DBIE Learning and Practice at City Year New York
DBIE: Diversity, Belonging, Inclusion, and Equity. What does it mean, really? What does it mean at City Year New York? What does it look like to embrace anti-racist acts, view our work with a lens of cultural humility, and dismantle white dominant culture norms? We have heard these buzz words and phrases, we have seen the social media activism, but what have we done? Read on to find out!
My name is Amalya Romero Schwartz and I proudly serve as an Impact Manager in East Harlem and this is my fourth City Year. I identify as a biracial Filipinx and white cisgender woman who grew up in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I graduated from Bates College in 2017 with a double major in Gender and Sexuality Studies and American Cultural Studies which essentially meant that on a daily basis I could write, think, and reflect on anti-Black racism; truly understand what it means to decolonize knowledge; and, deliberately engage in equity learning. After completing my degree, I felt a responsibility to give back to the systems and knowledge that I took from. Those feelings led me to City Year, and I ended up doing 1.5 years of AmeriCorps service before becoming an Impact Manager. I had the privilege of being an AmeriCorps Member and Team leader in the South Bronx before becoming an Impact Manager.
My name is Dooshima Mngerem, and I am a bicultural, Black American and Nigerian, cisgender woman local to Atlanta, GA, Washington, DC, Cambridge, MA, and Brooklyn, NY. I also proudly serve as an Impact Manager in East Harlem. This is my second City Year. Following my undergraduate tenure at Howard University, I served an AmeriCorps year with an organization very similar to City Year. After this impactful time in a community that changed how I thought about education and opportunity, I gained my master’s degree at Tufts University in Child Development with a focus on child and family policies and programs and spent three years creating and managing programming for a neighborhood-based nonprofit organization that prioritized food security, career opportunities, re-entry services, elder engagement, and child and youth enrichment for low income families of color and immigrant families outside of Boston, Massachusetts.
About Our Work
We are teammates in the Lighthouse Zone (a group of schools based in East Harlem); and, while we were friends at work, our relationship deepened as thought partners devoted to understanding and engaging in meaningful work around personal identity and cultural humility for ourselves, our colleagues, and our AmeriCorps members.
We are grateful for a workplace like City Year, a workplace that encourages growth both personally and professionally and centers on the idea that equity is a journey not a site or destination to reach. We have both done the personal work of interrogating the intricacies of our many identities and have come to terms with the ways that we hold privilege and need to grow our understanding and accountability of how we navigate and dismantle norms that perpetuate white dominant culture.
In addition to our roles as Impact Managers, we also proudly serve on City Year New York’s Diversity, Belonging, Inclusion, and Equity (DBIE) committee, convene racial affinity groups for the national Office of Equity, and have been selected this year to join City Year’s National Equity Council. Though we wear many hats and have many roles, we both maintain a deep commitment to centering an equity mindset in order to bring to the center the lived experiences of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). We believe in dismantling the way that white dominant culture defines membership to community and care deeply about creating a community that names and celebrates differences rather than being divided by them.
Engaging in equity learning is essential to our ability to build strong team dynamics, trusting working relationships, and intentional partnerships with our school communities across New York City. At City Year New York we use race as an entry point to understand the many different categories of our identities. Diversity, belonging, inclusion, and equity are our reference points for how we understand our own identity formation and how that process of reflection impacts the many different people with whom we are privileged to work throughout a service year.
DBIE work is not just something we do once a week; instead, it is an experience that we embrace as a major part of our everyday practice and essential to how we grow together to build a strong trusting community at CYNY. The work that we do is equity work. It is essential to name that educational gaps have trends that include race and class differences. The reason we have systemic racial inequity is from racial and ethnic marginalization that is embedded in societal structures throughout the modern history of the United States. The children with whom we work are Black and Brown, and their forward movement and that of their families will lead to a meaningful cultural shift and advancement for us all.
During our years of service, there were many ways that we both felt unprepared for working in communities that have been historically and systemically broken. Building relationships, especially with students and school partners whose lived experience is different than our own, was something for which we were simply were not ready. I (Dooshima) completed my year of service during the 2014-15 school year with an organization that was relatively new at the time. I was attracted to the organization because I would be able to learn about and invest in a school in a neighborhood in Washington, DC with which I was unfamiliar even after living in the District for four years for college. In our pre-service training, I learned about literacy, child development, and teaching strategies but very little about diversity and equity. I did not learn about forming relationships with community members who may distrust me as an outsider even though I looked like them. I did not learn how to have hard conversations about why I was doing the work I was doing or about savior complexes or historical, systemic oppression. I did not learn about the gentrification that would slowly start to creep into the neighborhood and provide reason for property owners of low-income housing to deprioritize my families. And, it showed. My year of service was not difficult because the work was innately difficult; my year was difficult because I had not been taught to engage in my work in a way that honored the people for whom I did my work. This year taught me that there is no way that anyone is prepared to work with anyone without interrogating the systems that create inequitable difference.
Part of CYNY’s model is that we put “diverse” teams into schools throughout New York City (East Harlem, East New York, Astoria, Long Island City, and the South Bronx) to support our school communities with small group work, whole classroom support, afterschool, and everything in between. Diversity means many things in the context of CYNY. It does not just mean racial diversity; it could be diversity in thought and categories of identities. Part of our service models means we are entering and leaving school communities in a cyclical basis. We are guests in our school spaces, on teams, and in every working relationship we create. Engaging in DBIE learning is essential to see the ways that equity, advocacy, and action should be implemented into every aspect of our work and especially relationship building. We get to be guests in our school communities and on teams and we build our understanding of difference from a concept of cultural humility – a process of identity formation that treats individuals as experts of their own experiences and cultural identities. Cultural humility is about learning about others and meeting people where they are. We are all doing the best we can and implementing equity when we think about building relationships on our teams and how we go into schoolhouses is understanding that we are only experts in ourselves and learners and observers for others.
For our teams’ learning we focus on texts, documentaries, podcasts, articles, books, resources, and learning that centers DBIE as a mindset for how we approach relationship building and working in low income schools that have populations that are predominantly BIPOC. It is important that we are not colorblind and or participating in the erasure of cultural differences but instead finding asset-based ways to understand our own identity formation and how that impacts working with people who are different than us or different from what we have been told are standard. In order for our teams to engage in this learning we focus our energies on self-reflection and “mirror work,” as opposed to looking from a window, so that we are thinking about the environments we come from and our journeys of identity formation. Personal self-reflection is essential to us as individuals considering what biases we hold and how we can examine our own identity formation as it impacts our ability to build trusting relationships with our teams and school partners. We consider what belonging means for ourselves and others (students, school staff, school communities, teammates, and the larger CYNY network).
An example of an activity that I (Dooshima) do with my teams every year is a “Cultural Identity Deep Dive.” My teams and I explore together different aspects of our cultural identity; how our families and communities and upbringings shaped our identities; what biases we hold in each element of our identity; and how our identities and feelings about them shape how we interact with the communities in which we work. I define identity as the following categories – race, racial presentation and color; sex, gender and gender expression; sexual orientation; socioeconomic status (wealth, class, and education); weight and body type; age; religion and spirituality; ethnicity; nationality; and, region of country. My AmeriCorps members take a few hours per day for about a week to share their stories and listen to others without comment or judgement in order to learn what they are bringing to their team and their service, learn what others are bringing, and assess how they can not only grow as individuals but also support their teammates in order to further support their students and communities.
An example of learning I do with my team (Amalya) is decolonize knowledge centered on the idea of belonging. I define belonging as something we each feel and no matter who you are you have specific conditions and needs that you need to name to feel belonging with people around them. In the sessions I led, I asked my team to reflect on the idea of belonging as something we feel and experience in which we understand that we each have our own conditions and needs to experience a feeling of belonging. I use these spaces to norm on shared definitions of anti-Black racism, intersectionality, misgynoir, misogyny, white savior complex, white dominant culture, and other concepts that build our shared understanding of equity. This allows my team to engage in self-reflection so they can hold the mirror up to themselves and think about the environments they come from and how this impacts their understanding of other’s conditions for belonging. I try to use the guest mentality to frame the idea that at all times people around us may or may not feel belonging and question how we can treat individuals as experts on their own conditions for belonging. This directly informs how I encourage my team to build trusting working relationships with the people (school staff, families, CYNY network, and everyone in between) we are privileged to partner with. We cannot be colorblind about the many categories of identities we each hold or the predominantly BIPOC low income school communities we get to work with. The shared foundation allows us to also think critically about the ways the white savior complex shows up in the context of service/people work.
Our goal, through these various initiatives is to center DBIE learning and practice, to ensure that our AmeriCorps members not only complete a year of service, but leave with heightened awareness and understanding of their identities, appreciation of others’ identities and stories, grace to engage in tough conversations, tools to dismantle systems of inequity, and a vision of a future that they as changemakers can help to create. By doing our own personal work, we are able to be more conscious regarding how we show up for our students and our communities. We want for us, our corps members, and our colleagues to show up as our full, realized selves – people who have done what it takes to interrogate and question our backgrounds and our biases, people who know that sometimes ‘the water that we all swim in’ can be toxic, people who are willing to change, and most importantly people who are able to listen. Our goal is lofty, but we have resolve and passion. And, we understand the urgency and importance of meaningful change.
Into The Future
City Year, as a model, is so much bigger than one person. Part of why we do this work is because we care deeply about Black and Brown community change through education but also because we know that we can only do so much. As Impact Managers, we get to regularly influence the lives of a team of idealistic young people who also care – young people who are committed, innovative, and creative – young people who have time. See, we will all get older. Some of us will transition to other careers with a different entry point to this work. Some of us will move away from the city or step away to raise families or follow another path. Some of us will stay close to direct service work for a long time but will obviously have to retire at some point. But no matter what path we take, we will have had the opportunity to influence someone else to carry the torch so the flame of idealism can keep burning. And at that center of that flame, is an understanding of ourselves in relation to our work, our students, and our communities. At the center is diversity, belonging, inclusion, and equity.
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