Dear Exhausted-But-Diligent Democracy Coach,
I know. I get it.
I remember waking up in a dark room, rising before the sun did. My roommate groaning at my blaring alarm, crawling deeper under his covers as I eat my Cinnamon Toast Crunch and review the day’s lesson plan. My eyes mere slits until I get my $1 coffee downstairs, lugging my backpack full of Generation Citizen materials and my mountain of readings for class through the subway—you know, because I have class, on campus, in Manhattan, 25 minutes after my GC class in Queens gets out, which is about 40 minutes away. Fighting onto the subway car against businesspeople on their way to Midtown and workers on their way to the city limits. Cramming in with what feels like all of New York City, holding my papers 6 inches from my face, trying to use the train ride to prepare for both classes—the one I teach, and the one in which I learn. The orange sun climbing over the skyscrapers as I ride across the Queensboro Bridge, spilling in through the windows and finally waking me up a little. Watching the view transform from the majestic steel of Manhattan to the dim, sagging brick buildings of the Queensbridge Housing Projects—trees with no leaves, streets with no people, cars with no doors, wheels, or license plates propped up on cinderblocks. I remember getting off the train and walking down stairs to the street—in and of itself a symbol of foreign land—to see garbage blowing up and down the street without a trash can in sight. I remember panicking about making it to class after GC. I remember panicking about being unprepared to lead a class. What if I run out of things to say? What if they don’t listen? What if they don’t care?! I remember feeling very exhausted before class even started. Feeling worn down. Feeling disenchanted.
But more than any other thing, I remember the students of I.S. 204 Oliver Holmes Middle School. I remember Jose, Mohammed, Gustavo, Tajreen, and Michael.
And – they remember me. A year later when I went to Brooklyn Technical High School to observe a Generation Citizen class, a big round face lit up across the room and moved toward me too fast to recognize. Mohammed exclaimed, “Mr. Lombardi! What are you doing here? Are you here for GC? They have GC in this school?!” Yes, I replied. We caught up, and I was glad to hear that he and many of his classmates from our GC class were doing very well throughout the city’s high schools. “I loved GC. I didn’t know they had it here! I hope we get to do it again,” he told me. Then he thanked me.
Almost a year after seeing Mohammed at Brooklyn Tech, I accepted a position with Generation Citizen in Boston and wrote this. A day later, I received an email [sic]:
“Hey Mr. Lombardi it’s Michael from I.S 204 last/two years ago. It has definitely been a while haha. I was wondering how it’s been going? I was going through my old papers the other day when I found some Generation Citizen papers, so I went to the website to see how it is and you seem to have moved up the ranks.
I finished my first year of high school in Brooklyn Tech and everything went well. I heard that Mohammed saw you a while ago in Brooklyn Tech. Was that actually you? I am having a great Summer as I am finishing up an internship tomorrow.
What do you do as the Program Associate in Generation Citizen?
Do you still work with I.S 204?
I don’t think that I have ever thanked you really for participating and going to 204. I appreciate that you opened my classmates’ eyes and views. It was really cool and fun getting to know you. Thank you Mr. Lombardi.
I still remember wiping sweat from my forehead while sprinting up the subway stairs on the way back to Manhattan, a bag of books knifing my lower back. Walking out into the cold of February, feeling defeated after a class where no one listened, and no one seemed to care. Asking myself why I didn’t just sleep in this morning, and let the sun wake me up like my roommate does. Wanting to call out. Wanting to skip the chapter meetings. Frankly, at times, even wanting to quit.
But for some reason, Michael’s email alone makes it all worth it. Mohammed running up to me makes it worth it. Seeing my students nervous, jittery, reciting their lines on the train to Civics Day makes it worth it. Meeting peers who believe in the disenfranchised youth of our cities having a voice in America’s political realm makes chugging all that $1 coffee while jammed onto the Q train at 7 in the morning worth it. Gaining confidence in myself to lead a large group of young people makes it worth it. Learning the true importance of being punctual, prepared, and accountable makes it worth it. Learning how to organize a community, learning how to advocate for change, and learning the innards of local politics all makes it worth it for me.
Of all this, though, Michael and Mohammed make it worth it for me. Believe it or not Exhausted-But-Diligent Democracy Coach, I still feel all these things on occasion. I thought GC stressed me to my breaking point as a DC. Then I thought so as a Chapter Director. But as a Program Associate, I now just realize that’s part of the fun. (Seriously, imagine how Scott feels.)
The only difference between then and now is that now, I know I will feel rewarded in the end. When all of our Boston DCs and CDs gathered together for our GC Training photo in September, I felt the same surge of satisfaction that I got from Michael’s email. That’s why I was able to endure the late nights in the GC office that week, spent placing DCs and planning out Training. I kept looking forward to training nearly 100 college students on how to teach a class in action civics. I believed it would be worth it.
Look, DCs: Generation Citizen wouldn’t be Generation Citizen if it weren’t exhausting—and you wouldn’t be a Democracy Coach if you weren’t pushing yourself to the brink. This is what makes our program, and its volunteers, exceptional.
I understand where you’re coming from. The lesson planning can take longer than you thought. The curriculum is heavy. The kids are—well, kids. The chapter meetings can run a little long, and a little late. You have a paper due tomorrow and you haven’t even looked at the readings. Your friends are going out tonight, but you have to be in Dorchester at 8:40 AM tomorrow to teach GC. Your significant other really just needs you to say you’re doing anything besides working on “GC stuff”. Where have you been anyway?
GC is demanding, and will bring you stress. That is because we are asking a lot of you. But I can promise you that you’ll get a few things in return.
For one, you’ll learn to care about someone other than yourself. Your students look up to you. Oh, they don’t? No. They do. You go to college. I didn’t think Mohammed and Michael were even listening. Turns out they were. Do you really want to come unprepared to a class of students that admire you? Or worse, call out of their class altogether?
Deeper, you’ll learn things that will actually help you in the real world. You have to be on time to class, or you lose the confidence and attention of your students. You have to prepare for class, or, again, you’ll lose the confidence and attention of your students. You have to attend chapter meetings, even though you don’t “have to” attend chapter meetings. Translation: you’ll learn skills in those meetings that will help you succeed in your GC endeavor, which you are determined to do because you are dedicated to the cause. Your CDs can’t make you go, but your CDs spent a chunk of their week preparing the content of your meetings in order to make you a better DC. You’ll learn that the best way to become better at something is by holding yourself accountable, before anyone else.
(Seriously, go to your chapter meetings. Just like your GC students, you will learn a lot more than you think—and you won’t realize how much you learned there until much later. I promise this is true, based both on my time spent in chapter meetings as a DC and seeing the difference in DCs before and after chapter meetings as CED. It’s only an hour. We do not make these meetings mandatory for no reason—we are preparing you to master the craft of DC’ing.)
You’ll learn the concept of keeping the Big Picture in mind. It is easy—and understandable—to get swept up in the day-to-day of GC. Ugh, I have to prep for GC tonight. Ugh, I have to teach GC today. Ugh, I have to go to my chapter meeting tonight. Ugh, I have to check in with Drew. But with all those ugh’s, don’t forget why you joined this program: you believe in democracy for all Americans, not some. You believe that we must educate our citizens to be agents of change—not merely recipients of a policy that is decided for them instead of by them. And believe me, when you see your students on Civics Day your Big Picture will be complete, and you will feel silly for having ever doubted it.
Sometimes when I am particularly exhausted from GC—say, on a night where I leave the office around 9 PM and miss the whole Red Sox game—I dig deep into my Big Box of Stuff that I keep in my closet. At the bottom is a binder I was given on my last day of teaching Generation Citizen at I.S. 204 in Queens. Inside are 31 letters from 31 students—one from each of them. Some only scale half the page, while some run onto the back. Each of them is different, but all of them express the same thing:
I can’t believe you came into our class for free. You didn’t have to do that. Tell me more about college some day. I didn’t know that I could make a difference. I learned a lot. I want to take care of my community now. Thank you.
I read each one, each time I open it. I read Michael’s and Mohammed’s, two of the class’s most earnest students. But I also read Gustavo’s and Faris’s, who were the two toughest students in the class. These mean so much to me because they are the students you never know you reach. In many ways, their words touch me the most.
I remember every part of being a Democracy Coach to a photographic level, but there is one thing I remember best. A few days after Civics Day, after I had said good-bye to my class for the last time, I got on the train to head to my class on campus. Only this time, I left with that binder. I read each line of each page as the Q wound through New York City, and I finally felt like I had really accomplished something. I felt like I had made an impact, that I had taught young people while also learning myself. This, dear Democracy Coach—this above everything else; this is what made my time as a DC worth it.
So here’s the deal: GC is hard. So is being a citizen—that’s the point. Prep your upcoming lesson for an extra fifteen minutes after you think you’re done. Be early, not on time. Go to all your chapter meetings. (Go to all your chapter meetings!) Ask your CDs, your teacher, or myself for support when you need it. Ask questions. (Please, ask questions!) Read articles on civic engagement and share them with your chapter. Practice your students’ names. Ask a troubled student what’s wrong. Push them to answer in complete sentences. Try really hard. Go above and beyond. Because, of all the lessons Generation Citizen has taught me, the greatest of all is that seeing things through to the end is worth it.
Drew Lombardi is a Program Associate at Generation Citizen in Greater Boston.
Photo: Queensbridge Public Housing Facility, home to many IS 204 students
Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.