What working for City Year taught me

January 7, 2019

Jordan Makant began working as a City Year AmeriCorps member in July 2018. After months of noting ethical issues — in particular, poverty wages and benefits, the way City Year teachers were expected to behave to promote the program and how students were shortchanged in the neoliberal drive to privatize education — he quit on November 2. Makant wrote the following article in an attempt to tell the truth about City Year and expose the AmeriCorps’ corporate trap.

I APPLIED for an AmeriCorps position at City Year in March 2018. A few months later, in early July, I moved more than 800 miles to serve my country.

To say that I was excited is an understatement — I knew that what I was doing was good, right, valuable, true. I knew that I was going to make positive change a reality for those less fortunate than I, and I knew that I was going to learn how to become a more effective voice for change.

What I did not know was the cynical, exploitative reality I was about to experience. What I did not know was that I was moving more than eight hundred miles for a lie.

Before I go further, let me first say two things:

City Year employees attend an AmeriCorps meeting in Boston
City Year employees attend an AmeriCorps meeting in Boston (Elliot Haney | flickr)

One, in case you are unfamiliar, City Year is a nonprofit organization with chapters in 29 different cities in the U.S. and three international chapters. Its purported aim is to close the gap between what students need and what schools have the resources to provide.

City Year’s mission is to “build democracy through citizen service, civic leadership and social entrepreneurship,” and its vision is that “one day the most commonly asked question of a young person will be ‘Where are you going to do your service year?’” It is part of the wider AmeriCorps network, which is, at its core, essentially a domestic form of the Peace Corps.

Two, when I first began training with City Year, I was in awe. Quotes from Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa were painted in bright colors on the wall. The values of the company — things like ubuntu (“humanity toward others”) and “students first, collaboration always,” PITWs (Putting Idealism to Work) and short statements like “We must always remember the human aspect of what we are doing” — were routinely referred to.

I was thrilled to be working for a company that was actually “woke.” I was so happy to be working toward something so much bigger than myself.

DESPITE MY initial feelings of positivity toward City Year and AmeriCorps, reality quickly began to set in.

The primary benefits of service with City Year are health insurance and “eligibility for food stamps,” with secondary benefits (for my particular site, at least) including things like coupons for public transportation and discounts for city bikes.

While it is nice for a company to help its workers figure out their means of transportation, it is ever more surprising to me that “eligibility for food stamps” is a benefit anyone can point to with a straight face. Claiming that as a benefit of a job is a thinly veiled way of saying, “Listen, you’re not going to get paid enough to afford food, but at least that means you’ll be eligible for food stamps, right?” What a benefit!

Even if one accepts food stamps as a “benefit,” City Year members are not paid a fair wage.

City Year members work upwards of 50 hours per week for a stipend that results in earning around $5 per hour. Putting aside the fact that the minimum wage is itself not a livable wage in most places, less than the minimum wage is self-evidently not livable. No number of public transportation coupons changes the reality that rent is simply too high to be working 50-plus hours per week for $5 an hour.

City Year adds insult to injury by having a corporate culture that insists on the importance of “self-care” and mental health. Now, do not misunderstand: I am forever and always in support of corporations acknowledging the importance of mental health care. But acknowledgement and active support are two vastly different things, and City Year can only honestly claim the former.

While an AmeriCorps member at City Year, I was consistently preached at about the importance of self-care, but I was never given any actual tools to take care of myself. Even if a therapist would have taken AmeriCorps health insurance, City Year provided zero time in which I could have scheduled such a regular meeting.

The closest thing to mental health support City Year sent out was a three-month coupon for TalkSpace, a sort of virtual therapist office where one can text or FaceTime a therapist. Beyond that and the phone-exclusive Employee Assistance Program, the only mental health care advice I ever got at City Year was to buy more wine.

Perhaps the most jarring reality was the dichotomy of being told to have a work-life balance and being told that we are always representations of City Year.

A consistent focus of trainings was not how to help students succeed, but to remind us again and again that this was our job, and that our job required dedication. Proper dedication involved understanding ourselves not so much as individuals who worked at City Year, but City Years who happened to be individuals.

A City Year in uniform does not curse, does not spit, does not chew gum, does not cross the road anywhere there is not a crosswalk. A City Year in uniform is always ready to discuss City Year and its sponsors. A City Year in uniform is always ready to recite the City Year pledge. A City Year in uniform is not a person who works at City Year, but rather, a City Year who may or may not have a personal life.

This sort of military-lite exercise in groupthink went along nicely with the increasingly obvious reality that we were marketing material for future corps members and potential sponsors.

When acknowledging to a supervisor that we were forced to wear obnoxious uniforms for the purposes of groupthink and easy marketing, I was told to be thankful that at least we were no longer required to ride the bus to work, “because we used to have to do that, and back then it was a fireable offence to wear earbuds on the bus, too, because you always had to be ready to talk about City Year.”

BUT THERE is a much larger issue with City Year than my relatively mild complaints about uniformity and marketing practices, and that is the institutional reality of City Year itself.

In order to pursue its mission, City Year must garner and maintain financial support. AmeriCorps covers some of that, but the rest is through private corporations and individual sponsors.

City Year does not hide its sponsors — rather, they are extremely proud of being sponsored by corporations like Comcast, Microsoft, Bain Capital and Northwestern Mutual. They see no issue in being supported by ridiculously unethical organizations, since they believe that what they are doing is ethical. Robbing the rich and giving to the poor, perhaps?

Unfortunately, no. Because City Year is not just some small organization that subverts the finances of the elite. City Year was founded by the same person who, along with Bill Clinton, helped create AmeriCorps itself. And CEO Michael Brown does not believe in robbing the rich to give to the poor, or else he would get a few less zeroes at the end of his annual salary amount.

My point is this: City Year as an individual organization, AmeriCorps as a network of organizations, and the Corporation for National and Community Service are all representations/manifestations of a system attempting to appear to solve a problem that the system itself created.

Further, this system is attempting to appear to solve a problem it created on its own terms. It isn’t interested in listening to the terms of others, because it doesn’t cater to those needs.

The institution doesn’t want to listen to the common folk because the institution doesn’t care about the common folk. The institution cares about appealing to the vaguely philanthropic whims of the elite, and City Year plays that role well. In my time there, we made several rich white people very happy with our “dedication” and “sacrifice.”

Institutions in our country hold no interest in attempting to actually solve problems because that would require a fundamental restructuring of those very institutions. In order for City Year to do its job well, it would need to find ways to subvert the financial support it garners from the likes of Comcast, the PepsiCo Foundation and Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital.

Failing that, they would need to find a new way to acquire the funds needed to do the job. Failing that, they would need to have an honest conversation with themselves about the nature of our institutions. If they did so, I hope they would realize that the privatization of education is not something they actually want. It is not the way forward.

The students City Year serves are already painted into a corner by a grossly capitalist society telling them again and again and again that consumerism is the only thing that makes them valuable, while at the same time, they are faced with the reality of their lack of ability to engage such a capitalist society. And the sponsor listed below my nametag serves to further this subliminal messaging, this brainwashing.

A child’s education should not be sponsored by a baseball team, or by a bank or even by a nonprofit corporation that continuously takes money from the very same people who donate still more money to private education initiatives. Education should be an inalienable right.

But despite the truly wonderful intentions of so many of my former co-workers and management, City Year serves as a stepping stone toward the complete erasure of the already destabilized public education system.

If the goal of City Year is to bridge the gap between what students need and what schools have the resources to provide, perhaps the answer should be helping schools build their own bridges, not building a toll bridge and calling that “service.”

IT HAS been pointed out to me that private sponsors have no interest in funding public schools directly. As a cofounder of a 501(c)3 arts organization whose explicit purpose is to raise money for the arts in public schools, I understand the reality within which City Year exists and operates.

Private sponsors do not want to fund public education. I get that. Must the response be to simply accept their position? Can we truly do nothing to change the ways in which we operate within the capitalist framework?

When I began raising my voice to critique City Year within the so-called “proper channels,” I was consistently told that unless I had a plan on how to fix things, my critiques were (at least mostly) invalid.

But I did have a plan. I still do.

City Year and AmeriCorps must acknowledge the fundamental reality that they are manifestations of the system that built the broken system they are now trying to fix. They must find ways to resist the capitalist framework — there are myriad ways to do so while maintaining effectiveness and efficiency.

They must not allow the continued turn toward privatization and corporatism. They must stop claiming their nonpartisan status. They must stop pretending to be wildly, radically idealistic organizations.

As I said to a supervisor a few days before I announced my departure, City Year is like a union that hates unions. An organization cannot be pro-student or pro-equality while being anti-worker. An organization cannot be healthy while gaslighting its workers.

But that is precisely what City Year requires in order to function like the “social capitalist” corporation it claims to be.

In my final semester as an undergrad, I had the opportunity to study Hannah Arendt. I found myself enthralled by her writing on the banality of evil. City Year and AmeriCorps remind me of that writing.

AmeriCorps takes genuinely idealistic young people and puts them in positions where they will be too tired to do anything but continue, trusting in the system to fix the problems they can see exist, but have no power over. And if they notice the ethical issues of their own positions, they can shrug their shoulders and go back to work because, well, somebody has to do it, right?

THE PEOPLE I met serving 608 hours with City Year are some of the hardest-working people I have ever met in my life. They are good people, and I am not interested in assigning blame to any of my former co-workers, nor toward my former management.

I am interested only in assigning blame to the institutions that hold back so many in the name of a “progress” that the institution alone defines. I am interested in assigning blame to the people who designed the toll bridge, not the poor souls tasked with maintaining it. I am interested in assigning blame to the institutions that betray the people they ought to serve.

I felt my positive impact at City Year. I will never forget the strides some of my students made. My partner teacher still sends me updates, letting me know that some of them have gotten better at note-taking and test-taking due to the strategies I was able to teach. The positives are real. And for some, that is enough.

But it doesn’t alter the reality that City Year and AmeriCorps are guilty of the continued exploitation of ideology and labor. It doesn’t alter the reality that City Year and AmeriCorps sacrifice ethics in the name of working within the capitalist system. It doesn’t alter the reality that City Year and AmeriCorps are release valves that allow just enough change to occur so that we don’t feel the urgency we might otherwise feel.

Change is slow, I have been told over and over, again and again. But I will say to you, dear reader, the same thing I began saying in response to City Year management: It doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t have to be.

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