In July, we and 350 other attendees at the Resnick Aspen Action Forum were fortunate to hear public-interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, talk powerfully about his experience with the U.S. criminal justice system. Stevenson’s remarkable stories and reflections focused on his efforts to create more justice for vulnerable children and adults in our society by fighting against poverty and discrimination. He urged all of us to embrace actions that will help us “lean toward justice.”
Stevenson’s recipe to change the world:
- Be proximate to injustice
- Change the narratives that sustain injustice
- Stay hopeful
- Remain willing to do uncomfortable things
His call-to-action inspires and drives us in our work in public education here in the U.S., as we embark on a new school year.
City Year is focused on ensuring that all students — and the adults who work alongside them throughout the day — have great opportunities to learn and flourish. We do this by “getting close,” as Stevenson urges, to people and communities, particularly where the impacts of inequitable and systemic injustice have persisted for decades.
Our work does not always go as planned. At times, the challenges can seem insurmountable.
But we have learned that we can control how we approach our work and how we live our work. We can control how proximate and how present we are, how open and how vulnerable we are, how truthful we are when we admit that we don’t have all of the answers.
Every single day in schools and communities across the country, there are empowering examples of breakthroughs, progress and joy. We need to lift up those moments and create and support more of them, as they help to change the narrative from one of obstacles, despair and hopelessness to one of promise, accomplishment and opportunity.
At City Year, we aim to show up every day, pulling in the right direction for our country’s most vulnerable students and the communities where they live. We are inspired by the commitment of the young leaders who serve through AmeriCorps, who partner with teachers and students from the first bell in the morning until the end of afterschool programs in the late afternoon. Our AmeriCorps members work directly with students, establishing relationships and nurturing skills that help them grow, reach higher and feel safe. Not surprisingly, students respond in powerful ways.
What makes all this possible? National service. Over the last few decades, a growing number of high-impact local and national AmeriCorps programs have demonstrated that national service can — and should — be an essential tool to address pressing social and public policy needs. And there are many important initiatives underway to dramatically expand these opportunities, including the Aspen Institute Franklin Project, born at the Aspen Ideas Festival; Voices for National Service; and the newly formed Service Year Alliance.
Since its founding in 1988, City Year has been committed to scaling national service. We believe that national service has the ability to help our democracy meet its potential by providing young adults of all backgrounds with a civic rite of passage that enables them to serve their communities and country. Just as important, through serving together, we can break down social and racial barriers by committing to a cause greater than oneself.
At a time of great division, misunderstanding and fear, exacerbated by segregated neighborhoods and schools, rising wealth inequality and intense political partisanship, our country needs collective, shared experiences dedicated to the common good more today than perhaps ever before.
We believe that national service is not only an extraordinarily authentic way to be present and proximate, as Stevenson challenges all of us to be, but also an outsized resource for our students and schools. In communities from coast-to-coast, national service is changing the narrative of injustice. Though this work is often difficult and uncomfortable, it also renews hope and possibility that together, we can, and are, building a better and more just world.
Stevenson speech has inspired the two of us to re-commit to staying close and changing the narrative about high-poverty, high-need schools and students from one of insurmountable odds to one of just actions producing positive outcomes for children and our society. We re-commit to sharing positive stories of connection, progress and success that happen every day in the schools that we serve, knowing they help all of us to remain hopeful and energized. And perhaps most of all, we recommit to remaining willing to do uncomfortable things as we strive to “lean into” justice and try to follow Stevenson example of leading our country toward justice for all.
Sally Bachofer is senior advisor at City Year, Inc. Jim Balfanz is president of City Year, Inc., an education-focused organization fueled by national service that is dedicated to helping schools and students succeed. Bachofer and Balfanz are 2011 Pahara-Aspen Education Fellows, and members of the Aspen Global Leadership Network.