Served: City Year New York ’08, ’09
Current Occupation: National Recruitment Manager, City Year
Fun Fact: Jamaal was the graduation speaker for both his 8th grade and high school ceremonies

City Year Boston (CYB) You served with the Young Heroes program. Could you tell us more about that program?

Jamaal Williams (JW): […] I served out of I.S. 204 in Long Island City, Queens and from there we ran the Young Heroes program. We engaged 120 middle school youth in service learning and leadership development programming. They would learn about social justice issues that impacted their community in the morning. Then, in the afternoon, they would engage in physical service projects around their community that related to those specific issues.

CYB: What’s one highlight from your service years?

JW: My senior corps year I think the most memorable moment was during our first program day. I had a hero whose name was Cordelia*. It was her second year in the program [...] She came in and was incredibly disrespectful to her new adult team leaders. She was telling folks, “I know everything there is to know about Heroes. You can’t teach me anything. I’m going to run this team. You can just sit back and take notes.”

Her Team Leaders were pretty apprehensive about assuming this position. They came to me and asked me to talk to her. I immediately wanted to defer to my Program Manager. But then I told myself, "No. This is my program. If I’m going to own this, I need to step up."

I took Cordelia into a separate room with her Team Leaders and said, “We’ve been here before. Out of everyone in this room, we’re the only people who’ve done Heroes before. We know what Heroes stand for, what they symbolize. We know how we need to act when we’re in the program. […] I’ve seen you lead your team in incredibly ways last year. So you need to show them what it means to be a hero. If you can’t help them lead, I don’t need them here. I need you to step up.

She nodded her head. “Okay.” She turned to her Team Leaders and apologized for how she acted and she said, “I’m going to help you out.”

For the rest of the program, she was an all-star. She was the first to volunteer, she would look for opportunities to get her teammates involved. That was her as a 7th-grader. At the end of her academic year, she made the national honor roll. Then, the following year she graduated as the valedictorian of her class. […] Now, she’s getting ready to go off to college next year. It’s wild to see the long-lasting impact you can have just by having a conversation and being willing to connect with a young person in a really profound way.

As a recruiter now, a lot of people ask me “How do you know you’ve made a difference?” I served seven years ago and my Heroes still reach out to me for advice and for guidance. […] All of that stems from the relationships I made with them from when I was in the corps.

CYB: Immediately after your senior corps year you led a pre-freshman summer program at Ithaca College. Could you tell us more about that?

JW: I was the Living and Learning Coordinator, which basically meant I had a staff of six and 35 pre-freshman that I was going to be in charge of for four weeks. I had to first build my staff into a team, similarly to how I did as a corps member. I designed all their trainings, created opportunities to build their teams, and set expectations. […] I had a chance to take what I thought were just City Year skills and put them into a completely different environment and see how transferrable they were. The conversations I was having with corps members the year before were the same conversations I was having with my staff members.

CYB: Following that role, you returned to City Year as the Program Manager for a Young Heroes team in Boston and later you transitioned into recruiting for City Year—first for Boston and now at a national level. The organization is always growing and changing. What’s one thing you think has stayed the same?

JW: What corps members do has changed, absolutely […] but the essence of the corps experience, I don’t think that’s changed. The power in bringing together people who look completely different, act completely different, bring different experiences to the table and saying, “You are going to work together for the benefit of others,” is incredibly powerful.

CYB: Do you have any advice for the graduating corps?

JW: City Year is like a box. You are only going to get out of it what you put into it. So as corps members graduate I would encourage them to think about all the things they put into that box—all the things they put into their service.

I’d also remind them they’re in the business of planting seeds. You might not have seen the direct impact that you had on your focus list, on your school, your community in the past 10 months, but trust you made a difference.   

* name changed to protect student privacy.

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