Why I Serve

Below is the prepared text of a speech I delivered today at a City Year Philadelphia community meeting. The speech’s prompt instructed me to describe “the ideas, experiences, and perspectives that inform your decision to wake up every day and serve the students of Philadelphia at City Year.”

I serve for the worst reason possible. I serve for myself. I serve because otherwise, I could not get out of bed in the morning. Because I am worthless without it. Because I can’t recall life any other way. Because service brings me closer to humanity’s eminent glow. Because service has been hard-coded into my DNA, brought me out of my deepest despair, enables me to feel the nirvana of a child’s understanding gasp, the bliss of a hungry family grabbing their own food, the excitement of converting hardened cynicism into the motivation to power through. I serve amongst you wonderful people because service keeps me alive.

Serving keeps me from screaming at this world we have created for ourselves to live in. The great James Baldwin once said “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” What then to be a young black and Puerto Rican kid growing up broke, wondering if my skin or my desires or my clothing will be what gets me killed? Wondering what could bring Trayvon to die just an hour from me and my father to tell me “when I heard about him I thought of you.” Staring at a country which has never been true to what it said on paper and asking myself what am I to do about it. So I serve, because to know what I know and feel what I have felt and do nothing about it would be a spiritual death greater than any sacrifice I can imagine.

But I also serve for others. For my dropout sister and the illiterate graduate from my high school. I serve for Mike Brown and Kalief Browder, for Sandra Bland and Carole Robinson, for all those souls destroyed by oppressive forces bigger than themselves. Recognition that the education system is not broken in this country, it is running as designed pushes me to stand in a gap which ought not exist. A society which purposefully neglects its children fails its most basic obligation, and I refuse to ignore the young people around me.

Luckily, I am not alone. At Bethune I serve with incredible people like Bailey, who overcomes a language barrier with one of her students and fought to keep going even when he was moved into my class. Center fielders like Mike who deal with students trying to run through the City Year office, enabling the rest of us to have productive interventions. The amazing 5th and 6th grade teams who are their students’ brightest stars each day, guiding their classes towards excellence despite the energy and rambunctious nature of those kids. Working closely with Shannel, Lauren, and Khij has brought about the invigorating literary club and SEL initiative which are giving our students the extracurricular support they need. We all work in tandem each day to have each others’ backs and make sure our students are getting the absolute best from us. Those students deserve it, even if the culture around us denies it emphatically.

You see, 63 years after the Supreme Court unanimously found that “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” our city’s schools never seem to have gotten word. Money made off of poor laborers is stolen away from their children’s schools by the wealthy. Students rumble through the system until they’re old enough to repeat the cycle anew. We know what happens to a dream deferred. We serve to see that our students never explode.

Devotion to the common welfare. Ubuntu. A more perfect union. They’re more than trite ideas or boilerplate phrases. They animate me to create a better future, one day at a time, one student at a time, until I can rest knowing I did my part to honor those before and after me who deserve the comfort of a just world.

Special thanks to Karly Pulcinella, who helped me practice and edit the speech, as well as Ridge Community High School’s Sigma Alpha Sigma chapter and the Stetson University Bonner Program for making service the backbone of my life.

The opinions expressed above entirely my own and do not reflect the views of any other entity.

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