Agents of change

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  February 3, 2011

In an experiment perhaps unmatched anywhere in the country, City Year put whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians, high school dropouts, college graduates, urbanites, suburbanites, felons, and aspiring lawyers together in teams of 10.

The aim, typically grand, was to help "complete the civil rights movement," in Brown's words — to take a swipe at the social segregation that persisted long after the dismantling of legal barriers to discrimination.

It was, of course, a small effort. And, it was arguably more impactful for the average suburbanite in the corps. He entered City Year with minimal exposure to the black and poor, after all; his inner-city teammate had already been forced to navigate the white, middle-class world to some degree or another.

But it was an important gesture. Real and messy. Eye-opening and invigorating. Often, though — too often — it was less than productive.

True diversity meant sizable sections of the corps were unable, or simply unwilling, to serve at a high level. And the problem was compounded by City Year's approach to service.

There were small, symbolic defects: corps members would gather in downtown Providence or Boston or Columbus each morning for a military-style physical training session that made the group a presence in the city — but not, for a couple of crucial hours, a presence at the schools or senior centers they were serving.

And there were larger, more fundamental flaws. Chief among them: the corps tried to be too many things to too many people — doing a bit here and a bit there, but never focusing on something intently enough to do it well.

That meant a reputation, not entirely deserved, for ineffectual do-goodism. It meant frustration in the schools and non-profits hosting corps members. And it meant a certain amount of dissatisfaction within the organization itself.

"It didn't aggregate up," says Brown, of the organization's scattershot work. "You couldn't put it all together and say, 'this is where we were moving the needle on something collectively.'"

The internal concern was matched by external pressures on City Year and the larger non-profit sector. Government, in the test-driven era of No Child Left Behind, was demanding more in the way of concrete results. Philanthropists, most from the bottom-line world of business, were requiring the same.

And by the middle of the last decade, it was all adding up to a larger, existential question, says Stephanie Wu, senior vice president at City Year: "OK, so the country had experimented with the idea of national service, but national service to what end?"

For the movement to remain viable — or, at least, to expand into the force that Brown, Khazei, and other early advocates envisioned — it had to find a way to address a big problem.

To be relevant in a new era.

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MENTORING Geffrard with Lopez and Santos.


THE SHIFT

It's 7:30 am on a cold winter morning and the students of Roger Williams Middle School in Providence are gathered in the cafeteria before class, all chatter and milk cartons and puffy jackets.

The building towers over Thurbers Avenue with a grand, old dignity. But it's a bit run down these days. And its occupants are struggling.

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