I felt like Cinderella—slightly out of place—stepping into the luxurious Hyatt Regency. The velvet curtains and grandiose chandeliers were in stark contrast to my everyday service in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
This past week, leaders from every sector assembled in Los Angeles for the In School and On Track: A National Leadership Summit, co-hosted by City Year and the Entertainment Industry Foundation. The summit convened to focus on the national dropout crisis, highlight the work addressing it, and garner support to tackle what author Shirley Sagawa described as the “civil rights issue of our time.”
The summit began with a transformative day of service at the school where I have proudly served for the past two years: John Liechty Middle School. City Year members, sponsors, and champions from across the country beautified my school with murals combining City Year values and school culture. We proudly painted a logo my teammate Dawnte designed for our after-school program: the acronym BITE within the body of a shark, the school’s mascot. Every day our students recite the BITE pledge—to believe, inspire, teach, and engage. Having those powerful words with our logo on the wall integrated my team further into the fabric of our school community.
The next day my team arrived at the hotel early to practice for the opening ceremony. I felt like a celebrity as corps members from other sites all wanted to take pictures with me and try on my yellow bomber, a signature of L.A. and San José, since the red jackets all other sites wear are the color of gang affiliation in California.
The summit officially opened with 20 corps members on stage representing all City Year sites. Bright lights glared in my eyes and cameras flashed; it felt strange to temporarily leave our overcrowded classrooms for the spotlight.
Principal Carrillo, who has been tremendously supportive, spoke to a crowd of hundreds about the value of City Year. She had tears in her eyes as she stressed, “When you teach a kid, you teach a family, you teach a community.” She related to the audience how we celebrated students who have never been celebrated before, and made their parents proud. “Do you know how powerful that is?” she asked. She ended her moving testimony by stating, “City Year saves lives.” It was a powerful moment to hear our principal speak so passionately about our work. I will carry her words with me.
We heard from other inspirational speakers, including Patrick Corvington, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service. Corvington, like most of my students, came from a family of immigrants. “I wonder how different my journey would have been if I had been surrounded by [City Year members] who were more interested in telling me I could succeed rather than telling me I couldn’t," said Corvington. He told us that 20 years from now, when someone asks, “Where did you stand when 50 percent of students in our nation’s cities were dropping out of school,” we can proudly answer, “I stood with City Year.”
That evening, we attended "A Celebration of Hope and Achievement” at Paramount Studios, where corps members from different sites spoke about their impact in schools. My heart swelled as a video about our service in L.A. made its debut. It features my teammates with staff and students from our school. Everyone on my team cried as one of our students said City Year has made him feel like he belongs in the world.
The summit concluded on Wednesday with the announcement of the City Year board approving new sites in Milwaukee and London. The start-up team in London sent a video message, and it was exciting to see City Year soon expanding to a new continent.
During the closing luncheon, the award for Young Hero of the Year was presented. Young Heroes is a service learning and leadership development program. 1,700 middle school students across the country give up their Saturdays to improve their communities. The 13-year-old award recipient was a true inspiration as he affirmed: “Now it’s my turn. Give me a chance and I will change the world.”
The summit allowed others to see the impact that City Year makes across the country, in not only schools but also in cultivating a new generation of leaders. We are at a pivotal moment in time for both education and national service, and I feel proud and inspired to serve with City Year.
Jenelle Thomson is a team leader for City Year in Los Angeles.