As I got in the car to drive to Washington, D.C., for the SHECP Opening Conference, my dad gave me a hug and whispered, “Leave it better than you found it.” A common motto in our house, this phrase has grown from its original meaning of tidiness in my childhood bedroom.
He knew I was nervous about my summer internship at Harlem Children’s Zone, in New York. I had never lived anywhere larger than Louisville, Kentucky, and he knew I was nervous about working in a field I had no experience in — teaching.
His words of encouragement, meant to show me his pride in my capabilities, made the knots in my stomach tighten. In this case, the sentence summed up some of my biggest fears about my upcoming summer — that I would not be able to meet this expectation.
However, this came with an unspoken expectation of “fixing” the situations in which we were placed. We had been chosen to live and work in a community different than our own, and it’s easy to assume that we should be able to use our gifts to improve it. The challenge lay in ensuring that we were there for the reason we had begun with, to learn. Thankfully, this summer taught me that the willingness to learn is the first step to impacting any community.
Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) relies on the ideal I learned early on from my father — to leave the community of Harlem better than it was found. The organization stretches over several blocks and includes two Promise Academies, multiple after-school sites, and other programs such as Healthy Harlem, and classes for new parents that work to build up families from every aspect.
They encourage classroom retention rates by providing stipends to students. These stipends depend on their participation and attendance in the classroom. For example, if students missed one day of class, their stipend was docked a certain amount. To receive the entire stipend, the student must be present, both physically and mentally, each day.
Because of this and many other factors, HCZ’s presence is felt in every corner. Students with HCZ backpacks, moms with HCZ tote bags, the incredible Peace March they put on every year for the community — it is clear that the organization has found the second step to leaving an area better than you found it, by asking the communities what they need.
As an intern for the Writing Corps group of Harlem Children’s Zone, my coworkers showed me how important it is to ask, not assume. I found out incredibly quickly that students had a block against writing. The Writing Corps works to take down this wall one brick at a time by providing classes that are both interactive and purposeful.
This summer, two camps were offered for tenth and eleventh graders, each lasting two weeks. We had four classes: TV Writer’s Room; Live and Direct Journalism; 16 Bars and Lyricism; and Magic, Myths, and Mysticism. Each of these courses was meticulously scaffolded to provide small opportunities to write each day, adding up to a finished product at the end of the two weeks.
The keystone of this was the focus on asking students what they wanted to write about. While this seems obvious, it improved classroom mood tremendously. Students were able to write about their passions. If they wanted to write about Cardi B’s pregnancy and its effect on women in the media, they could. If they wanted to write about the changes to the immigration policies at the border, we encouraged them. If they wanted to write about sneaker choices and how fashion impacted communities, that was fantastic.
My coworkers were artists in these fields themselves. Anik, who taught the Lyricism class, had just finished a tour for his new album. Alex, an instructor of TV Writer’s Room, had just finished writing a script for the pilot of a new television show. They had realized how important it was to encourage following one’s passion, how imperative encouragement is for growth. For me, it was their intense passion to work against current structures that were obstacles for children in the Harlem area that made my summer the incredible experience it was.
The impact was tangible. Students would write in the lyricism class, go home, and turn the bars into a song on Sound Cloud that night. In the journalism class, students learned to ask questions about their interests to local journalists that came to speak to the class. One student remarked that she had been especially hesitant to interview others on her topic, but soon found it extremely fun and didn’t want to stop.
Not only were students learning marketable skills, they were learning that writing isn’t the worst thing in the world. One sentence at a time, HCZ was building confidence… and résumés!
Needless to say, I was incredibly overwhelmed by the thought that I would be more of a burden than able to improve the organization in any way. It was not until halfway through my summer when I realized that the pressure of trying to make a large difference in HCZ was unreasonable.
Writing Corps had been working for many years and making an incredible difference in their community. Each of the instructors had close relationships with students. They knew which students worked late and would be tired during class, who had siblings or friends in other classes, and which ones would need an extra push to write. Coming in for only a summer, I was not expected to leave a huge impact, I was expected to learn.
And I did. I was offered a glimpse into the obstacles and successes seen by an organization attempting to alleviate poverty through education. I was able to see how complex the impact of time in the classroom is, and how easily it can be affected by every other aspect of life.
There was one day when students were being unusually unresponsive and apathetic. Confused, the instructors continued to push through the curriculum, albeit hesitantly. Soon, one of the advocates (an adult placed in the classroom to assist the instructors) realized the problem and pulled many students from the room. As the instructors soon learned, the students hadn’t eaten lunch yet, so they were sitting in a classroom attempting to learn all new material, on empty stomachs.
It was instances like these that that forced me to realize how pervasive poverty is. Up to this point, I had relied on education as an answer of sorts, believing that if education was more available and more fair to all students, results would be different. I had not been able to comprehend the multiplicity of aspects that go into a successful education.
Simply “leaving it better than you found it” has a lot of complications. I had entered the summer terrified of not making an impact, but HCZ taught me that to do so, you have to have a longing to learn and a propensity to ask. You need a passionate group of hard working individuals who are determined to do so. Harlem Children’s Zone has these people, and it was an incredible honor to work with them this summer.
Editorial Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty.