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City Year is here, and Liz Thompson's time has come



Growing up in Cabrini-Green, Liz Thompson never felt deprived or disadvantaged. But in 1975 she enrolled at Lane Tech and discovered the world was larger and more complicated than she ever realized. "I took an honors biology class my first year, and I was hopeless," says Thompson. "There were Japanese kids, Jewish kids, and white kids, and they seemed smarter. I came home in tears, 'cause I didn't think I'd make it."

She did. She graduated from Lane, graduated from Purdue University, and over the last several years at Ameritech moved from one high-paying management job to the next.

Now Thompson is moving on. She's the executive director of the newly formed Chicago branch of City Year, a not-for-profit urban peace corps. Its supporters hail City Year as an opportunity for young people to learn the value of doing good, and Thompson sees it as a chance to break down barriers of prejudice and stereotypes.

"City Year is not that much different than Lane Tech--you have people from different ethnic and economic backgrounds," says Thompson. "You'll have rich kids working side by side with poor kids, and they'll learn that you can't judge people by how they look or where they come from, and that they shouldn't accept limits on their lives."

City Year was started in Boston six years ago by Alan Khazei and Michael Brown, a couple of idealistic and well-connected young Harvard grads. "They got the early notion for the program during the summer they spent as congressional interns," says Michael Alter, a real estate developer who roomed with Brown and Khazei at Harvard. "There was a lot of debate in Washington at the time about national service programs. It was bipartisan, with people like William Buckley and Ted Kennedy on the same side. That inspired Alan and Michael."

After graduation, Brown and Khazei went on to law school, while refining their idea for a youth service corps. They decided it would have to be privately funded, at least in part, in order to avoid government red tape. It would need a certain amount of glitz to draw young people and donors. And it would have to be racially and economically integrated. A publicly funded service corps in New York City "had a pronounced lack of socioeconomic diversity and as a result, the participants tended to view the program more as an income source than as a vehicle for citizenship," wrote Scott Shuger in a Los Angeles Times article on City Year. "Service, thought Brown, shouldn't be seen as the duty of only the disadvantaged."

Brown and Khazei called themselves entrepreneurs, and vowed to run City Year as though it were for profit. They took advantage of their Harvard connections and cultivated close ties with the business community. The same corporate executives who had cheered Reagan-Bush budget cuts in education and social services were eager to toss money City Year's way. Timberland, Wear Guard, and Reebok donated clothes so City Year's members could be outfitted in stylishly designed red jackets, black sweat shirts, and khaki pants.

"This business orientation has brought with it aggressive marketing," Shuger wrote. "City Year makes full use of the weapons of the trade-logo clothing, ball caps, backpacks and watches--which in Boston are gaining the cachet of Air Jordans or Evian."

The program itself was strict and structured. Participants worked from September to June, earning $100 a week and $5,000 more upon completion of the program. Each morning they gathered in Boston's City Hall Plaza for a half hour of calisthenics, and then moved on in teams of ten for a day's work wherever they were needed. They cleaned out litter-strewn lots, helped rehab buildings, delivered meals to the sick, and assisted in classrooms and senior citizen centers.

President Clinton cited City Year as the model for his national service legislation. And most importantly, the program achieved its goal of diversity. In 1993 roughly 45 percent of its participants were white, 35 percent black, 11 percent Latino, and 8 percent Asian American. Fifty-four percent came from families earning less than $35,000; 27 percent were high school dropouts and 23 percent were either enrolled in or had graduated from college. This year more than 1,000 people applied for 300 spots in the Boston program, and branches were opened in Providence, Rhode Island, and Columbia, South Carolina.

To open a Chicago branch, Brown and Khazei called on their college roommate. A native of Wilmette, Michael Alter had graduated from law school and gone on to work for his family's real estate company, the Alter Group.

One of Alter's first tasks was to find an executive director: the search eventually led him to Thompson. By this time she had a husband, Donald Thompson, and a newborn son, Xavier, and was area manager of the Ameritech Transport Technology Center. She was also itching for a change in her professional life. When Thompson read City Year's brochure it revived memories of her own youthful idealism.

"I had the greatest childhood growing up in Cabrini--it wasn't at all like the stereotype," says Thompson. "I had five older brothers and sisters, and my parents, John and Virginia [Watson], kept us together. We lived in a row house, and there were lots of kids my age and a real sense of community. I went to the Jenner School, and lord, I had some great teachers. Mrs. Ruth Clifford taught me music. The music room was the size of a bedroom closet but that was where I learned to play the flute."

In high school Thompson remained active in music. "I switched to the sax, and got in the marching band and the jazz band; I hung out with the music kids. That was my group," she says. "Then during the senior year there were some budget cuts and they took away our beloved jazz band teacher--they transferred him to another school. I organized the students and we picketed City Hall. The principal didn't like that. He called me and my mom into his office and really chewed me out. My mom cut him off; she said, 'You will not talk to my daughter like that. She did what she thought was right.' I was so proud of her. I was suspended for a day. But I didn't care. It's your duty to speak out against an injustice."

It was at Lane that she learned to deal with people from different backgrounds. "The band was a mixed group, but some of the other groups were not," says Thompson. "I wondered why I was the only black on the debate team or in an honors class. It bothered me. There were black kids smarter than me who should have been there too. I remember this Japanese guy in my history class asking me if I was Jamaican. I said no. He said, 'Are you African?' I said, 'Not in this lifetime.' People were always trying to put me in a different land because they couldn't equate being black with being smart.

"For a while I had a Japanese boyfriend. He asked me on a date to a Cubs game. My brother, sister, and mother dropped me off. It was fun, but I was so nervous. People kept looking at us. Later he told me that his parents asked him, 'Why don't you find yourself a nice Japanese girl?' That was the end of that. Then there was this Jewish boy who had a crush on me. I think he really liked me, but he was too shy to come out and say it. I guess there were too many barriers for him to cross. The thing is, no matter how integrated we were in the school, on the weekend we went our separate ways. On the weekends, black kids hung out with black kids and white kids hung out with white kids and that was just the way it was."

After Alter contacted her, Thompson flew to Boston to observe the City Year program. "What I saw excited me," says Thompson. "I saw this 21-year-old ex-gang member running a ten-person team. I mean he was the leader--young, white college kids from rich suburbs were under his direction. It inspired me. This was no joke. He had undergone a real-life transformation and was reaching his potential."

In January Thompson took the job with City Year. For the last several weeks she and Alter have made the rounds of corporate Chicago, trying to raise $1 million by September, which is when the program begins. She also has to hire ten young people to be team leaders, recruit 100 corps members, and connect with schools and organizations that want City Year's services.

"Our program will be run like the one in Boston," says Thompson. "There will be physical training every morning--hopefully in the Daley Plaza--to get everyone on a common ground. Each member will sign a contract that says what's expected of them in terms of punctuality, attendance, and behavior. If you don't adhere to the contract then you're out of the program. The consequences will be spelled out.

"We're off to a good start. Michael has introduced me to a lot of corporate leaders. We met with one man who said, 'Give me the two-minute version of your life story.' Needless to say I couldn't get into the finer details; the Japanese boyfriend went unmentioned. He must have liked what he heard about me and the program 'cause he agreed to a substantial donation. Most people really want this to work."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.

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