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Voices from the field: supporting and celebrating our AmeriCorps members of color

City Year, SLAM and celebrating students of color

A 2017 study found that having just one black teacher in elementary school (third, fourth or fifth grade) reduced the probability that low-income black boys would drop out of high school by 39 percent. Our own experiences serving full-time in schools as City Year Chicago AmeriCorps members, and now serving as City Year Chicago staff members, have shown us that our students need to see people of color in the classroom and in leadership positions to inspire them. While the work is challenging, we need to wrestle with the difficult realities that are being faced by people of color–and particularly men of color–every day, in school and out of school.

In the aftermath of the violent summer of 2016, when we saw men of color being killed through targeted acts of violence across the country, we wanted to provide additional structural support for our AmeriCorps members, particularly men of color, to ensure that they were able to digest these broader societal challenges while still having a positive service experience and being the role models their students need. City Year Chicago created SLAM, or the Society of Latino and African-American Men, a mentoring initiative for AmeriCorps members. SLAM’s mission is to strengthen African American and Latino AmeriCorps members at City Year Chicago through professional development, opportunity management and mentoring that will enable professional growth, retention and promotion at City Year. We want to share our experience so that our City Year AmeriCorps members of color would continue to lead beyond their year of service to students.

We know that City Year locations across the country seek to improve the experience of their AmeriCorps members–particularly their AmeriCorps members of color–in many ways. We are proud to work for an organization that gives us the license to start a formal group that does just that for those who serve Chicago’s students. With the support of local as well as national leadership, we launched SLAM in fall 2016, and we started our second official year this fall. Here are three ways we were able to turn our vision of SLAM into reality.

1. Create a welcoming environment from the start.

In our pilot year, we focused on building a welcoming environment for incoming AmeriCorps members early on, even before the start of our program year. We made phone calls and email introductions to the men of color that would soon be a part of City Year and held panel discussions featuring male staff members of color about the benefits of joining a program like SLAM.

Once the year began, we hosted a lunchtime meet and greet to formally introduce SLAM. We shared our plans for SLAM programming and had games and food. Just days before this meeting, a local shooting that occurred outside one of our partner schools made national news. We decided to open a discussion during lunch so we could talk and process this recent shooting and the violence in our city.

2. Provide formal and informal opportunities for professional and personal development.

SLAM offered monthly professional development programming, such as formal training and organized community building, for AmeriCorps members who signed up to participate. We designed sessions to coach AmeriCorps members on how to effectively advocate for themselves at work to ensure professional advancement and how to improve professional and personal brand. SLAM participants also learned how to capture their City Year experience on their resumes, strengthen interview skills and develop powerful professional relationships.

SLAM mentors also scheduled more informal one-on-one meetings with SLAM participants in settings outside of work, where they discussed career plans, shared advice and built stronger relationships. Halfway through the year, one of our SLAM members wanted a more intensive time to bond as a group, so we organized a retreat. We had 20 SLAM participants and staff mentors attend a 12-hour lock-in where we watched movies, ate together, had deep conversations about our lives and personal interests, and became a family.

3. Look for opportunities to share what you’re learning with the wider community.

In order to share our work to retain and promote the men of color who serve with City Year with the Chicago community, we hosted and participated in several special events to showcase SLAM to other education-based organizations and the City of Chicago. For example, Mayor Rahm Emanuel invited select members of SLAM to attend his special address about Opportunity Youth and the City of Chicago’s Interfaith Breakfast that celebrates Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in January.

We also encouraged SLAM participants to take advantages of opportunities to share their experience publicly, and several wrote op-eds for local press outlets, including the Education Post and Chicago’s Windy City Times. At City Year’s annual summer training this year, we had the privilege of introducing SLAM to the City Year network, and the enthusiasm we received feels incredible. Several other City Year locations have expressed interest in starting a SLAM chapter, and we are in the process of helping launch a sister program for our female AmeriCorps members of color.

Inclusivity is one of City Year’s core values, and we strive to embody empathy, teamwork and service to others as they work to help students and schools succeed. We know this challenging work, but we know that is also why we need SLAM–to ensure that everyone, from our students to our AmeriCorps members, reaches their potential.

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