But as the year progressed and students became more comfortable, English was strategically incorporated into instruction.
Brianna, who commuted from Delaware two hours each way, says that her days were often exhausting but extremely rewarding. As a first-generation American and college student with her own unique language learning journey, her reason for serving was always at the center of everything she did.
Brianna wants students to feel they can be truly themselves at school and show different parts of themselves without shame or judgment—including speaking in their native tongue.
“By the time I was in high school, I could understand Spanish, but it was hard for me to speak it,” Brianna says. “When I went to college, I doubled majored in Spanish to reclaim my linguistic and cultural heritage . So, it’s really important to me that my students have the opportunity to learn English while still honoring their linguistic heritage.”
When COVID-19 hit the United States last March, City Year sites made the transition to virtual service. Though this cut down on her commute, it posed new challenges for students, teachers and AmeriCorps members. Not all of her students had reliable home internet connections, a personal computer or laptop, or a quiet and private learning space.
In his virtual MLK Day remarks, City Year Philadelphia Executive Director Darryl Bundrige shared that 80% of Philadelphia’s 214 public school are labeled “economically disadvantaged.” A deep-rooted history of systemic racism helped to create an economic and education equity gap that disproportionately affects BIPOC communities. The pandemic has further exasperated this reality.
However, students are more likely to stay engaged when they feel connected to at least one adult, particularly when they share the same racial or cultural background, Bundrige said. So, the presence of City Year AmeriCorps members, like Brianna, is an essential part of keeping students engaged in this new virtual learning landscape and is one way City Year works toward building the “Beloved Community” Martin Luther King, Jr. so often referenced.
Fortunately, the School District of Philadelphia was able to provide Southwark students with notebook laptops so they can log into the virtual classroom. But Brianna and her team still have to find innovative ways to keep students engaged and showing up. One of the ways they do that is through a virtual afterschool enrichment program they host a couple of times a week.
“After school is less formal than it would be if we were in-person,” Brianna says. “But we wanted to make sure that we provided a space for our students to get homework help if they need it. Or a place where they can come and talk about their day with corps members. We just wanted to make sure that they know we’re a part of their community and that we care about them as students and as people.”
In addition to supporting her students academically, Brianna has endeavored to bring some of her students’ needs and challenges to the attention of the larger City Year Philadelphia community. Recognizing that some of her students and their family members may have undocumented immigration status, Brianna decided to create a presentation for her fellow corps members focused what it can mean to immigrate to this country. The presentation reviews common terminology, gives an overview of the process of becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, discusses the intricacies of immigration policies, like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and how the COVID-19 pandemic uniquely affects this population.
“Like in any large city, there are a lot of immigrant families here—I come from one of them,” Brianna says. “And I know that a lot of people who don’t share this experience don’t understand the complexities of it. Often, there aren’t even armed with terminology or knowledge needed to engage in a conversation about it—let alone support a student who may be experiencing challenges related to undocumented immigration status.”
“I wanted to make sure that the people I’m serving with are aware of these issues. I see this as a part of my social justice work with City Year and an extension of how I can support my students.”
A service journey comes full circle
MLK Day of Service was the catalyst for Brianna’s City Year journey. So, it’s apt—if not poetic—that she was asked to be one of the main speakers at this year’s event, which is also her final year of service. Brianna saw the invitation as another opportunity to share her experience as a corps member but, more importantly, to talk about her own “Beloved Community” at Southwark School.
“There no place, other than Southwark, where I’d rather be serving,” Brianna says. “Working with teammates, students and teachers there has shown me the true meaning of community building and community care.
“And so when I think of Dr. King’s legacy, I think of the work people do every day at my school. I just want to continue to be a part of that and pay it forward now and long after I’ve graduated from City Year.”
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