As the year comes to an end…by Ben Weinstein
As the 2012-2013 VISTA year comes to a close, generationOn VISTAs are still plugging away at a seemingly insurmountable task- how to convince the dedicated education professionals at our school to take service-learning seriously. And although we feel strongly that “convince” is a term we should not have to employ, along with “coax,” “prove to,” and “demonstrate,” it has come to preempt our supposed job of “training” school staff to adopt this appropriate model for education in the modern world. Maybe we’re doing something wrong.
The toughest part of our job isn’t living on an outdated government allowance, and it isn’t commuting daily between our office and our school – where we don’t even have a desk of our own – while simultaneously working on directives from VISTA, POL, generationOn, and our school. No, sadly the toughest part of our job is working in a school environment that can’t seem to keep up with its own students or staff, let alone provide us with the support that we need to succeed in our duties.
We lament the fact that if only the administration saw our initiatives as ways to address the root causes of bad behavior, student disinterest, and teacher apathy, we would undoubtedly have a clear path to providing the kind of training laid out in our VADs. If only the administration would give us its full-throat support, backed in part by mandatory trials of service-learning intervention and sincere gratitude for all we are doing, we wouldn’t have to waste time proving service-learning’s value. As it is, we often operate under the radar without the authority to command anything but pitied cooperation from teachers and parents. Throughout the year, I would sometimes feel like a frustrated parent telling his child “one day when you’re older, you’ll understand.” Unfortunately, a parent’s wisdom is never cool. And while parents have the authority that comes with respect and age, many VISTAs do not hold these badges.
Now, before you get all depressed, I should probably talk about all the good times. I remember the days when our program was full of possibility, because I still have these days. We connected with local organizations, planting the seeds of partnership; we provided teachers with curriculum to do service-learning; we planned and executed a holiday campaign that included 40/41 classrooms in service; we created a two-year framework for curriculum, professional development, and parent involvement in service-learning; we ran generationOn’s largest ever MLK Day of Service with 8 brand new projects and over 900 volunteer leaders and family members; we initiated and campaigned for $450,000 in new technology for nine District 11 schools, including 30 new Macbooks for our own school; we created our school’s first Student Council, as a precursor to the Community Advisory Council; we initiated the school’s first Day of Service around recycling and school beautification, complete with classroom service projects and curriculum, student leadership, community partners, and parent volunteers; and we are currently building a toolkit for school-wide service-learning implementation based on our experience in a “receptive” school environment. Not to mention various other tasks we have done for our host site.
All of what we have accomplished is not for nothing. Some of our work may not be replicated by next year’s VISTAs, but much of it will carry over into year two. We are already planning with the school’s Principal to make improvements to our major successes, like professional development, school-wide service days/campaigns, and student leadership. The obstacle to which we keep returning, however, is how to pass on the responsibilities of three full-time VISTAs to a school already flush with programming, and seemingly unwilling to consider service-learning as the panacea that we imagine it as. So I ask again- even in light of our successes, are we doing something wrong?
I have made the “yes” argument. We should not be coercing a school, however gently, just because we have a relationship with them. We should not engage in piloting a program before we have accrued raw data from willing and complicit focus groups, classes, teachers, administrators, etc. Especially as comparatively inexperienced workers in the fields of public education and program management, we should not be going for such a momentous project.
I have made the “no” argument. We are not, in fact, implementing something so far-fetched. Some teachers, students, administrators, parents, and community agents have taken to our program. We have had incredible success, despite the low levels of buy-in from our school. This year has served as experience for us as individuals, and for our organization in their bid to effect policy on a small scale, not to mention the year’s service as a solid “foot in the door.” There is potential for giant growth next year, and it will be on our shoulders.
Which statement is truer?
I think every VISTA grapples with this conundrum, and probably multiple times throughout the year. I am proud of our (and my own) accomplishments, but I have by no means reached a point of comfort with my service, and I’m nervous about how I can possibly feel good walking away from this position. Will I have left enough, and will it be up to par? Will anything have mattered by the end of year two? (Oh and by the way, will I have a job come August 24th?) To be sure, there are a lot of open-ended questions.
When I try to boil all of this down into a single, coherent, snugly, smile-inducing thought about how we all tried our best, and how we made a difference in the lives of many, I can’t. I can’t definitively answer my own questions. I can’t pat myself on the back, and I shouldn’t. And you shouldn’t either. The blunt fact is that none of us have done nearly enough. And what we have done, we can do better. I am not happy with my work, and I’m certainly not going to walk away from this desk feeling good about the world I live in. The reason is scale.
One year of fighting the good fight isn’t a cure-all. It is a crumb, a penny on the ground. One year of 110% poverty-level wages is unarguably a difficult and worthy sacrifice. But one year of pushing yourself to improve your community isn’t a gold medal. It isn’t a prize. It isn’t a solution- it isn’t even a band-aid on the problem, whatever the problem is that you are addressing. The pennies add up slowly.
The problems we all face are still to come, and the horizon they are on is approaching with increasing pace. If this year was anything for me, it was a lesson on how to wake up and face the next day. I choose to view my work as a question, the answer to which is “yes, and…” I learned this from an improv class I took in college where the strategy was to accept whatever idea was presented to you and to run with it. I know, it doesn’t seem relevant, but if you want to see communities improve and grow, I suggest adopting this view. It doesn’t minimize the value of our successes; it heightens awareness, and extends possibility. Our work may have astonishing impact one day, and fall flat the next. But is it our own faults, the faults of our constituents, or the fault of the system within which we work? And now back to the real question: are we doing something wrong? Yes, and…