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Idealist leadership after City Year goals

This blog started as a commentary on my job search after City Year. When I graduated from college last year, I promised myself that, before I accepted a job, I’d always ask myself a simple question, “Why do I want this position?” If my answer was to serve the greater good and help build a more compassionate and equitable world, then I would move forward.

With this question in mind, I began a year of service through City Year Detroit. At the beginning of our training, we each received a copy of City Year’s Idealist Handbook. This 114-page document lays out the foundation for not only what we’re doing here at City Year, but how we can accomplish this work, and most importantly, why it matters.



Idealism is tricky to navigate. On one hand, the pursuit and belief in a world better than this one is what led me to this work in the first place. I was taught as a child that we can — we must — do our part to repair the world. The academic and career choices I’ve made so far have been closely tied to this ideal.

On the other hand, I don’t think any of us have come to age completely untouched by the darker, inevitable truths of this world. Our country is built upon systems that consistently fail some, and benefit others. Racial and economic injustice press on. We lose people we love and are forced to grapple with circumstances beyond our control. At our lowest, and often with reason, we are cynics who see no way forward. At our best, we are pragmatists who take actionable steps toward solutions. For someone like me, afforded all the privileges that come with being white and affluent in this world, “idealism” in its raw form can look and feel a lot like ignorance, or saviorism, or naivete. What is unique about City Year’s idealism is that it begins with the rejection of seeing only the positive and acknowledges we must address the difficult issues in order to enact change. This requires a deep sense of humility, an eagerness to listen, and a willingness to discard our own comfort in the pursuit of understanding.

City Year’s skills of idealism are to “imagine, recruit, transform and inspire.” It’s written clearly in the handbook — idealism begins with an examination of realism, an assessment of the world and its challenges as they are. This past year has, without a doubt, has challenged our students in ways that evade our most powerful solutions — human connection, relationship-building, face-to-face communication. And yet, I am humbled each day by the spirit and strength of the community I serve. I am reminded that idealism — City Year idealism — is a way of thinking that is not meant to be just read in a handbook but absorbed through the way we do this work.

I am learning that this idealism we lean into is not meant to conceal struggle or absent-mindedly turn away from discomfort. Instead, this idealism can give us a framework for finding the light amid these darker, inevitable truths. It definitely isn’t easy, or perfect, but faced with a world as beautiful and broken as our own, it is necessary to be both grounded in reality and determined to create a better future.

I am still in the early stages of my job search, and uncertain as to what exactly I want to do next. I was beginning to think that perhaps this “idealistic” criteria was too ideal for a 23-year-old post-grad in a pandemic job market. In truth, it might be. I don’t know if I’ll find a job with a 100-page idealist handbook or with daily work and co-workers that prove we can “slowly, humbly, realistically” repair the world. However, what has grown within me is the smallest seed of this balanced, steadfast idealism that I will carry with me wherever I land next. Maybe that’s enough to imagine, recruit, transform and inspire. Maybe I’ll write my own handbook.


Written by Emily Stillman, AmeriCorps member on Team Bethune Elementary School

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