2018-07-31

Jana Strom, City Year Tulsa Senior AmeriCorps Team LeaderBy Jana Strom, City Year Tulsa 2017-2018 Alumna & City Year Tulsa 2018-2019 Senior AmeriCorps Team Leader

Imagine yourself spending nearly 11 months serving students at a school with 5-10 other City Year AmeriCorps members. You are there 10 hours a day, 5 days a week, pouring everything you've got into empowering and supporting your students. You know that thousands of other people are also doing this job around the country, but you have never seen these people in real life.

Now imagine suddenly walking into an arena of over 1,000 other City Year staff and AmeriCorps members who are energized, attentive, welcoming, and can totally understand the many feelings you've had—both good and bad—throughout the year. The music is bumping; the red and yellow colors are vibrant.

You see an excited and diverse group of corps members proudly waving the flag that represents their site, their city, their students. It's hard not to be instantly reminded why you do what you do. Each person has a slightly different reason why they're here, but we are ALL connected and empowered to serve together to bring opportunity, equity, and love to this country and the world. 

City Year's annual Summer Academy is a time of celebration, information and inspiration. It's a chance that all staff and senior AmeriCorps members have to hear about the new things happening in City Year, connect with other sites around the country, and be re-introduced to what we do, why we do it, and how we need to do it.

But, this year we also challenged each other to not only see the things that we want to change in the world, but also to look in the mirror and see what we needed to change in ourselves (insert Michael Jackson song here).

A big part of the City Year experience includes working in close proximity (both physically and emotionally) to other members of your team, site and school. We create leadership mission statements, share fears and experiences with one another, and talk about deeply rooted societal issues.

These experiences foster connection, but they also can be difficult and even uncomfortable. When you are in close proximity to others, you often see and feel the differences between yourself and them—some made by choice, others imposed by society. That can create some friction.

Friction is defined as "the action of one surface or object rubbing against another." That doesn’t sound pleasant, but City Year knows how important proximity and friction can be in our work with students and community.

Some very eloquent corps members shared their "Why I serve" statements at opening ceremony of Summer Academy. Among them was a young woman who said something along these lines:

"Each child is like a match. They just need a little friction to ignite a flame."

So, what does it mean for us to be that match-lighting friction for our students, for our communities? How can we use friction as a tool? How can we model healthy forms of friction in our relationships with one another? After Summer Academy, I now feel like I have more of an idea.

Often when people think about City Year, the ideas of tutoring and mentorship come to mind, but it’s much more than that. Our mission since our founding actually has been to proactively fight systemic and personal injustices in our society through education and service.

With that in mind, we dedicated a whole day of Academy to learning how to build diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging within City Year. Big task, right? These concepts cannot be confronted without people getting personal and actually being vulnerable with one another. Uh-oh. Again, the opportunity for friction arises.

To confront our difficulties with this friction as an organization, Dr. Darnisa Amante (Co-Founder and CEO of the Disruptive Equity Education Project) gave us a framework of “norms” we could use with one another.

  • She encouraged us to "Look into the mirror rather than through the window"—in other words, to examine ourselves and be willing to work on our mistakes before pointing out the mistakes of others.
  • She reminded us that there is a why behind everything. Seek to understand FIRST. It requires patience and humility.
  • She told us that we do not need to dehumanize others when calling out injustice.
  • She encouraged us to own our parts in dismantling inequity.

So, we got to put some of these concepts into practice. We separated into our respective City Year sites and shared our own stories, experiences, and struggles with diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, and were challenged to share them others at our site.

It was uncomfortable, fear-inducing, and freeing. It fostered wonderful connections that have already affected how we treat each other. We talked about strategies to promote diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging within our site and own scope of influence.

...It was a start, not a finish. And, it was far from perfect. Dr. Amante helped us to see the value of continuing this process. Among the many things that she said, what stuck with me the most was this:

"Everybody wants to be the hero and not acknowledge that you are also the villain."

In other words, we won't be able to confront these social justice issues without also humbling ourselves. We have to recognize our part in contributing to the problem. We can have grace for our shortcomings and mistakes and while also fighting against them to have that for others.

Wow! How many times have I internally denied that I am part of the problem? Or wanted to believe that this work did not have anything to do with me changing myself, but just me trying to change everyone else?

In my opinion, these ideas started a chain reaction in me that kind of went like this:

  • Step 1, acknowledge your failure to do everything right
  • Step 2, take responsibility for that failure with intention and strategy to change it, but have grace for yourself
  • Step 3, remember that everyone is also on that journey and might be blind to their shortcomings
  • Step 4, have grace for people when they make mistakes, and tell them the truth in love because you also are imperfect. It's a process that we will continually need help with!

Sharing life experiences. That's good friction. Seeing the humanity in others, or, Ubuntu—"I am because you are," can be a powerful connecting force that encourages empathy and communal effort. It can allow the whole environment to change and the barriers that have wedged their way between you and others drop. It also happens to be one of City Year's core values!

Throughout Summer Academy, we also had the privilege of hearing about how people have looked in the mirror and have grown immensely from that. City Year has been growing, adapting, and fighting through friction for our students for thirty years.

We got the opportunity to celebrate that! But it's not over. Our organization continues to be shaped by the people who are willing to look in the mirror and make a change so that we can create the friction our students need to be ignited into a flame.

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