IMPOSSIBLE--THAT’S WHAT Selvin Chambers thought when he first saw the mess up on the corner of Parker and Tremont streets in the Mission Hill section of Boston, a neighborhood so bleak and dangerous that in 1989, Charles Stewart decided it was the perfect spot to disguise the murder of his wife as a mugging. True, this square city block had once been a community garden, but that was 15 years’ worth of weeds, vines, broken bottles, spent syringes and trash ago. Nobody expected this wasteland to ever be a garden again.
Nobody except City Year, the Boston youth corps Chambers works for. As soon as Chambers and the 10 young people he is supervising make their way to the lot from a nearby transit stop, he organizes them into pairs and assigns them various tasks and tools. Soon the neighborhood reverberates with the sounds of conversation, a couple of boom boxes and hard work.
Parker Street is the first project for the 30-year-old Chambers and his City Year team. Even though this corner isn’t more than a few miles away from the public housing project in Cambridge where Chambers and his six siblings grew up, it’s really worlds away. After attending a small college on a basketball scholarship, Chambers settled into a comfortable counseling job at Fitchburg State College. Comfortable, yes, but boring. After four years of that, he took a $2,600 pay cut to become a team leader at City Year, where, he will tell you flat-out, he’s having “the time of my life.”
Now he’s in charge of an unlikely crew of gardeners. Rosesharon Oates, an 18-year-old from the hard-knocks neighborhood of Roxbury, is cutting down and bagging brush with Julian Bennett, a bright 19-year-old college dropout who, by his own admission, has been “slacking off since the fifth grade.” Rachel Newman is the young woman with the wildly orange hair, prying up a half-buried rock with the help of Gervlyne Duplessy, a bubbly Haitian immigrant. And there’s James Locovare, a well-to-do kid from Jay Gatsby’s neck of Long Island, bagging up debris alongside 20-year-old Timothy (Paco) Meserve, who has lived on his own since age 13.
This is a raucous, freewheeling, hard-working group. When a huge pile of rocks is discovered beneath all the debris, everyone has their say, sometimes at the same time and at top volume, about what to do. Eventually the team decides to use the rocks to build a system of walkways through the lot.
It doesn’t take too much watching to realize that the Parker Street gardeners are something often spoken about but too rarely seen in America: an honest-to-God team of blacks, whites, Asians, and Latinos, men and women--rich, poor, and in-between--working together to accomplish something real.
Over the next eight days, as the Parker Street garden re-emerges, so do its neighbors. One woman begins letting her child play there; now without the overgrowth, she can watch him from her kitchen window. The guy in the big white clapboard house at the garden’s edge starts doing some long-delayed home repairs. Passersby ask City Year workers about how they can get a little space within the garden to till for themselves. And a 74-year-old man from down the street comes in after the team quits for the day, to make some improvements of his own; the next morning, the returning City Year team finds a row of fresh marigolds where there had only been stark black soil the night before.
THIS GARDEN EXEMPLIFIES THE WAY MICHAEL BROWN AND ALAN KHAZEI, co-directors of City Year, view America. They see past its snarl of social problems to a promise of renewal they swear is hidden underneath. And they’re convinced that the agent for that renewal is young people joining together for their country to do intensive community service. Brown and Khazei believe, quite reasonably and pragmatically, in national service.
City Year is a domestic Peace Corps that for five years has been bringing together young people, ages 17 to 23, for full-time community service throughout Boston. From September through June, teams of 10 or so hold tutoring sessions and violence-prevention workshops in the schools, run after-school programs for latchkey kids, assist the elderly, conduct environmental projects, bring food in to bedridden AIDS patients, improve the public landscape or rehabilitate housing for the homeless. Every corps member must register to vote, obtain a library card, produce a resume, take a first aid and CPR course, complete a workshop in tax preparation and, if they are not high school graduates, work toward a high school-equivalency degree. Corps members receive $100 a week and, upon completion of the program, an award of $5,000 toward their education. More than 400 young people have graduated from the program.
“Gandhi talked about three keys to building a democratic society,” Khazei observes, “the ballot, the jail and the spade. The ballot is your political rights. The jail is civil disobedience. The spade is the willingness for people to do the basic work of building a democratic society. And Gandhi said that the spade was the most important.”
On the whole, Americans haven’t understood that point very well. But in Boston, at least, where City Year has been embraced by community agencies and the schools and besieged by applicants for corps and staff positions, they are beginning to. And, according to Khazei, it is not a moment too soon.
“Unless people are willing to do the basic work of building a society, the ballot becomes meaningless--you don’t know what you’re voting on. And the jail becomes impossible, because you haven’t invested yourself in anything enough to be willing to give up your personal liberty for it. National service is fundamentally about the spade. Society isn’t working right now because the average person doesn’t have the opportunity to do that spadework.”
Various national service organizations have been in existence since the Depression. In fact, the nation’s largest is the California Conservation Corps, founded in 1976 by Gov. Jerry Brown. Yet until now, the programs have developed in a patchwork fashion with little governmental financial support or guidance. But this is about to change. President Clinton has promised to make national service a signature of his Administration.
During the campaign Clinton visited Brown and Khazei at their Stillings Street office. And at the end-of-year networking fest in Hilton Head, S.C., known as the Renaissance Weekend, when the President saw someone wearing a City Year jacket, he hugged her and said: “That’s my favorite program.”
Not everyone shares the President’s enthusiasm. When his proposed national service legislation went before Congress, it met with fierce Republican opposition, including a Senate filibuster. It was too expensive, critics said ($7.4 billion), and too narrow (it emphasized service for college students with loans). After several months of haggling, a new, broader, cheaper ($2 billion) plan emerged and was expected to be signed into law this month.
City Year will be one of the programs receiving funds; $7 million has already been guaranteed; another $1.2 million is probably on the way. One reason Washington is spending that kind of money on City Year is to find out if its approach would work on a national scale. With high-profile support like that, City Year and programs like it could become a common part of American life.
But that won’t happen unless some widespread beliefs are overturned: the idea that national service is pie-in-the-sky idealism that’s too naive to solve any of America’s serious problems and is doomed to produce only make-work; that without the force of conscription, it will attract only the most extremely impoverished and thus can never be a truly national phenomenon; and that it could never be anything but unrelieved drudgery. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp once summed up what a lot of people think about national service when he dismissed it as “picking up cans in Yellowstone.” By performing service that transforms the communities where it’s done and the people who do it, City Year aims to show that such beliefs are all wrong.
AFTER SELVIN CHAMBERS’ TEAM FINISHED ITS WORK ON PARKER STREET, it began its next project--serving as teachers’ assistants and designing and staffing an after-school program for Mason Elementary School in Roxbury, where the kids are among the poorest in Boston. Team members worked there until the end of their City Year hitch this past June.
Rachel Newman and Gervlyne Duplessy, from Chambers’ team, stopped by Mason one day last winter to make some preparations for their second semester stint. From the moment they entered the building, the corps members were hugged by every child who caught a glimpse of them. As they moved through the school, the halls filled with shouts of “City Year! Hey, City Year!”
“A lot of our kids don’t get any positive feedback at home or have anyone to sit with them one-to-one after school,” says Crystal English, a Mason kindergarten teacher. “They love attention from the City Year kids.”
Chambers’ team came to Mason because Principal Mary Russo had asked City Year for help. The corps members, she marvels, “are what we want our children to look like in 10 years. They give our students a vision of how to live.” A third-grader had her own assessment: “City Year helped me with my capital letters.”
And for every public City Year project, there is another private one going on at the same time: the growth of the corps members themselves.
There’s 24-year-old Stephen Spaloss, for instance. As a teen-ager growing up in New Hampshire, Spaloss was arrested numerous times for such serious crimes as assault, but his father, a state prosecutor, always came to the rescue. Until Spaloss was arrested for trying to run somebody over with his car. Then his father gave him a choice: Get into something worthwhile or face the legal system alone. That turned out to be City Year. “I had the sourest attitude. I didn’t talk to anybody. I caused as much trouble as I could on my team,” says Spaloss of his first few months. “But they trusted me.”
A little more than one year later, Spaloss became a team leader. City Year, he marvels, “gave me back so many things--gave me back my relationship with my father, with my whole family.”
Andre Berry, who was on the Boston Police Department’s gang list, was more or less forced into City Year by his aunt. The turning point for Berry was when his City Year team was assigned to a middle school to teach violence prevention. “I realized,” Berry recalls, “that I couldn’t go in there being a hypocrite to those kids, telling them not to punch this guy if I’m still out there hitting people. So I really had to check myself.”
Saskia Grinberg, now a 19-year-old City Year staff member, began drinking and doing drugs as a seventh-grader in Brookline, Mass. By her middle teens she had moved up to using and dealing pot, cocaine and LSD. She was suspended from her high school and hospitalized for an overdose. Her life began to change when she participated in a Servathon. Soon after, Grinberg applied to City Year, was accepted and got her high school-equivalency degree during her corps member year. She’s now in her second year as a leader of a team working in an elementary school.
“My parents are really proud of me now,” Grinberg beams. “And my sister, who’s 13, has done a Servathon. When I was 13, I was doing LSD.”
Based on what he and Alan Khazei have seen in five years of working closely with corps members, Michael Brown sums up what’s going on here: “All young people need the same seven things: meaning, adventure, community, power, respect, structure and opportunity.”
FOR TWO GUYS WITH SUCH GLITTERY ACADEMIC CREDENTIALS (THEY BOTH graduated from Harvard University and Harvard Law School) and such a record of getting things done (they’ve taken City Year from a dorm Macintosh to a $5.7-million annual budget in less than five years), Brown and Khazei are refreshingly unpretentious. Brown is fair-skinned and teddy-bearish, Khazei dark and sharp-featured. They run more toward sweat shirts than suits and, given the least provocation, will pass up handshakes in favor of hugs.
They certainly aren’t into money. Although both could easily have been in the private-practice stratosphere by now, they’ve only recently broken the $40,000 barrier. Now in their early 30s, Brown, a product of the Boston suburbs, and Khazei, a native of New Hampshire, have spent much of their adult lives discussing national service with each other and a wide circle of friends. Their goal was always to create an organization that would put their beliefs into action.
Some of their ideas for what they wanted to achieve came from a reading of the Constitution. In Khazei’s law school thesis, he wrote that national service would be the remedy for what he viewed as the Founding Fathers’ mistake of attempting “to create a virtuous government that did not require, and indeed left no room for, a virtuous people.” Others came from their knowledge of existing programs, especially New York’s City Volunteer Corps, where Brown worked for a year between college and law school. It was there that Brown learned that corps members could do far more than mere physical labor--that they could provide much-needed human services such as helping in the public schools or hospitals. It was there that he first saw the possibilities of combining service with corps member education and training and where he learned the value of team-building exercises.
He also saw one feature he very much wanted to change. The publicly funded New York City corps had a pronounced lack of socioeconomic diversity (even today, and not for want of trying to change, CVC finds itself with 63% of its volunteers from households earning less than $10,000, and only 6% of its corps is white) and as a result, the participants tended to view the program more as an income source than as a vehicle for citizenship. Service, thought Brown, shouldn’t be seen as the duty of only the disadvantaged.
And another related idea was emerging--that a service organization wasn’t only the responsibility of the government. This was the mid-'80s, when everything from the L.A. Olympics to Apple Computer seemed to point to the power of entrepreneurialism. It dawned on Brown and Khazei that for national service to gain diversity and rise above complacency, it had to market itself, to think like a business.
At the time, that was a truly revolutionary idea; most of those in the national service movement were still thinking of a centralized, federally funded and administered program along the lines of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. But City Year has helped change many minds. “While the federal government will provide the seed money for national service, we are determined that the participants--the individuals who serve and the groups that sponsor their service--will guide the process,” stated a recent New York Times op-ed piece. “Spending tens of millions of tax dollars to build a massive bureaucracy would be self-defeating; it would squash the spirit of innovation that national service demands.” The piece’s author was Bill Clinton.
Brown and Khazei drew up a proposal, took it door to door and raised enough money from businesses and friends to found City Year as a 50-person summer corps in 1988. The following year they raised about a quarter of a million dollars from sources as likely as the Echoing Green Foundation, a socially minded investment outfit, and as unlikely as General Cinema and Equitable Insurance. With that sum, they were able to start a full-time corps in the fall of 1989.
City Year is run like a business. From its founding through 1991, all funding was private, and although City Year is now the recipient of federal millions, a sizable chunk of its support still comes from the private sector. (The goal is to remain about 25% privately funded.) A la the Olympics, the service teams have individual sponsors wooed through City Year’s development office: the Reebok team, the Gillette team, the Apple team, the Timberland team, the New England Telephone team, and so on. A semester of sponsorship costs about $35,000.
This business orientation has brought with it aggressive marketing. City Year makes full use of the weapons of the trade--logo clothing, ball caps, backpacks and watches--which in Boston are gaining the cachet of Air Jordans or Evian. City Year has even invented a whole new format for bringing in money called the Servathon: an annual Saturday event held throughout Boston in which volunteers from the general population raise money from individual and corporate sponsors according to the number of community service hours they perform that day. Last fall’s Servathon brought 7,000 volunteers to 200 locations--clearing parks, painting buildings, working in public schools or libraries--and raised more than $600,000.
All the smart selling has made City Year a high-visibility, high-impact part of Boston’s daily life. Every weekday morning for the last several years, the entire corps--dressed in the mandatory uniform of red jacket, black sweat shirt and khaki pants--has assembled for its physical training in City Hall Plaza, and when the red jackets move out from there to the project sites, civilians greet them with a steady stream of “Hey, City Year!” The publicity is further enhanced because, unlike the work of many conservation corps or job-training programs, the projects themselves are not remote from the general population; they are in schools, community-recreation centers and parks in every neighborhood of the city. The end result is that in Boston, acceptance to City Year has become nearly as much a prize as acceptance to Harvard. (The selection process is based primarily on personal interviews rather than on grades or references. “The thing we look for most in applicants,” Brown says, “is the desire to do this, the readiness to do this.”) Last year, only one in five applicants made it.
That high and wide level of interest has enabled City Year to achieve real racial, ethnic and class diversity. The corps that graduated last spring was about half-and-half male-female, and 43% white, 33% black, 14% Latino and 8% Asian-American. There were even two Belgian exchange corps members and one American Indian. Twenty-seven percent of that corps’ members were high school dropouts, 54% were high school graduates, and 19% had some college credits or were college graduates. True, 68% came from families with annual incomes below $30,000, but 20% came from those that make more than $60,000. Many a City Year team has Phillips Andover grads working side by side with former gang members. Sometimes working for former gang members: several felons have not only straightened out at City Year but have risen to staff leadership positions.
And as for Jack Kemp’s comment--well, any day at City Year is shot through with the idea that service should be fun. Part of the authorized City Year exercise routine calls for the corps member to do a Mick Jagger impression. When a team leader decided that she and her corps members needed to familiarize themselves with Boston’s Chinatown before undertaking a project there, she took the team to the area and held a treasure hunt. Three times a year, the entire corps goes into rural Massachusetts for retreats that feature skits, games and competitions. At one, Alan Khazei performed as Elvis, complete with rhinestone leisure suit, bodyguards and fainting girl fans. And Brown starred in a “Star Trek” skit in which, as Captain Kirk, he brought all the warring intergalactic forces together to work on a service project. No, this isn’t picking up cans at Yellowstone.
The summer-camp flavor has helped City Year post a daily attendance rate of 95% and an annual completion rate of 85%. “I don’t know anybody from my team last year,” says one former corps member, “who isn’t still just flying from the experience.”
FOR ALL ITS VIRTUES, CITY Year still draws critical fire. Suzanne Goldsmith, an author and former participant in both New York City’s Volunteer Corps and City Year, isn’t completely sold. “To dream of a quick fix for the sociopathic tendencies that seem to be growing more and more prevalent among youth is to turn our backs on the real causes of problems that begin in early childhood, or even in utero ,” she says. “National service isn’t some kind of food processor where one kind of thing goes in and a very different thing automatically comes out.”
Goldsmith takes the City Year team she was on in 1990-91 as a prime example. Of the 12 original team members, five quit or were dismissed for disciplinary reasons--one for assaulting another at a project site--and one died in a still-unsolved shooting in front of his home (thus far, the only death among active-duty City Year corps members). In the ensuing couple of years, Goldsmith has tracked down many of her former teammates and has concluded that for the most part, they “are doing what they would have been doing anyway without going through City Year.” Five are in college, but two are working at McDonald’s. Two who had criminal histories before City Year have been in and out of jail since.
Goldsmith says that despite her reservations, “of all the ideas out there, City Year holds out the most promise for social change in this country,” and admits that her team probably set the record for complications.
Brown points out that “Suzanne’s team was completely atypical,” adding that City Year asks all the questions about criminal history it’s legal to ask and interviews applicants’ probation officers. But Goldsmith’s experience does show that national service programs will have to build in, and pay for, plenty of resources for handling the full array of social problems now found among young people. That is a lesson City Year is learning; the program now has one full-time and two part-time counselors on staff who focus on corps members with problems of anti-social behavior and drugs.
Last January, the Washington Post ran an op-ed article by Joshua Abramowitz urging President Clinton to proceed cautiously on national service; one of the piece’s principal contentions was that “national service is simply not in keeping with the spirit of a deficit-trimming Administration.” And what was the proof offered of this? “Look at the cost of Boston’s City Year program.” City Year’s cost per corps member per year is around $20,000, which means that 100,000 participants (about the number the Clinton Administration expects to attract to national service) in City Year-style programs would cost $4 billion more in the next three years than the President and Congress have agreed to spend.
City Year addresses the cost argument head-on. One internal memo points out that jail costs more, the Peace Corps costs 50% more and the military costs twice as much. Thinking about the positive community changes that seem to follow in the wake of most City Year projects, Khazei firmly rejects the criticism this way: “The cost per corps member argument is off because we’re not just helping corps members.” In the same spirit, Brown contends: “The cost per corps member shouldn’t be compared to a cost per student; it should be compared to a cost per teacher.”
BUT IF THE GROWTH WITHIN the program stopped with those who receive City Year’s services and those who provide them, only half of Brown and Khazei’ dream would be realized. That’s because they want to change the world, and to do that, you have to change the people who run it.
A few years ago, a letter from City Year requesting 50 pairs of boots crossed the desk of Jeffrey B. Swartz, the chief operating officer of Timberland, a clothing and casual footwear manufacturer in Hampton, N.H. Swartz OK’d the request and thought little more about it. Until he took his 4-year-old son along on a Servathon. The boy worked all day moving rocks as part of the rehabilitation of a center that distributes food for the needy. “That was the day I got it,” Swartz says. Subsequently, Timberland became a City Year team sponsor and is supplying its accountants and communications specialists for City Year’s use. The company recently gave City Year $1 million (half in money, half in boots and clothes).
“This isn’t philanthropy,” Swartz says. “Philanthropy is when this painting is brought to you by X and doesn’t involve the company and therefore doesn’t change the company.” Timberland’s relation- ship is definitely changing the company. With City Year’s help, the firm has been providing assistance to a nearby recovery center for addicted teens and last fall initiated a policy giving all employees eight paid days off a year to do any sort of community service they want.
Similar ripples have coursed through the Bank of Boston, the first sponsor of a City Year team. The bank has followed up seed money and team sponsorship totaling more than $400,000 by loaning an executive to City Year full-time, by fielding 400 of its employees for the last Servathon and by developing an in-house program for doing monthly community-service projects of its own. “If Alan or Michael wanted to send me 50 graduates for employment at Bank of Boston next year,” bank vice-president Ira Jackson says, “I think I’d find a place for every one of them.”
With the federal government taking its first halting steps back into social activism since the onset of Reaganism, the ‘90s will probably see more and bigger service programs. City Year will certainly be growing. This past summer, Columbia, S.C., was the site of a spinoff 44-member summer corps (funded entirely by local private dollars), and this month, City Year intends to increase its Boston membership to 300 and start up a 55-member corps in Providence, R.I. Within the next two years, the plan is to get corps going in five to 10 other cities. Sites being considered include Chicago, Atlanta and Pittsburgh.
The goal is to make quality national service as accessible as a burger with fries. McCity Year, or something like it. “The only limit on our growth right now is money. The people,” Khazei says, referring to the 1,300 resumes in his office, “are out there.”
“The real power of this,” Khazei continues, “is that you are going to have people who’ve had the common experience of growing up and working together placed throughout society--teachers, labor union officials, administrators, hospital folks, bankers, lawyers, carpenters, etc.--people who are comfortable with and understand each other. That group will become a real positive force for positive change.” Khazei breaks into a wide smile at the prospect. “If the military is the national defense, then national service is the national offense .”