Sunday, September 27, 2009

In which Jake emerges from the woods

Hey everyone, I'm actually alive! Exceedingly lazy, but alive. Sorry for the lack of updates, it's been a weird/long week.

I write this two days after returning from Basic Training Retreat, one of the final elements of CY training. For a day and two nights, we all decamped to Camp Vacamas, near West Milford, NJ, for some serious team building. Some activities during our time there included:

  • a "challenge course" with such activities as getting the entire team across a pit on a tire swing, having the entire team scale a wall, and getting the entire team through a series of tires without anyone touching the ground.
  • having everyone on the team complete the sentences "If you really knew me..., If you really, really knew me..., and If you really, really, really knew me..."
  • having everyone on the team be subject to a Q&A period from the rest of the team
  • several lectures on active listening and maintaining team peace, while utilizing constructive conflict
  • a talent show, the highlight of which was one of the team leaders singing opera
  • the first alcohol-free dance I've been to in a long time
  • so many chants, calisthenics, and yelling in general that my voice was hoarse for the final day
  • me getting the opportunity to read the Word of the Day at Friday's morning rally. I don't remember what the word was, but the important part was that I got to yell really loud.
  • not getting eaten by bears
It was a really creative way to build trust while still making sure that it wasn't a total chore. Also, I learned that some of my teammates in the Bronx are excellent poker players. Gamblers beware.

One more week of training remains. Tomorrow we get our uniform pieces, and later in the week we'll all be waking up really early to go mug for the camera on the various morning shows that originate in New York. Friday is Opening Day, featuring keynote speaker Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and Monday is the first day of full-time service in the schools.

Coming tomorrow: pics of me in the uniform. Brace for fashion!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

First day of school!

I'm going to ignore the mostly dull training sessions that we've had over the last few days and focus on what was easily the week's highlight: visiting PS 333/335 for the first time.

We had our first of what will be many 7:45 AM meetups. After waiting for some lost team members to find their way, we walked into the school and into the lion's den of an elementary school cafeteria. A new CY program this year is called "Morning Greeting," which allows us to devise a way of saying hello to as many students as possible before class begins each day. Some teams are stationing people outside the front doors to do this as students enter, but we're trying the strategy of roaming the cafeteria looking for kids to talk with.

CY worked in this same school last year, and our team leader had been a corps member then. Many kids recognized her, and saw our logo shirts. Thus began the chorus of "hey, City Year!" Everyone wanted to talk to us. Looks like last year's team succeeded in making an impression. This might be a tough act to follow.

Around 8:15, we joined the students for a morning assembly, where we are all introduced. There was some rowdiness, but nothing beyond what I've seen before from 4th/5th graders. This was our first encounter with the principal, Mr. Wright, who definitely seems to command the attention and respect of his students. We heard about new ambitious goals for the school's reading program, and how students could earn prizes through good behavior. In fact, our next task of he day was setting up the StarBucks store, where student can redeem behavior credit for rewards. If they're a perfect little angel, they might even get a bike.

In a meeting later, we got to hear a lot about the school's reading program. I'd explain it, but I was running on four hours or so of sleep, and I suspect our entire team will need a refresher next week. This job is going to reignite my caffeine addiction from college. I did gather that the program is designed to see how much students are actually learning and how much they're just memorizing.

We have another day at the school on Monday, where we'll be spending some time with the younger kids and meeting more teachers. We may finally get to sit in on a class and see how things are run in there. This is all buliding up to October 5, which is our first official day of service in schools. The day's approaching rather quickly. Hard to believe that a month ago I was impatient for CY to hurry up and begin.

Next up: the Starfish Corps. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

And the winner is...

...PS 333/335 in Longwood. For those of you paying attention, that's the school I was visiting and reporting on yesterday.

Tomorrow we go inside for the first time, which means waking up quite early. Time to get used to it, I suppose. I honestly do not have the energy to write up a longer post today, but I'll have something up about the first visit.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A history lesson, and a chance to explore

Administrative note: I have fixed the commenting settings so that you no longer need a Google account to leave a message. Once again, I encourage anyone who's found this blog and likes what they read to leave something. I'm told I do, in fact, have readers! It lets me know that someone's reading my work, which is always nice. And now, back to our show.

Today we did something that I think we should have done on day one: get an overview of the South Bronx's history. Through narration and a slide show, we went from the area's early history as a Jewish center to its very diverse mix today. The most striking images came from the "Bronx is Burning" era of the mid to late 1970's, when landlords would torch their buildings rather than repair them. In the "after" photos, you could tell us that they had been taken in post-World War II Europe, and the only giveaway would be the models of automobile visible.

This presentation also coincided with a litany of depressing statistics about the current state of the South Bronx. The area outpaces NYC averages in diabetes, obesity, health problems, asthma, poverty, and every negative indicator you could think of. School are crowded, families are poor, and so much can seem hopeless. For an organization that had spent so much time filling us with hope that we could affect something, it was an odd change in tone.

Tuesday afternoon was dominated by a field project. Each team was given detailed information on one of the schools that we'll be serving, along with a video camera and instructions to prepare a five-minute presentation on the school and the surrounding environment. Our school was PS 333/335, two schools under one roof in the neighborhood of Longwood. The mayor's report on these schools had painted a rather rosy picture of them, which we'll be unable to evaluate until we're allowed past the front gate. Our report focused on the challenges faced by many schools in the area: noise, pollution, and a negative surrounding environment. Liquor stores abounded, and the one store advertising fruits and vegetables being available was locked shut.

There was a positive spin on this, though. A beautiful park lies across the street from the school. Next door, a space that had formerly been overgrown and taken over by rats has been turned into an attractive community garden. The "playground," an expanse of plain asphalt, has been beautified with a brightly-colored map of the United States. Our team leader informed us that this had been the work of the previous years CYNY corps. We saw the kids come out for recess, and they were as high-energy as you'd expect elementary school kids to be. It was awfully nice to see that they hadn't been beaten down by their environment.

This was the closest we had come to stepping inside a school and getting to work. Tomorrow, I will find out which school I'll be working at, and who will be on my team. Despite the day's presentations having a notably negative tone (as might be expected), it was nice to go home thinking of the beauty that I saw in the park, and the energy of the students. We may have a lot of challenges ahead of us, but we haven't been set an impossible task.

Tomorrow's a big day. Updates to follow. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Service begins/Week 2 in review

We finished the second week pretty strong. The highlight of Thursday was learning about service days - days when we go outside the schools and work on a day-long project. Often, these service days are done in partnership with various companies who have paid for the privilege of spending the day with us. On these days, corps members become Project Coordinators, leading a team of corporate volunteers in various tasks.

Thursday's longest session was dedicated to this. We first got a briefing as a big group, then rotated through three stations, teaching us how to lead the group, how to perform basic construction techniques, and how to run a painting station. This part made me a bit nervous; anyone who knows me knows that I am far too clumsy to be trusted with a pushpin, let alone a circular saw. I expect to lose at least one limb through the course of this year. Or at least spill paint all over my pants.

Friday was our first day of real service, in honor of the 9/11 national day of service. We had originally scheduled to paint a shed at a boat-building organization called Rocking the Boat, but rainy weather put the kibosh on that. Instead, we headed to World Visions, a worldwide relief organization that, among other things, puts together care packages for needy children. Our team spent the day in their warehouse, sorting goods, assembling packages, and doing some heavy lifting while we were at it. My muscles are positively bulging now. Along the way, we got to know members of other teams, and meet some local high school students that were joining us for the day. They were all rather quiet, but I hope they keep this up. Whenever people ask me why I joined City Year, I tend to point back to my high school's community service program as a beginning.

Week 3 is about to begin. Lots of ambiguously titles training sessions, but the highlight should be finding out who is on our permanent teams. Updates to follow.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Recapping the last two days

My goal here is to not be lazy and actually update the blog regularly. I won't let myself slip into bad habits!

We're now halfway through our second week of training and prep. Things are starting to get a bit more specific, as we've largely moved on from the talk about philosophy and more into how said philosophy is applied once we get to work. On Monday, CY brought in an external trainer to discuss how to deal with problem behavior. Her session was a big hit, as she worked to actively engage us, and had us do some group activities that turned out to be real helpful. We broke down problem behaviors into several categories, and discussed different ways we might handle various situations.

Tuesday also meant goodbye to the original teams that we had gotten to know so well. I was shuffled into a new team, half of whose members were teammates last week. Odd system. Still, the team seems to be working well so far. Every day, I get more and more curious what our final teams are going to look like.

Today featured two highlights: an 8 AM appointment in Brooklyn to get fingerprinted, and the first in-depth exploration of what in-school programs looks like. The fingerprinting was uneventful, although we're told that yesterday's session was chaos. The main session featured a breakdown of CY's Whole School, Whole Child theory (abbreviated WSWC, pronounced "wiz-wik"). Our goal is to be a constant presence during and after the school day, helping to contribute to the development of the child in and out of school, and making sure they're on the track to staying in school. We ran through an number of activities that had been used in the past, categorizing them all based on whether they were meant for an individual or a group, and whether they were meant for everyone or just children who had begun to show signs of trouble.

That's the short version of a two-hour session, and I honestly don't have the energy to type up all the details. Still, I hope readers are getting an idea of what training is like. Leave a comment if you're reading, and thanks for checking in.

Monday, September 7, 2009


Sorry, no new substance in this post, but one of my teammates put together a video montage of our first week that's pretty neat. You might even catch a glimpse of me in there!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Week 1 in review

The first week of training is in the books. Some quick thoughts:

  • If anyone were to watch us doing our chants and rallies, they'd probably think we looked ridiculous. Still, I'm buying what the staff said when they talked about how these help to build the CY community. There's something really cool about call and response. "City Year, are you ready for some power lunges?" "CITY YEAR IS ALWAYS READY!"
  • I haven't sat for so many Powerpoint presentations since college. Most of it is stuff that would be hard to get across any other way, like payroll and regulations. Still, it just makes me anticipate getting into the field that much more, which may be the point.
  • I love my teammates, which makes it a bit sad that the teams are getting reshuffled for the second week. Hopefully I'll wind up with some Team Six vets on my permanent team.
  • CY has successfully made me look forward to the day that I get my red jacket. After all the talk about how people on the street and on the subway react to it, I'm honestly curious what the general response is going to be.
  • We had a team member quit CY before the first day was over. It was sad.
  • God bless the one real perk of CY employment: free unlimited Metrocards. I can go anywhere.
Long weekend because of Labor Day, so look for the next update on or around Tuesday. I'll try and make Week in Review posts a regular occurrence. You know, for all my dedicated fans.

And now, to close out the first week, I will attempt to recreate how we end meetings. Whenever a meeting ends, all the participants gather around for a "hands in" circle. Whoever winds up on top of the pile picks a "strong word" or phrase to break on. For this example, I'll close this post with what we're told is the traditional Friday break phrase.


See you next week!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Men of the west

Most of today's training was mundane stuff about timecards and payroll, but there was one pretty interesting part. The first activity of the day had us taking a short quiz about our work styles and categorizing ourselves as a north, south, east, or west type worker. The quick version of these is:

North: Natural leaders, assertive types
East: Idea/big picture people
West: Planners, detail-oriented
South: Feelers, emphasize relationships with others

Turns out I hail from the wild west. Apparently I'm not really the creative type, but I'm good at organizing, planning, and implementing. Our cheat sheet says I can appear cold and insensitive when it comes to others' work styles, which I hope isn't the case.

We did a few short activities based on these types. I was grouped with the other Wests, and all of us were tasked with planning a dream vacation. We were the only group to use democracy to choose where we would go/what we would do, while the group full of Norths apparently gave up on order and just came up with a round-the-world cruise stopping at every country possible. We then had to work with a sampling from the other groups to try and plan a short presentation on what CY is all about. Fun and revealing. Looks like I have a bit of North in me, as I tend to take charge of a group when nobody feels like talking.

Our first Unity Rally (outdoor calisthenics and chanting) is tomorrow morning. Tonight's goal: getting some decent sleep.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

More on the neighborhood

Day two of training today. Not much new to report on that front, beyond getting to know more people on my team. They claim diversity, but I ran into two other graduates of my high school. Take that, City Year!

I did get the chance to explore some more of Hunts Point. When you exit the Hunts Point Avenue subway top, the first thing you notice is the Bruckner Expressway looming overhead. It was the first time I had been underneath an interstate up close, and it's easy to see how Robert Moses' style of urban planning can decimate a neighborhood. The noise, the smells, and the simple sight of an interstate dominate the neighborhood, and property values have suffered for it.

On one side of the expressway is a shopping area featuring the usual chains (we got lunch at Subway on our first day). On the other side is the neighborhood proper. Like I said yesterday, the area I've explored so far is not a terribly rough-looking place. Lots of attractive brownstones, and a good amount of activity on the streets. We took a walk from the main community center to a rec center a few blocks away. This building is obviously new, with many well-groomed athletic fields. Naturally, we used these for more getting-to-know-you activities, including one that confirmed that my visual memory is still lacking. That's another story, though.

My favorite part so far is definitely getting to know all the different sorts of people that made their way to CYNY. There's a girl here who came from Omaha, Nebraska. Omaha! I mean, I can understand why she wanted to leave but that's a long trip.

The actual activities today were mostly boring. Lots of talk about rules and regulations. I think I'll post an abbreviated glossary of City Year Speak one of these days.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Training, day one (lots of words in this post)

The first day of City Year is in the books. Herein follow some initial thoughts.

One thing you notice right away about CY is how pervasive the organizational culture is. There's a whole lingo of acronyms and slang that we're expected to learn by the time we begin service in earnest. And then there's the chants and rituals...but more on that later.

Day one of orientation and training began in an auditorium on the Lower East Side. After being divided into temporary teams (everyone switches around weekly during training), we were all treated to several lectures and videos on the CY philosophy, and asked to write down our reasons for serving on an index card. We were told that these will eventually wallpaper part of the main CYNY office.

We got our first concrete discussion of the uniform. The basic CY uniform consists of a red jacket with CITY YEAR across the back, a white logo t-shirt, khaki pants, and work boots. All of this is donated by Timberland and Aramark, so it's quality stuff. The catch is that CY seems to be very strict about their uniform code. The list of potential violations is over a page long. God help you if you wear the wrong color undershirt. Still, it's not hard to see why they take the uniform so seriously. CY has developed a reputation for professionalism, and they're clearly very concerned about maintaining it. We don't get our own until training is over, but once I get mine I'll post a picture.

There was also quite a bit of talk about the code of conduct for corps members (that's us). Most of it is common sense - don't drink while wearing a uniform - but there's one regulation that's going to be a tough one. No jaywalking is permitted while wearing the uniform. As anyone who has been to New York knows, pedestrian traffic signals are essentially meaningless. I don't dispute the necessity of the rule (we have to keep kids safe and be role models) but it's going to be a tough habit to break. I already screwed it up twice today.

After the auditorium sessions, we headed up to Hunts Point to see the neighborhood for the first time. First impressions: obviously a poor place, but doesn't appear to be a war zone. East New York looks worse, in my opinion. We grabbed lunch from Subway, then headed to the community center that serves as the home base for CY operations in the area. It would be another fun afternoon of getting to know our temporary teams, as well as the rest of the corps that would be serving in the Bronx. Nothing like being forced to share embarrassing stories to help a group bond.

It really was a fun day, though. Everyone seems just as excited as I am, and I think personalities are meshing well. I probably won't post as in-depth of an update tomorrow, but if anything really interesting happens I'll put it up here.

Thanks for reading. Day two tomorrow.

Who are you? Why are you doing this? What on earth is City Year?

Hello, fair reader. Welcome to my City Year blog. In this post, I'll introduce myself and explain what it is I'm doing here.

My name is Jake, and I'm a 23-year old skinny white guy from the suburbs of New Jersey. Currently, I live in Washington Heights, near the upper tip of Manhattan Island. I graduated from Connecticut College in 2008 with a history degree. Immediately after graduation, I moved to Anderson, Indiana to work as a field organizer on Barack Obama's campaign. Since the campaign ended, I had drifted, working on and off, until I found what looks like a great organization in City Year.

City Year was started by two friends, Michael Brown and Alan Khazei, in Boston in 1988. The organization has since expanded to several US cities, as well as Johannesburg, South Africa. CY asks young men and women to give a year of their lives to work in troubled schools. Corps members serve as tutors, mentors, extra planners, and generally jacks of all trades. I'd provide more information, but there remains a lot for me to discover over my own year of service. The linked website has a lot more info for the curious.

I applied to City Year New York in April of 2009, and got notice of my acceptance in mid-May. Shortly thereafter, I was notified that I'd be working in Hunts Point, a particularly poor neighborhood in the South Bronx. After spending September of 2009 in training, I'll be working with a team of 10-12 people in the school until mid-June.

Why am I doing this? Well firstly, see the blog title. I'm a hopeless idealist at heart, and I continue to hold out hope of having a job that does some sort of good in this world. Thanks to some bad experiences, I've also discovered that I work best in jobs where I interact regularly with people not my co-workers. I feel like being able to see in person the results of my work will be a large motivating factor for me.

A caveat: due to privacy laws, I'll only be able to speak in very general terms about the kids I'll be working with. I'll try and make things interesting nonetheless.

So there you go. First real post to follow...