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Youths, Political Leaders Gather for City Year


Indranath Neogy--The Tech
Youths engage in morning exercises as part of City Year's national convention on campus two weeks ago. Participants stayed at MIT for a week while performing public service in the Boston area.

By Orli G. Bahcall
and Shawdee Eshghi
Staff ReporterS

Two weeks ago, it was impossible to miss the 600 people, clad in red, khaki and white uniforms, swarming around campus. These people were members of City Year, a full-time national service program, and they were attending City Year's annual Cyzygy convention, held at MITthis year from June 12 to 15.

The term cyzygy comes from the ancient Greek word syzygy, which was a rare moment when celestial bodies aligned in the heavens in a great release of energy.

To the founders of City Year, cyzygy is an alignment of idealistic people from across the nation to celebrate the power of national service at a "convention of idealism."

Many distinguished speakers were also featured throughout the convention, including retiring Sen. Bill Bradley, D.-N.J.; Reverend Bernice King, advocate for youth and daughter of Martin Luther King Jr.; and Shen Tong, a key organizer of the Tiananmen Square demonstration. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., also was on hand to lead calisthenics for one morning.

Event benefitted local community

The convention was officially kicked off with a rousing opening ceremony at the Wilbur Theater in Boston. In accord with the spirit of City Year, the corps members split up into smaller groups and headed into surrounding communities for a "Day of Service."

The various service opportunities included building a new playground for an elementary school in Charlestown, cleaning up and landscaping the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, transforming a crack house into a teen center in Dorchester, and holding a kids festival focusing on service and cultural awareness in Roxbury.

"I really enjoyed the Day of Service," said Lisa Peffer, 22, City Year corps member from Cleveland, who served in St. Louis this past year. "It really showed me, once again, how much of a difference a group can really make."

"Over the past year, I've learned that the best way to teach something is through involvement and interaction," she said.

Members devote a year of service

City Year, a part of the Americorps national service network, was founded in Boston in 1988 by Micheal Brown and Alan Khazei, both Harvard undergraduates at the time. Today there are corps in Chicago, Columbia, Columbus, Providence, San Antonio, and San Jose, with a new program in Cleveland starting this fall.

Corps members are between 18 and 23 years of age and represent a broad slice of the socioeconomic pie. They are selected to serve a particular city for 10 months, working a minimum of 45 hours a week.

The convention starts each day at 8:15 a.m., following rigorous calisthenics called "P.T.," or "Power Tool," a rousing public demonstration of spirit, discipline, purpose and pride.

While the official duties end at 5:30 p.m., "City Year is really what you make of it," according to 19 year old City Year Boston corps member Beth Schwarting.

City Year corps take on such tasks as teaching HIV/AIDS awareness and violence prevention, renewing urban green spaces, rehabilitating affordable housing, and improving community centers.

Corps members have also taken on Young Heroes, a service corps of seventh and eighth graders with 450 participants nationwide.

"City Year has been the most positive influence in my life. The experiences that I've had and the things that I have learned have really changed my life," said Ignacio Gomez, 19, a corps member from San Jose.

MIT serves as leading example

City Year "affords an opportunity for youth in all areas of life... to be a part of a positive influence in society," said Robert Lewis Jr., executive director of Boston City Year.

Lewis, having grown up in Boston and being what he calls "a product of Boston", recalls growing up surrounded by crime and violence.

The location of the conference is particularly appropriate, as MIT is "an institution that is civically engaged, and very supportive of youth and leadership," Lewis said.

Boston is also the site of the first corps in 1988, and represents City Year's,"longest ties to neighborhoods in private sectors."

This campus "afforded the opportunity for us to be at a smaller university [as a] whole network... engaged and surrounded by each other," Lewis said.

MIT has "always opened up its space to house us" and is generally very receptive to requests, he said.

Boston City Year has worked on mutual programs throughout the year with MIT's urban studies development project.