Agents of change

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  February 3, 2011

In 2001-'02, about three in 10 members of the City Year Rhode Island corps had attended or graduated from college. Fully two-thirds fall in that category this year. And while City Year has remained a racially diverse organization, it has changed.

Over the last nine years, there has been a 12 percent dip nationwide in the proportion of the corps that is black. In Rhode Island, the slide has been particularly pronounced — from 32 to 17 percent.

The change has prompted some soul-searching within the organization. Jennie Johnson, executive director of City Year Rhode Island, laughs about how she has been banned from selection committee meetings — she can't bear to turn away some of the marginal applicants she is sure could profit from a year in a red jacket.

And Teny Gross, executive director of the Providence-based Institute for the Study & Practice of Non-Violence, which works with gang members and other at-risk youth, says the City Year dilemma speaks to a larger development in the non-profit world — what he calls a "Machiavellian choice" that donors have unwittingly foisted upon social change organizations.

If you want to get funded, you have to show results. You have to hire more of the college-educated outsiders who can write a report, who don't think twice about staying late at work — and who are sure to leave town after a year or so.

But whatever his concerns about sustainability, Gross counts himself a fan of the new City Year. He lauds its focus, its insistence on impact. He calls its evolution almost inevitable. And he's probably right.

The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act that President Obama signed shortly after taking office, which aims to expand the AmeriCorps program from 75,000 to 250,000 by 2017, is suffused with the language of accountability that has become so prominent in recent years.

And expectations within the broader movement have shifted in a fundamental way. "For too long, too many of us have been satisfied with saying 'we tried,' " said Patrick Corvington, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps, in a speech at a City Year conference last year. "That's no longer good enough. We must not only try, we must succeed."

The pressure on the movement to produce will only grow with a new Republican majority in the House of Representatives, a period of austerity in the offing, and a fight over continued funding of the Serve America Act looming.

Johnson, the City Year Rhode Island director, is aware of all that. But for her, the tradeoff between the old City Year — whatever its virtues — and new is worth it for a more immediate reason.

There is simply too much at stake in schools like Roger Williams, she suggests. There are hundreds of kids who are veering off course in ways tragic and all too foreseeable — the fate of entire neighborhoods, of an entire state, hanging in the balance.

"It's a crisis," she says. "It's a moral issue. Our students deserve to succeed. And anyone that has the resources to help should."

Johnsonpauses for a moment. "We're all in."

David Scharfenberg can be reached at

The original version of this article mistakenly referred to the City Year Rhode Island director as Jennie Jones, rather than Jennie Johnson.

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