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A City Education: Learning That Democracy is the Means, Not the End

Decades of poverty and misfortune in a school community are a reminder that democracy is only a means, not the end.

In our A City Education series, City Year corps members share their experiences working as tutors and mentors in schools in hopes of closing the opportunity gap and ending the dropout crisis.

City Year's slogan is "Give a year. Change the world."

What it would mean if we gave a career, or a lifetime? What if we gave everything we had in order to change the world?

As our year of service comes to end, I and the other corps members at City Year Orlando have to think about what we're going to do next. We've honored our commitment to giving a year of our lives in order to do something positive in the lives of other people. Every corps member has invested more than a thousand hours in helping the students we work with succeed. When I talk to corps members serving at other schools all acknowledge the struggle in some way, but they also see the progress and learning that makes the service worthwhile.

One of City Year's corps values is Ubuntu—a term used by Zulu people which means "I am a person through other people; my humanity is tied to yours." And democracy is nothing if not the belief that all of the natural rights of one person are only fulfilled so long as they are fulfilled similarly to all people. As Walt Whitman wrote in the context of the Civil War, "Of Equality—As if it harm'd me, giving others the same chances and rights as myself—As if it were not indispensable to my own rights that others possess the same." I had never heard of Ubuntu before joining City Year, but the idea was always at the heart of why I wanted to serve.

While I see democracy as the best political means to the empowerment of the people in our society, I've come to understand that it's only a means and not an end, and, by its own nature, it is best fitted to help those who are best equipped to use it. There is a certain baseline—a list of prerequisites—that people need in order to be empowered by our system. Therefore, the goal of the movement toward educational equity is a movement toward the just fulfillment of one of those prerequisites. The decades of poverty and misfortune in the community surrounding Evans provides a clear illustration of the likelihood of social mobility without an excellent education. And, on the other hand, the growth I've seen this year is an equally clear illustration of the potential and desire to succeed by our students.

That growth has been, in a way, simplistic. Most of our students started coming to school when someone just cared enough to call home and ask if everything was alright. Most of our students have come to enjoy spending time with corps members learning because they enjoy talking to someone individually. This is what leads me to believe that it’s not only my duty to oppose obvious and overt oppression but to also never neglect, forget, or overlook the plight of any people and to do something to benefit those communities. Simple service and being involved can go a long way to empower the immense potential of young people.

What does the true spirit of Ubuntu entail? First, I understand that everyone has unique goals and priorities. And my goal is not to suggest that I know what anyone else should do with their time. While I'm proud of it, I'm aware that my greatest accomplishment is teaching ninth graders how to solve two-step equations and understand how to graph functions. I know I haven't cured any social ill. But it seems that far too often service for the sake of change is seen as quixotic. Therefore, the struggle isn't really for achievement or even results. Sometimes it's better to stop reading, watching, or learning and just start doing things because, in the same way that democracy is only a means and not an end, caring about people is actually only a starting point.

If everyone in City Year gave a year to change the world and then left to never work in that world again, I doubt we could say "Give a year. Change the world." and mean it. But that's what's humbling about City Year. There’s a unique understanding here that our world needs more people to lead with their everyday lives than it does vis-à-vis a check book—evidenced by their continued commitment to serve others. And there are people with whom I serve who could help transcend the predicament that so many social movements (such as educational equity) find themselves in—an extremely mediocre quest for basic awareness and the failure to ever really move beyond that starting point of just caring.

Because they see the progress that they've made, our year in Orlando has not only benefited the people City Year serves, it's also produced 50 individuals—City Year corps members—who have a greater awareness of the need for service. Just as a sample from the team I serve with at Evans High School, there are corps members who've accepted commitments for next year with the Peace Corps, Teach for America, Notre Dame Mission Volunteers, and an additional year of service with City Year.

Until recently (like halfway through writing this) I thought our slogan was just about helping people. But "Give a year. Change the world." actually references two things. How can we change the lives of the people who have been neglected by our society, and how can we change ourselves in order to fulfill a lifetime’s worth of Ubuntu? Both are necessary.

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Photo courtesy of City Year Orlando

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