give a year. change the world

Today’s guest blogger is Matthew Bedrick, Corps member on the Microsoft Diplomas Now Team serving at Newtown High School in Elmhurst, Queens. 

Matthew BedrickGive a year. Change the world. These words sent shivers up my spine when I read them for the first time. I was at Yale, a college senior, attending an education and non-profit career fair. These words reminded me of Gandhi’s guiding philosophy, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” which had been my personal mantra since fourth grade. Now here was City Year, an organization I’d just discovered, claiming that if I gave one year, I’d accomplish my life goal.  

I’m sure many of the 2,500 corps members who joined City Year last summer had their own ideas of what it meant to “give a year to change the world,” but I don’t think any of us could foresee what this slogan would mean in reality. Initially, this seemed like an overwhelming task to achieve – is it even possible?

To give a year meant: giving up sleep, sleep, and more sleep; giving up a balanced diet for the limited food options that are found in our poorest urban communities, and trading in the idea of living big in New York City for 12 hour work days, a small living stipend, and the promise of an education award upon graduation. I gave my blood when I sliced my hand cutting out Problem of the Week forms, so my students could get extra credit in Algebra class. I gave sweat when I sprinted from our basement office to my students’ 3rd floor classroom in order to role model being on time. I gave tears of sadness when my student told me his father had died. And I gave tears of joy when another student said he wanted to be like me when he grew up.

I also gave so much positive energy. I gave out more high fives than I can count and more inspirational pep talks than I can remember. Most importantly, I have given my all, every day over the course of a year for my students. And in the end, I have gained more than I have given.

But did we change the world?

This question is answered with a simple yet powerful saying: “To the world you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world.” For a few students, I have significantly helped their attendance, behavior, and course performance – the early warning indicators that City Year corps members address. I think of Jaylene who now attends 1st period after skipping that class for most of the year. I think of Mario who went from a 55 to an 85 in his English class. I think of A.J. who went from being disciplined in every class to winning student of the month. Beyond the data, many of our students disliked school, distrusted adults, and lacked hope.  What they needed was a positive role model who took time to listen and connect their current passions and future dreams to staying in school. Because I believed in them, they learned to believe in themselves.

City Year corps members also change the schools and communities they serve. We raise spirits during morning pep rallies and organize events that improved school climate and culture. Through Community Service Days, we have beautified, healed, and connected entire neighborhoods. We shared the joy and power of service as students worked together with friends, families, and corps members to make a difference.

Serving as a City Year corps member has also changed each of our worlds. Our time management and multi-tasking skills have improved exponentially. I know I am not the only one who makes to-do lists for my to-do lists in order to prioritize my priorities. Equally as valuable as the professional development, we have enhanced our empathy and compassion – we are quick to help and slow to judge. We have walked a mile in others’ moccasins before we make a judgment. We have deepened our commitment to service, which we’ll share with our friends, families, and future corps members.

In City Year, we call influencing others to make positive changes a “ripple.” This term was taken from an inspiring speech delivered by Robert F. Kennedy to students in Capetown, South Africa exactly 47-years-ago today.

“Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, these ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” – Robert Kennedy, Day of Affirmation Address, June 6th, 1966

He was saying that no matter how small or isolated a good act may be, these ripples will combine to change the world. Exactly 45 years ago today, two years after this speech, Bobby Kennedy died from an assassin’s bullet. That same year, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was also killed and rioting and violence swept through the country. Many thought that idealism died that year. But it is clear that hope and optimism have lived on. It lives in every red-jacketed City Year corps member, including the 295 of us who will graduate from the New York program today and the 2,500 across the country. When people ask me what I did during my City Year, I will tell them I changed the world. And if they say “impossible,” I will say ask Jaylene, ask Mario, and ask A.J. For one year, as a City Year corps member, I changed the world for them.