Civic Work, Civic Lessons: Two Generations Reflect on Public Service
Stanford Professor Thomas Ehrlich and student Ernestine Fu co-authored a new book, “Civic Work, Civic Lessons: Two Generations Reflect on Public Service.” Thomas Ehrlich was a member of the boards of both the Commission on National and Community Service and the Corporation on National and Community Service, and served as chair of the Commission as well. He also has held positions in the administrations of four presidents. Ernestine Fu founded a nonprofit organization to bring music to those in need and is an active supporter of social entrepreneurs. They are 57 years apart in age, but share a passion for public service. Drawing on the experiences of the co-authors and many other young people whom they interviewed, the book tells why and how young people and their advisors should engage in public service. One of the stories features AmeriCorps member Shaun Randolph, who served as a youth director at Central City Community Outreach and mentored a group of at-risk, homeless youth at Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. Below is a book excerpt with his story. The website for the book is www.civicbook.org.
Two weeks before the start of his senior year at Liberty University, Shaun decided to sign on with AmeriCorps, a U.S. federal government program that encourages members to engage in direct public service. Coincidentally, my co-author, Tom, was chairman of the Commission that started AmeriCorps and was for many years a member of the board of the successor organization, the Corporation for National and Community Service. Shaun joined AmeriCorps because he had discovered the stark difference between studying theories of social change and experiencing that change firsthand through service to others.
When Shaun packed his bags for Los Angeles, he expected that the experience would last just a year, after which he would return to Liberty University as a hero who proved his worth by working in “big bad Los Angeles.” But things turned out quite differently. During his time in Los Angeles, Shaun received a powerful education in how children in poverty manage to survive. His job was to oversee an after-school program in downtown Los Angeles for homeless, at-risk children in the sixth through twelfth grade. What he initially viewed as a resume-boosting job—really no more than a short gig—soon became a passion, and Shaun extended his time in AmeriCorps from a single year commitment to two full years. “If you want to make a difference in the lives of youth at the Center, you need to be there through the good and the bad,” Shaun confided, “You have to earn their trust.”
Coming to understand the children he worked with and winning them over was far from easy. Shaun told me of an eleven-year-old girl, whom he called “Sandra” (not her real name), the self-appointed “boss” of all the youth with whom he was trying to work. Sandra strove to make Shaun’s job as difficult as possible. She, her two sisters, and two cousins in the program all stuck together and had a potent influence on the other students. In effect, they were running the entire program when Shaun arrived. Shaun knew that Sandra and her “posse” would be the key to whether his job would be easy or hard, enjoyable or frustrating, meaningful or futile. He had to win their trust.
A game he created called “Spotlight” became the means to gaining that trust. When he told the youth about Spotlight during his second week on the job, their eyes lit up: every week, a staff member would sit on a chair, and answer any question the students asked. Even though the students regularly met with the staff, they had never really gotten to know them in the past. Spotlight changed that completely.
Shaun was the first in the hot seat. Casually strolling over to the metal folding chair, Shaun braced himself. The thirty kids, all youth of color, living in missions or transitional housing in harsh parts of downtown, were known for their tough attitudes. They were ready to embarrass Shaun, or even make him break down.
“How many girlfriends have you had?” Sandra asked. The others then bombarded Shaun with questions ranging from his love interests to challenges he had struggled with and problems that most worried him. “What are you most afraid of?” “When was the last time you cried?” “How many girls have rejected you?” Shaun answered every question as truthfully as he possibly could, and at the end of each response, he reiterated one message, “It’s okay to be transparent.”
Shaun stressed that one thing everyone has in common is some understanding of pain. Although Shaun was never homeless, and he did not grow up in urban Los Angeles, he understood pain. “If we are honest about what we have been through, we can help each other heal,” he said. Although the kids at first got some kicks by trying to embarrass Shaun, what started out as a hostile attempt to tear him down turned into respect and trust. The students were impressed by how truthfully Shaun responded when asked about topics that adults typically dismissed as inappropriate.
Sandra had recognized this as she sat in the middle of the group, and she felt threatened. “Let’s all get this straight,” she fired, “You’ve had some impressive answers, I guess. But at end of day, you just want us to like you, and then in a year you can go back to wherever you came from, right?”
Shaun couldn’t answer. That was the way the AmeriCorps program worked. At a loss for what else to say, Shaun retorted, “If I had the opportunity to stay, I would.” This offhand comment turned into a promise Shaun kept. He extended his stay at the center for an extra year, and still revisits the youth. When Shaun shared this and other experiences with me, I marveled at his openness. I came to realize that this is the way interactions with those you are trying to help should be.
Great mentors are open to sharing mistakes and failures, as these are often how we learn our most important lessons. Shaun was a wonderful example of this openness in dealing with the kids he mentored by becoming aware of the mistakes he had made, and not being afraid to admit them to others.
(Civic Work, Civic Lessons, Lesson 1, pp. 14-16)