By Whitney Parnell, City Year Washington, DC ’11, ’12
I served with City Year because I believed so strongly in its motto (at the time): Give a Year, Change the World. I grew up seeing social injustice on local and global scales through the lens of my privilege as an Embassy kid growing up in developing countries, and through the lens of my marginalization as a Black woman. This lifestyle was foundational to me embracing my calling as a “professional humanitarian,” and brought me to serve with City Year Washington, DC directly after college.
I was not the easiest AmeriCorps member, and a large part of that was because of how literally I took City Year’s guiding phrase. I was always driven by the urgency of the community’s most pressing problems, and it felt like our work wasn’t fast enough. In hindsight, I realize it was naive to expect that I could completely transform systemic issues in just a year, but I do appreciate how my service year instilled an even stronger sense of commitment to the injustices around us. It kept me in DC, and was ultimately a huge inspiration behind my founding Service Never Sleeps (SNS), with a literal vision to “foster a community of concerned citizens who refuse to stop serving for as long as social injustice exists.”
Since SNS’ founding, I have constantly grappled with my own identity and calling to change the world. I wanted to effectively lead a nonpartisan organization that would have profound impact through innovative programming, but simultaneously speak truth to power about the urgent action that is necessary to address society’s most pressing issues. My internal battle of “Activist-Whitney” vs. “CEO-Whitney” required constant hesitation, second-guessing, and anxiety over whether I was bringing my correct self and my full self.
Then I went to Charlottesville on August 12 to stand up for love against white supremacy.
Words can never fully express what I saw, heard, and felt during that life-changing experience. As I continue my journey of healing, processing, and navigating my new normal afterwards, one thing is certain: There is no neutrality, nor balancing act, when it comes to challenging white supremacy.
My experience in Charlottesville affirmed that we shouldn’t have a “side” of us that represents standing up for equality, opportunity, inclusion, and love. Shared humanity, or Ubuntu, is something that we should live and breathe. It should be a part of our genetic make-up, and an essence that is just as much a tangible and notable part of us as our physical features and personalities. Thus, there are no “two sides” of me; rather, the complexity of my very being is something that I should bring to every aspect of my existence—whether in the shoes of my professional title, or at the front lines of a protest. I believe this applies to every City Year alum.
Service is one of the most effective ways to build civically engaged citizens, and allows us to engage with diverse communities, to connect to issues through empathy and perspective, to develop innovative solutions through collaboration, and to experience how everyone benefits with social justice. Thus, City Year should be an experience that both exposes us to the realities of systemic injustice and instills a commitment to addressing them until they are dismantled.
The end of our service years should be the beginning of a lifelong journey of engagement, empathy, and influence. It should be a deeply engrained aspect of our identities moving forward, regardless of what professional field we enter.
City Year messages this expectation clearly. It is no secret that service years are about building committed leaders. However, City Year has also noted a commitment to anti-racist work. Systemic racism is so evident in our education system, and I appreciate that City Year has so publicly shown its commitment to dismantling white supremacy by taking a targeted approach through improving educational outcomes for students in low-income urban areas – the far majority of whom are children of color.
City Year alumni should make that same clear and deliberate commitment to anti-racism, and our white alumni have a particular charge as Allies in this work. Allyship is an active way of life that exercises bridge-building to ensure equality, opportunity, and inclusion for everyone. I stand strongly behind the notion that we are called to Allyship.
While we can all exercise Allyship in any areas where we hold privilege (gender, sexual orientation, religion, health, ableism, etc.), racism is the prevailing pillar of social injustice and oppression and often at the core of many other issues. Thus, white alumni have a particular charge and opportunity to move the needle on racism. Allyship doesn’t just mean standing behind marginalized communities through our own conscious actions; It means committing to influencing our peers to implement that same self-examination, action, and influence—engaging that uncle at the dinner table who said something “kind of racist,” or that friend who made that “possibly offensive” joke, or that coworker who made that “slightly ignorant” comment…The list of opportunities to engage and influence seems infinite, and there truly are ways to show up every day.
There are two narratives that I walk away from Charlottesville telling: The first is how I had to wonder which “side” each white person that I saw represented—the white supremacy side, or the side that stood in solidarity with love and inclusion. That same question carries over into my everyday life now as I navigate a world where I can’t know someone’s true colors until they show me.
The second is how most of the counter-protesters at Charlottesville were white Allies who saw the necessity of showing up, and did. This keeps me optimistic that people will show up.
City Year and I share a favorite quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve.” This is a call to action, but also an opportunity to be great. It demonstrates that having profound influence is accessible to all, and what’s mainly required of us is showing up. Greatness doesn’t mean knowing all of the answers. It means taking a humble stance of understanding that as Allies, we will always be learning.
City Year alumni should reflect on who they are, and who they can be as Allies. Let’s jump into that process, invite others to join us, and show solidarity wherever and however we can. That’s how we’ll collectively #MakeBetterHappen.
Whitney Parnell is a City Year Washington DC, ’11, ‘12 alumna and one of six winners of this year’s Comcast NBCUniversal Leadership Awards. To learn more about the Comcast NBCUniversal Leadership Award and this year’s award winners, visit the City Year alumni website here.