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Denver: Today’s visit will take you to Columbus Avenue in Boston, Massachusetts in the headquarters of City Year. In 28 communities across the country, City Year brings together diverse young leaders to service AmeriCorps members who work full time in high-need schools to help students succeed. You will first hear from their co-founder and CEO, Michael Brown, and then from members of the staff who, as you will soon learn, feel very passionate and emotionally-connected to the work that they do.
Michael: When Robert Kennedy said at the height of apartheid in South Africa that “every time a man or woman stands up for an ideal or acts to improve a lot of others here, she sends out a tiny ripple of hope that can create a mighty current that can wipe away even the highest walls of oppression or resistance.” What we’ve done with that with our corporate culture is the very first agenda item of every meeting.
- Ripples. No matter what’s going on, no matter how hard the work is we start with ripples. What’s out there that’s inspiring us, is there something that the corps members have done. What that does is that just puts you on the mood to tackle hard things. The core of our corporate culture is to be prepared from an idealistic spirit to do really hard things.
Jennifer: I feel like every single person I interact with here at City Year is laser beam-focused on delivery the best possible service we can to the highest need schools in this country to make sure that every kid we serve gets the supports they need to be successful. That is an incredibly unifying force even though, “Wow! We are so diverse at City Year.”
Charlie: A couple of things I would mention, our values drive everything we do, our values come to life in our work, in our schools, in our communities across the country, across the world. Erin mentioned belief in the power of young people. I’m also interested in the belief in the power of old people, given my age. But we have 10 values, two others I would mention. One our service to a cause greater than self and starting there, the other is students first, collaboration always. We feel like our values and the stories that represent our values really helped guide our daily actions and our work and motivate us, so I am really excited about that.
Jamaal: What I appreciated the most about my City Year experience is that it gave me a common language to connect with people who thought like I did and those who didn’t think like I did, but we’re all committed to making sure that the communities, the schools, and the students that we were working with were going to get everything that they needed to be successful.
When I think about the cultural pieces that stick out for me, especially from my lens, I think about level 5 leadership and I think about how we strive to build young adults who are socially conscious, who are aware of their skills and their areas of development and are courageous enough to step into positions that they made initially beyond comfortable with but will grow into them.
Erin: We’ve committed to embodying a culture of idealism at the office space and I had the opportunity to give a tour to someone who just had a meeting later this afternoon at City Year and was visiting the offices and it’s always really great to see our office through the eyes of a new person. We have a lot of our logos, our values, our culture points, a lot of our founding stories which are parables and descriptive stories that have some moral or ethical implication that we can draw at time of need and at times of indecision. Right now I am staring at one about Stone Soup and it’s really moving for people who are used to various sterile office environments. It’s something that seems so simple to all of us here in the office because we’re around it everyday but the colors, the blues, the reds, the yellows are all really vibrant and really energizing because our work is hard and we need every little bit of energy that we can get and I draw a lot of it from our office space.
Chand: I’m going to talk about something that people may not know unless they worked here and that’s the CY Mindful Community (CY standing for City Year), and that’s something that’s pretty unique about our culture. We focus on doing meditations Tuesdays and Thursdays or any sort of brain break related activities. I’m part of the leadership team group for it. We get together at the beginning of each month and plan what we want to do for the community. Anyone and everyone is welcome.
Erin: We close those meetings with a spirit break, which everyone gets up, you all put your hands in the middle and if you can’t reach the middle, you out your hand on the shoulder of your colleague to make sure everyone’s connected, and you think of a word that either symbolizes or inspires and sums up the meeting or sums up the work ahead, something like collaboration or students first is a good examples that you could use. For my team strategy and growth, it’s SNG and then you say the word and it’s a way to end the meetings in the same way every single time, but also to cap it off in a really symbolic way to have that inspiration to move forward.
Virginia: Another thing we share is joys and appreciations. We start our meetings that way, we start our days that way and we end our days that way. There’s a balanced when thinking about being in that challenging environment continually that you’re still focusing on the small wins, both with students in the schoolhouse but then also with each other and appreciating each other for the work that we do. I think that balance is really key for me and that’s something that’s is really important in our culture is that balance that reminds you no matter how challenging your day was, there’s still something to appreciate or to find joy in. That’s still a really big piece for me.
Grace: I’ve had a one-on-one with my boss. Outside of any performance management meetings that we’ve had, I’ve been able to have those meetings with my boss to figure out what are your long term goals, what do you want to get out of this job, what elements of this job do you enjoy and want to do more of and how can we provide you additional leadership opportunities to build on what you’re doing here and why you want to be in this role or what role as you see yourself in in the future.
Jamaal: When you have leaders who are as accessible and open to answering your questions, to providing you with the perspective needed to sometimes say, “Okay, I understand why this decision was made and now I can see myself moving the work forward,” I think it’s another piece of our culture that’s really unique and special. I sometimes take for granted how other organizations don’t have leaders who are as approachable and accessible.
Grace: Our CEO, Michael Brown, this year did something different where he put together a campaign to fund raise and pack packages that will be sent to every single City Year team across the country. Michael led these efforts, helped to fund raise. Our senior leadership team donated half of the funds for this entire effort to put together care packages for all 314 schools that City year serves our across 28 cities across the entire country. It wasn’t just the funds, but it was also the amount of time it took to organize that, the amount of time it took to put that together, and I think that is a perfect example of their leadership and leading by example when it comes to the work that we do.
Charlie: We do have a pledge that our corps members say on a regular basis, that maybe I can call on Jamaal to do it with me right now, the City Year pledge. I call on Jamaal because he was on the dean’s council, so I can do that–10 years ago. “I pledge to serve as a City Year member to the very best of my ability, to honor the rules and expectations of City Year, to respect my colleagues and the people and the communities we serve, to provide excellent service, to lead by example and be a role model to children, to celebrate the diversity of the people, ideas and cultures around me, to serve with an open heart and an open mind, to be quick to help and slow to judge, to do my best to make a difference in the lives of others and to build a stronger community, nation and world for all of us.”
Denver: I want to extend my thanks to City Year CEO, Michael Brown, for allowing us to visit their offices to Tina Chong and Jennifer Merrill for organizing all of these and to those who participated: Chand Jiwani, Erin McIntosh, Grace Boal, Charlie Rose, Virginia Bette, Jamaal Williams, and Jennifer Jordan. Come to denverfrederick.wordpress.com for this podcast, transcript and pictures of the participants in the office City Year.
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