After graduating from UMBC in May 2011, Richard Blissett served for a year with AmeriCorps VISTA, helping students at Benjamin Franklin High School tackle community improvement projects in Baltimore’s Brooklyn neighborhood. He will begin doctoral studies at Vanderbilt University this fall.
I started off in Brooklyn, Baltimore as many AmeriCorps members probably do: ready to go with ideas overflowing and a simplistic idea of what needed to be done to fix things. My objective this year has been to create a pilot service-learning program at Benjamin Franklin High School that engages students in revitalizing local vacant lots. As a bioinformatics major with aspirations of working in education policy, I wasn’t fully sure of what that entailed, but I knew it would give me a chance to work full-time within a school setting.
I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard in my life.
Avoiding clichéd thought trains about the spirit of the community and the perseverance of the people, I think the most important thing I can say about these people is that they’re all incredibly unique. (I’ve made a breakthrough, I know.) What I mean by this is that I had to adjust my thoughts about justice, competence, and reform to accommodate for the fact that my own ideas about social change weren’t going to work for everyone. I had one student who was extremely motivated and a natural leader-type, creating lists of errands for me to run (a.k.a. student empowerment gone a little too far). Meanwhile, another always had the right answers but just didn’t care that much, an issue I once attributed to being bitter. (To which she responded, “I’m not bitter. Bitter is what old people become when they stop baking cookies.”)
There’s something mildly annoying to me about people who come back from service trips and can’t stop talking about how the experience changed their lives or how they just couldn’t believe how much need there is in the world. And with my general disdain for excessive displays of emotion, I still somewhat feel that way, but I am also much more sympathetic towards those sentiments now. I don’t mean that in a now-I-feel-really-bad-for-these-disadvantaged-people kind of way, but more of a holy-crap-this-work-is-damn-hard kind of way.
The honest truth is that things aren’t that simple, something that I think is much harder to see if you’re not there. But that doesn’t mean you stop trying. These kids, through this project, ran up against a lot of things that could turn anyone off to moving forward, including finding a bagged, dead body of a dog lying in the tall grass of their space. As much as we try to teach our students, we learn just as much from them, and all of the students I’ve worked with this year have been truly inspirational to everyone around them. They’ve shown us that just because something’s messy and trashed and covered in glass and occasional discarded couches, it’s not necessarily hopeless. Just because it’s complicated doesn’t mean you throw your hands up and walk away.
So I’ve done a lot of “breaking ground” this year. Literally. Most of my students graduated this year as part of BFHS’s first graduating class. I’m extremely proud of them and everything they’ve accomplished. They’ve planted a seed in this community for continued change, and I hope they know that. They’ve tackled two challenging lots this year, both of which should be completed by the end of the summer. And they’ve really developed themselves into stronger, more confident young people.
I’m not here to make my students into people that change the world. But I’m relatively confident now in knowing that if any of my students wanted to, they at least would know how to start, in their own ways.
At the very least, they would know to start.