Today’s guest blogger is Ella Cohen, City Year New York AmeriCorps member serving on the IS 123 Team in the South Bronx. Ella is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where she was a member of CityStep. CityStep is a unique organization run entirely by undergraduates that introduces public school youth to the performing arts as an outlet for creative self-expression, a tool for building self-esteem, and a means to mutual understanding.  

What drives a college graduate to join City Year? For many of us, it is a deep passion for community service and urban education. For me, more specifically, City Year was as an incredible opportunity to extend and develop on a service experience that began much earlier, in my undergraduate years. City Year seemed a logical next move from the aptly named CityStep, the community service organization I joined and eventually directed at the University of Pennsylvania. It wasn’t until I had my official red jacket that I learned the histories of the two organizations shared many similarities.

The 1980s were more than just hairspray and hip hop; service was in, and Harvard University was having a moment. In 1983, five years before Harvard Law School roommates Michael Brown and Alan Khazei founded City Year, Harvard undergrad Sabrina Peck founded CityStep, a community service organization that provides mentorship through dance and the greater performing arts to youth in underserved schools. Peck created a model in which undergraduate students could harness the enormous potential of the arts to teach social emotional learning (SEL), community building, and creative expression to elementary and middle school students. Since then, CityStep has expanded to Penn, Princeton, and Yale, bringing a rich arts curriculum to four low-income communities in the northeast whose schools have, especially in recent years, lost much of their arts programming. City Year, too, has sharpened its focus and expanded its impact since its founding days at Harvard. Now in 27 cities across America, City Year, like CityStep, strives to cultivate the power of young people to make a difference in some of the country’s most underserved schools.

However, the founding stories of CityStep and City Year are not the only things that tie the two together; one actually seems to be a feeder for the other. Many CityStep alumni, like myself, have gone on to serve with City Year after graduation. One such CityStep/City Year alumnae is Caroline Min, a 2014 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, a 2015 graduate of City Year New York, and a current medical student at Washington University in St. Louis.

Last week, in a much needed catch-up session and phone interview, Caroline and I agreed that CitySteppers make good City Year AmeriCorps members for many reasons, the most important of which being the organizations’ shared tenants. Both place crucial emphasis on diversity, SEL, and reflection.

In both CityStep and City Year, leaders pride themselves on creating a company of people that reflects the diversity of the students they serve. Both Caroline and I agreed that the initial vulnerability and eventual learning that comes with working in a diverse setting was one of our favorite parts of the CityStep experience. We learned how to exist and engage with respect, to build critical understanding with our peers, our students, and the community we served. In essence, members of CityStep learn and practice the City Year core value of UBUNTU before they even know it. For Caroline and for myself, the aspect of UBUNTU played a huge part in drawing us to the City Year corps. As AmeriCorps members in the years after our graduations, we were both able to realize how essential it is to connect with those from different backgrounds, in service and in life.

This belief in the value of UBUNTU led Caroline and I to prize the SEL and relationship building components of our service over anything else. First through dance in CityStep, and then through SEL coaching in City Year, we served as mentors beyond the role of tutor. This unique position provides the opportunity to connect with students on a raw, real level that can lead to incredible breakthroughs. Caroline expressed that the ability to build relationships with students was the most important skill she brought from CityStep to City Year. She explained, “when I worked one-on-one with students, I used it as a time for them to step out of the classroom and rejuvenate themselves. What was most important was for them to trust me.” Using physical activities from CityStep that are built to boost confidence and encourage an embrace of vulnerability, both Caroline and I were able to connect with our City Year students in ways that became essential to their social and emotional growth throughout the year.

Finally, and most importantly, both organizations taught Caroline and I the power of reflection. In CityStep, every decision was made collaboratively and every event was eventually debriefed. We learned to analyze our own work in a constant effort to improve our service with our students. We learned to talk, and much more importantly, to listen. Moving on to City Year, where reflection is an essential aspect of service, Caroline and I came to embrace the reflective process in our professional and personal lives as well. We both believe that this has made us better AmeriCorps members.

Although these two Boston-born organizations have no official ties, I like to see them as sister programs. Both adhere to CityStep’s oft-repeated and scary-sounding motto, Ride or Die. In CityStep, this saying simply means that if you are going to serve, you must strive to serve at 100%, with all of your heart, all of the time. In college, I served three days a week, teaching dance and self-love. Now, with City Year, I serve five days a week, teaching English Language Arts, Social Emotional Learning, dance, and much, much more. If that’s not Ride or Die, I don’t know what is. While I am still slowly observing my impact as a City Year AmeriCorps member on the lives of my students, I know that I owe much of that impact to my CityStep experience.  

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