By Allison Woodworth '12
When I entered City Year, I was fifteen months into what would be a four year hiatus from college. I applied on a whim and moved clear across the country because City Year offered me a purpose that wasn’t sweeping floors to pay off my student loans. What I found in the Red Jacket was more than just a purpose. Before City Year, I volunteered at scattered events and programs; I sat in classrooms and discussed problems facing our education system, our inequalities, and our struggling communities. But in Manchester these things were no longer on my periphery; I was thrust into action. Some days it was easy to see that we were making a difference. Some days I felt like Sisyphus while asking the same kids to remember that we were all friends and begging the same girl to do just five minutes of work.
One day, our corps gathered at a historic cemetery for a service day. The cemetery was huge and covered in trees. It was late Autumn so all of the trees had littered the ground with a carpet of leaves. As our staff handed out rakes, gloves, and plastic bags, it was easy to feel that this was an unconquerable task for a small group of people to accomplish in just a few hours. Although parts of the day were exhausting and daunting, I had fun. We found animal bones, mended fences, uncovered headstones, snapped a few rakes, sweated through our uniforms, and we bonded. I couldn’t help but feel like we were living the “Starfish Story”. When we left, the cemetery wasn’t leaf free, but we had clearly made a difference and made it easier for visitors to find their way around.
For me, this story is about perspective. In City Year, I learned how a single initiative impacts a child, a family, a classroom, a school, and thus a community. I learned that a single person can make a difference, but a corps can ripple change even further. We can affect change alone, but we don’t have to. In fact, we are stronger together. These lessons seem even more salient in the wake of the 2016 election. The entire country feels like it has been fractured by fault lines that separate the coastal states from millions of people in middle-America. In the days after Nov. 8, I reread the founding stories in the City Year handbook. A few of the stories – Building Bridges, On the Shoulders of Giants, Starfish – are community meeting favorites. But what stood out to me most was the Lighthouse story:
“To be effective in social change, we must practice selflessness, to seek not so much to be “right” as to be effective, and to develop humility not only as an admired character trait, but as a skill.”
On both sides, people are seething, but they are also hurting. Our task as changemakers is to sift through the vitriol, and look for the people underneath the convenient narratives. We know that breakfast helps our students concentrate. We know that attendance matters. We know that home life matters. All of these things manifest in our students’ behavior and academics. We don’t give up; we ask “Why?” and “What can I do?” It is no different when you leave City Year. Never doubt the power of asking these questions, or that together, with humility and compassion, we can heal our country one community at a time.
City Year changed my life because before it gave me a purpose it gave me perspective. It encouraged me to Moccasin my students, my roommates, my teammates; to see a community for its resources as well as its struggles; to empower myself and others through volunteerism, compassion, and commitment; it taught me to be a force multiplier – to extend an invitation to make stone soup and see what we can make together.