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Ripples of hope: serving in the Peace Corps with another City Year Los Angeles alum

It’s a Small World has always been my favorite ride at Disneyland. Not because of the obnoxious music, but because of the message it gave young children: People are connected around the world. Sure, we speak different languages and have different cultures, but we have the same emotions, breathe the same air and well duh, are all humans. We’re all not that different.

Then I came to City Year last year and learned about a Zulu proverb called Ubuntu: I am because you are / my humanity is tied to your humanity. In other words, we’re all connected in some way, somehow.

As known, I joined the Peace Corps quickly after my City Year and found a fellow City Year Los Angeles alum — Katie (corps year 2008-2009) — among my group of Volunteers who served in the same South Los Angeles neighborhood I served in. When I arrived at the Johannesburg airport, boarded the bus and got my Pre-Service Training (PST) schedule, I called Katie’s name across the bus and said, “Katie! We have a training about Ubuntu! Ohhh City Year…” We both shook our heads and laughed.

I didn’t realize the similarities of Ubuntu between my City Year and Peace Corps service until now, but the concept of Ubuntu originated in South Africa. Katie and I are ironically learning Zulu in the same language group with only one other American.

Before Katie, myself and the rest of my Peace Corps Volunteer group were about to listen to a presentation on Ubuntu in South African culture from our Zulu language trainers, Katie and I were sharing City Year pictures and memories. I showed her some pictures from the end of the year. We had already gone through lists of student names to see if I had tutored any of her former elementary students, but today we finally saw how our paths crossed after she saw a picture of one infamous Markham student my team adored. Let me stress again that this is right before the Ubuntu session is about to start (for those non-City Year people, this is City Year’s favorite word).

One of our Markham kids, Sarah*, was one of Katie’s elementary school team’s former students. At the end of a City Year, whether or not some of these students are in a team member’s actual class, there are always a group of kids that every City Year knows and has helped in some way. Sarah was one of those kids for my team AND Katie’s team.

Bursting out in laughter as we flipped through the pictures I had of her, we started to share Sarah stories: Funny things she had said (she has no sensor and doesn’t care what people think, which makes her all the more fun to be around). I was so happy about this discovery that my eyes were tearing up — Katie and I can come from two completely different places in the US (Kentucky and California) and still somehow impacted a student’s life (or in my case, know the people who really did — my teammates Angie, Melanie and Becky — because I didn’t work much with her). This is clear proof that we are all connected through humanity and Ubuntu isn’t just some inspirational saying — it’s actually true.

I’ve written plenty of times throughout my first service year that changing the world isn’t as easy as it sounds and one might not always see results. I joined the Peace Corps expecting this, but can finally say that in rare circumstances change can be seen. Maybe Sarah still struggles in school a lot, but she was one of the first students who befriended my team at Markham, which I know had something to do with working with Katie’s team when she was a third grader. Now as a sixth grader, she’s confident, out-spoken, humorous and brave. I can’t completely credit City Year with all this, but the organization must have had some role in shaping who she is today if she decided to look up to the Markham team this year.

In South Africa, Ubuntu is practiced in all households. Batho pele, which means people first, stresses that one must take care of others — including guests and family members — before taking care of oneself when referring to eating meals or anything else. Food must be prepared in large portions in case guests show up to a family’s home. Family members must feed guests — regardless of who they are — before they eat. If one needs food or ingredients, one visits the neighbor’s house to get it. Food is for everyone and is shared. There is no such thing as individual food and it is disrespectful to deny someone food.

Likewise, people come before work. In America, we care so much about our jobs that they often comes before relationships. Here in South Africa, it is not uncommon for people to miss work (which is one major reason why teachers are absent a lot at the schools we’ll be serving at) because their culture emphasizes that they should go to a community gathering — like a wedding or funeral — instead of work.

Now, the South African government is trying to enforce Ubuntu throughout the country — blacks, whites, coloureds —  especially after Apartheid was dismantled.

I wouldn’t call Katie and I crossing paths a coincidence, but fate. I think things are supposed to happen for a reason and today happened to show me that people do impact each other and can make a difference in each other’s lives. In City Year, when one person’s thoughtful actions reach another person, it’s a called “ripple” of hope, which originiated from a speech Robert F. Kennedy gave in none other but South Africa — Katie and I together are the ultimate ripple!

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu — a person is a person because of people. Any interaction that my City Year team had or my new PCV team will have with students will somehow direct and develop who the student becomes as a person today and in the future. And this is exactly why all of those I have met last year and this year chose to do the work we will do or have completed.

My life now makes a little more sense…

 

“Each time a person stands up for an idea, 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, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” –Robert F. Kennedy

Yours in South African service,

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An end to my first year of service: a reflection to never forget

My worst nightmare has come true. Our last day at Markham Middle School was on Wednesday (actually, one of my students said his “worst nightmare would start on Thursday” because City Year would no longer be on campus).

I can barely write a blog post because so many emotions have been going through my mind this week — I’m anxious that I’m leaving the country in 33 days, depressed that I am leaving my students for good, excited for the future, but not ready to say bye to everyone I’ve met this year.

This year has truly been amazing. I have learned so much from my school, my students and my teammates. At the beginning of the year, I really didn’t have expectations. I didn’t know if this year would be bad, so-so, or great. It exceeded greatness. Why? Well maybe because I learned so much:

  • Markham Middle School and Watts showed me a reality so many others aren’t aware exists.
    I feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to experience an urban and struggling school like Markham, as well as a community like Watts. I saw the issues facing our public education system upfront. To name a few, students violently fighting about anything and everything (gangs, gossip, family issues, community issues) before school, during school and after-school. Obviously that affects any learning environment for students — being surrounded by violence at school of outside of school. For example, just the other day when my class was coming back from a field trip on the metro, a rider was walking up and down the train yelling with a gun in his pocket, and then just five minutes later a group of men trying to fight each other at the metro station by Markham. The day after I watched my teammates break up a crazy fight between a boy and a girl before school that was related to outside family/gang retaliation. Scenes like that in the neighborhood and at school I know would make me frustrated and mad, so I’m sure students feel that way.

    I saw how the public education system has failed so many students: so many are behind grade level and unmotivated to keep trying because the work is too hard for them to complete. I witnessed prostitution and alcohol and drug abuse in the community — every morning driving or walking to school. The litter, graffiti and homeless camps throughout the streets with boarded up buildings are a familiar sight. I learned that my student’s parents sometimes work three jobs to support them and traveled as far as 50 miles one-way on public transportation to get to the jobs. I faced the hard reality that some students I knew were foster children due to substance abuse in the family.

    The neighborhood of Watts is also just a bunch of houses, housing projects and convenient stores, soooo, where are the jobs for the struggling families and the kids turning to gangs and violence? The area is forgotten because so many in Los Angeles don’t really realize the extent of the problems here and that it’s a reality for many people. Now that I’ve worked in this reality for ten months, I will never work a day in my life that isn’t dedicated to a cause that will help change this stark reality so many people face in poverty-stricken areas of major cities. Granted I’m not sure if I’ll come back to Los Angeles, but every city has its Watts and that’s exactly where I belong.

  • My students showed me that I have empathy and compassion I didn’t think I had.
    Due to various situations I’ve dealt with with my family, I thought I lost all sense of being empathetic. I usually just think, “Well, that’s your fault for the way you are and you can change if you want to” or I refuse to deal with someone I know won’t change. But that’s not the case in all situations. I found even the worst behaving students in my class to hold a special place in my heart because I saw them outside of their behavior problems and caught them in their squishy moments — i.e. one student always talking about how much he loved his baby brother. That one always got me: “You want to be a role model for your brother, right? Start behaving in class! He’s depending on you.” My students gave me the hope that people do change and will change; now I can believe.
  • It’s chance that my students were born into or moved into Watts and went to school there.
    They have dreams too, just like any other Los Angeles kid. However, it’s going to be much harder for them to succeed based on their reality. Life may never be fair for minority students and students of such communities, but at least we can work to bring some justice to these communities through work like City Year or just teaching in these schools.
  • My team was so incredibly diverse and I tried my hardest to not have first assumptions about people, but let’s be honest, everyone has first impressions of people.
    Everyone is amazing in their own way and every person on earth has an interesting life story. Give people a chance and they’ll surprise you. My team ended up being the most hilarious, intelligent, inspiring and caring group of people I’ve ever met all at once. I vow to not make any assumptions about everyone I will cross in South Africa, whether that be another Peace Corps Volunteer or someone from my village.
  • Time apart shows you who your real friends are.
    This year has been so crazy busy that I lost contact with many people. The best part about losing contact with people is when you see them again and it’s not awkward you know it’s a real friendship.
  • Keep calm and never doubt.
    There were countless times this year that I wanted to give up. I was working toward improving issues that are bigger than myself. I realized that the only way any work would get done at school is if I was calm about it and never doubted the situation. I still doubt a lot of things, but I added a couple of points higher on my positivity scale (special thanks to the teammates and roomies Marissa and Daniel for teaching me this).
  • Changing the world isn’t as easy as it sounds.
    Change doesn’t come overnight. Any work I did with my students may show in a couple of months or years or maybe even never. You come into City Year thinking you are going to change your student’s academic abilities so much, but you don’t understand how patient you have to be with this process. Maybe I didn’t change my student’s academic levels, but I know I made a difference because students looked up to me and the rest of City Year as friends, mentors and role models.
  • I now know what I stand for.
    I stand for the voiceless of the world. I am here to be a voice for the voiceless through my writing and volunteer work. Whether it’s a neighborhood like Watts or a rural South African village, I will be that voice that forgotten communities lack.

I’ll never forget this year and the students I got to work with; I’ll carry the memory of Markham Middle School with me wherever I go in life and it’ll definitely be a factor in choosing my final career path. Everything I learned will serve me well in South Africa and this year has prepared me more than ever for my Peace Corps adventure.

It still hasn’t really hit me that I won’t see my students next week. I think it’s going to take at least two weeks for it set in that this year is actually over.

One of our students wrote a letter to us and read it aloud after-school when all the corps members and students were saying goodbye (yes, many tears were shed):

Dear City Year,

I hope you guys visit us and I hope you guys find a good job. I will always remember you guys, you guys are like my big family. I hope you guys have fun in your new job and I hope you guys have fun in your life.

Thank you Markham Middle School for changing my life. Next year’s Markham team really has to uphold everything we created this year. My team built the foundation for next year’s team to succeed because City Year wasn’t at Markham last year and it seemed like the school was apprehensive about having us back, but now they can see it worth it and that we really made an impact. The students trust us and love us — next year’s team needs to carry over our love, passion, dedication and care. I have faith they will.

Sadly, we graduate City Year tomorrow, but it’s not goodbye, it’s a new beginning. Three more weeks in Los Angeles. Seriously? Gotta make the best of it.

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Keeping the USC spirit alive. I wrote all of my students letters and gave them a Fight On pin so they hopefully remember to never give up on their dreams.

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One of my students begged my teammate and I for our yellow bomber jacket. My teammate Chariya is giving him one of her yellow jackets. I hope he’ll look at the jacket and always remember what we taught him.

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Got my kids to sign my boots because I’m bringing them to South Africa with me. “I’m gonna miss you bitch” oooohhh Markham; words like this mean the kids really do love you.

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My team leader made pictures of all of us and put them on the wall in the City Year room for students to sign. Once again, to show love, one student wrote “you ugly” on everyone’s, but mine was even more special. “don’t know you, but you still ugly.” Oooohhh Markham.

What will I miss about Markham the most you ask? Based on the pictures above, I’ll miss the hilarity.

Although I’m graduating tomorrow, I’ll still be “yours in service” (South Africa in a month),

Liz

Summer blast off event at Markham: it’s summatime!

Today City Year at Markham Middle School hosted a school-wide event for students and parents to play games, win prizes and most importantly, find things to do during the summer! My teammates Daniel and Becky worked extremely hard putting the event together and invited a lot of community based organizations in South Los Angeles and Watts like the local library, gang reduction programs, UCLA’s summer UniCamp, among others. City Year put together four booths with different themes — literacy over the summer, summer games, academic games for over the summer and fun and free things to do in Los Angeles.

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We made handouts that showed students why summer reading is so important — research shows student who don’t keep up with reading over the summer will fall behind grade level. The handout also included calendars to make a summer reading schedule as well as crossword puzzles and games. We raffled off a bucket of school supplies and a dictionary to look up words they might not know while reading.

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The students also got to play two games at our booth — one that made them separate fiction and nonfiction books and another that had them spell out as many words as they could with the letters given. If they played they got a free snack or book.

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All the community organizations that showed up before students visited the booths.

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Students racing at the “Summer Games” booth.

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Some light refreshments at the lemonade stand.

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Students learning about fun and free things to do in LA this summer with a pamphlet and map my teammates made.

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An academic twist on a water gun carnival game.

Next week is our last week at Markham. I don’t even know what to think and cannot believe I will be writing my year summary blog post soon. This year went by way too fast…stay tuned for my final City Year post and a South African bake day/presentation for my students next week to teach them about where I’m moving to!

Happy Summer!
Liz

Week 33-34: Celebrating completing the CST!

All Markham students have been testing for the past two weeks. Four days out of these past two weeks school ended at 12:50. Our after-school program runs until 5 p.m., so we had to come up with some fun things for the students to do for that four hour stretch. Thanks to my teammates Charlotte and Melanie who are in charge of our after-school program there were some pretty darn cool activities:

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We played an Olympic-type of game where students split into teams and competed for a prize. The first challenge was to assemble a puzzle of the United States

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My team – One Krew – prepping for the challenges at Ted Watkins park in Watts with my teammates Daniel and Ricky

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One of the challenges was to get a hula hoop down the line without using hands

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My teammate Tessa’s mom is an actress and was the lead role in Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves. The students watched the movie and then got a surprise visit from a celebrity in the movie! They had a Q and A session with her and were really interested in what she had to say.

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We made silly putty! (which I had no idea was so easy to make)

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“Around the World in Four Hours” — students made foods from different cultures, presented them to the rest of the group and got to eat everything while watching a movie about Africa. My group made Alfajores, which is a caramel cookie made in Spain.

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Made in China

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Field trip to the California Science Center! Checking out infrared light

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Looking at the exhibits

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Just for clarification — he wasn’t looking at the fish, he was yelling at them to scare them

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Oh — and we made piñatas that the kids will break open next week

Finding beauty in Watts: Cinco de Mayo

A majority of the population in Watts now is Latino. Therefore, Cinco de Mayo is widely celebrated among our students. On Saturday, I ventured out to Markham with a couple of other teammates for an event a couple of teachers hosted at our school. The turnout was decent and the decorations were so vibrant. Students and families could play games and win tickets for Mexican food and drinks. There was also a student dance and singing performance. I had a great day and so did my teammates! I love experiencing a culture different from my own (hi, Peace Corps!)

20120508-123046.jpgMarkham students before they perform a traditional dance

20120509-120821.jpgBringing families together to celebrate

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Markham students celebrate the end of the carnival by dancing on stage together

Finding the beauty in Watts: community matters

One of my co-workers, who works at the feeder elementary school to Markham, has a 3rd grade student in her class who recently lost her 22-year-old brother. The student’s brother, Arturo, was shot by sheriffs eight times in the back. The LA Times hasn’t reported much, which isn’t surprising because South LA, especially Watts, is neglected in mainstream media.

On Sunday, my teammate Charlotte and I ventured out to Watts to meet one of my students at his dad’s street carnitas cart (if you are wondering what carnitas are, they’re pig stomach. And yes, I ate it; I’m preparing myself for all the odd things I will have to eat in the Peace Corps).

My student gave us a tour around his part of the neighborhood and his elementary school, which brought us to stumble upon a car wash and a quesadilla sale for Arturo’s family. We got my car washed and talked to Arturo’s family (and even saw some Markham students!)

I talked to his cousin for a little, giving my condolences and expressing my frustration with the situation too. Even if Arturo may have possessed a gun (as mentioned in the LAT article) and ran from the sheriffs, but if he didn’t aim it at them, does that really call for being shot in the back multiple times until he drops dead? Does anyone deserve that? Isn’t authority only supposed to shoot only if a suspect aims at them? The weird part about this whole story too is that Watts is under Los Angeles Police Department jurisdiction, not the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department. I hate how unjust society can be. I don’t even care if he was part of a gang or not; we’re all humans.

With that said, what gets to me the most about any community violence like this is that a City Year student – whether he or she attends one of the two elementary schools in the area or Markham – is always affected by it. My co-worker’s 3rd grade student lost her big brother. Can you even imagine dealing with something like this at that age?

“We can’t get sad about this kind of stuff. We have to just celebrate the time he was part of our lives.” -Arturo’s cousin

This community sees incidents like this on the regular. Although sometimes it does ignite more gang violence and revenge, most of the time there are humble people like this family. They are still proud of who they are and who they’ve known in their family – dead or alive. They come together for a common purpose. And that’s the beauty of Watts.

I’ve found out that Arturo was an uncle of one of the 8th grade Markham students we know. He said they raised A LOT of money selling quesadillas and washing cars Friday-Sunday for the memorial service. Not only did Arturo have a 3rd grade baby sister, but he also had a two month old son. The student said the Sheriffs Department has to pay for half of the funeral and the family plans to sue for justice.

“No amount of money will bring him back.” -Markham student

Breaks my heart.

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20120311-211206.jpg The Lizana Banana getting so fresh ‘n so clean by the Jordan Downs Housing Projects

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