Archives For America

Soaring at City Year

May 3, 2015 — 1 Comment

A few years ago, in a Cape Town karaoke cafe with Mtuseni, a guy sang I Believe I Can Fly, a powerful, uplifting anthem. He had an amazing voice. The place seemed to be a popular hangout for college kids, and as the song built to its crescendo, everyone was standing and shouting the refrain “I can fly!” like in a church revival. I looked around the room and at Mtuseni, watching all these bright faces full of hope and promise — and my tears just started flowing. Knowing the difficult challenges and harsh realities that exist in the country, I wanted Mtuseni and all young South Africans to be able to succeed. To thrive. To fly. Whenever I hear the song now, I’m taken back to that night — and it still gets to me.

Mtuseni has totally embraced his City Year experience since the program began in February, and in April he started working with students at a school in Tembisa township. From the beginning, I was just pleased and relieved that he is engaged and happy; since graduating from college last July, he never got one job interview.

I was impressed and a bit surprised when Mtuseni was elected co-captain of his City Year team a couple months ago. I couldn’t have been more proud … but then it got better. Six weeks ago he was selected as one of two corps members to represent South Africa at the City Year National Leadership Summit! He just returned from three days in Washington, DC, where he attended meetings and receptions with executives, staff, dignitaries, members of Congress — and most importantly, other City Year corps members from across the United States. I couldn’t be in DC, but thanks to Twitter at #cysummit, I was able to follow Mtuseni’s activities in real-time. To see his bright eyes and ecstatic grin in photos, hanging out with peers from across the country, all sharing his commitment to public service — I was beaming and walking on air.

His schedule was packed and he would only text me little snippets, but on Thursday morning he said “I’m speaking tonight, and I’m nervous.” I had no idea he was expected to speak, so I gave him a little text pep talk and then he was gone. The summit was hosting a gala reception at the Newseum that evening, in part to honor the 10th anniversary of City Year South Africa and the fifth anniversary of City Year London. On Twitter, I saw photos of the South African CEO and the other corps representative speaking at a small podium, then the tweets switched to members of the UK corps. I figured the social media team didn’t get a picture of Mtuseni, or, worse, that nerves got the best of him and he bailed. “Too bad,” I thought.

And then I saw this come across the Twitter wire…

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To see him up on that stage, speaking to a crowd in the soaring lobby of the Newseum, has to be the proudest moment of my life. He texted me quickly afterwards and said “Well, I did it.” I congratulated him and told him to go enjoy his night. He said “I’m gonna have a blast!”

Then moments later, City Year SoA tweeted this:

cy summit mtuseni speech

I never anticipated that Mtuseni would talk about me in his speech. I figured he would discuss his work in Johannesburg and the program’s value to the city. Needless to say, the tears flowed freely when I saw that.

I was pretty naive when I offered to support Mtuseni and put him through school; it was infinitely more than I anticipated. The journey has been pretty rough at times, but it’s also been the best decision of my life. My work’s not over with him, but these images were the first time I’ve been able to step back for a moment and think, “I did it.” I look at the picture of a teenage Mtuseni in his school uniform hanging over my desk, the first image I ever had of him, and I can’t believe how far “my little yellow polo shirt boy” has come.

At minimum, I’ve always wanted Mtuseni to be happy and safe and secure. But knowing what a special person he is, I really want him to fly. This week, he took wing … and is soaring.

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Source: City Year

 

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Source: City Year

 

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Source: City Year

 


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Weight of the World

November 23, 2014 — 3 Comments

Mtuseni Nov 19, 04It’s hard to pinpoint when I reached that state of parenthood where every picture of my kid fills me with love and emotion. It doesn’t matter whether Mtuseni looks happy or grouchy or sick or bored: when I see a new photo of him my heart melts. But the photo he posted on WhatsApp the other day hit me another way. He just looks sad, and it nicked my heart. I asked him later if everything was okay and he said “I’m well” as he almost always does. But I know that with my taciturn son the still waters run very deep. Mtuseni looks like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders — and in many ways he does.

He’s been out of college classes now for a year — and it’s been almost five months since he graduated. He’s shocked that he can’t find a radio job. Not even an interview. Hell, not even a Christmas job. What shocks me is that he somehow thought he’d be handed a job ten minutes after graduation. I’ve told him that college grads in the US don’t even find jobs that quickly, but somehow he thought the very-real accomplishment of finishing college would carve a golden path through the mess of South Africa’s 60 percent youth unemployment rate.

Young people want everything right now, if not yesterday. And when you’re living in a shack, in a settlement where people resent you for opportunities you lucked into, that desire for quick change becomes desperation. There’s no more money from mom — just food and a bed — so his expenses all fall on me, which gnaws at his pride. The nearby community center where he could go online and job hunt no longer has Internet, and there are no library computers or wifi spots around. There’s no secure mail, so that application option is out.He seems to be more cut off just as he needs to be reaching out and branching out.

He’s frustrated and said he feels like South Africa is becoming a joke of the world. I don’t see things there getting much better any time soon. Was I naive and misleading to put him through college, telling him he’d have better opportunities? Even if a great job is far off, the experience helped him grow in so many ways that it was clearly worthwhile. And he’s resourceful and driven. He’s been helping set up a new community radio station in Diepsloot township… for free, but it’s experience. And we’re waiting to hear on his upcoming interview with City Year-South Africa. We met with the VP and toured the headquarters this summer in Boston, and Mtuseni was impressed with the people and the organization’s philosophy.

I’m lobbying hard for him to join City Year because it will greatly expand his network, give him more maturity (and a monthly stipend), and will add an impressive credential to his resume. Mtuseni told me that kind of thinking is a middle-class American luxury, and that when you’re living on the edge you just need a job now.

Because it’s tough being young and carrying the weight of a hard world on your shoulders.


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Boston+Media+House+graduationThroughout this nearly five-year journey with Mtuseni, there have been many circumstances that are strangely uncanny, as if fate has been a major player in this relationship. One example is his wanting to attend a South African college called Boston Media House, when I live 8,000 miles away in Boston, a most American city. A more recent (and less fun) example is the laptop that I bought specifically for our webcam chats when we were first matched by a nonprofit — which died a few hours after I dropped him at the airport this week, apparently signaling the close of this chapter in our lives.

And the most surprising coincidence is that Mtuseni’s graduation from college — our primary mission all these years — fell on the Fourth of July. For this event truly signifies independence in many ways. Like any kid leaving the relatively cloistered environment of college, Mtuseni now enters the real world on his own. I was such a typically American, vocally demanding parent-advocate for him at school that they probably have a dart board with my face in the main office. But I don’t have the same power to move the South African job market in Mtuseni’s favor, and more importantly, I shouldn’t try. The school gave him knowledge and skills, and I gave him wings. Two years ago I watched him and many other kids sing R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” in a Cape Town karaoke bar. Now with his college diploma in hand, it’s up to Mtuseni to fly solo.

This milestone achievement also marks my own independence, which is bittersweet. In many ways I put my life on hold to make sure Mtuseni got over this finish line, a task that was much more difficult than I ever expected. While I’m excited to pivot back to my own personal journey, and will surely draw upon this experience, it feels a bit sad to relinquish something that required such intense focus and commitment. Indeed, I feel a profound sense of pride, satisfaction and fulfillment in being able to say “mission accomplished.” But the flip side is a slightly empty feeling of “Now what?”

Graduation doesn’t mean the end of Mtuseni and me, but things will change. Even during his visit here last month he seemed much more independent than last year’s visit — much to my occasional frustration and chagrin. But that only means I did my job. For his graduation is not only the culmination of fifteen years in school, it also marks his entry into adult life. And that is a cause for celebration!

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Mtuseni and his proud mom Nester

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Mtuseni with his best college buddy Poloko

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First in the family to graduate college!


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Things have been hectic, as Mtuseni likes to say, over the past month. He just wrapped up a three-week visit here in Boston and flew back home to Johannesburg very early Monday morning. Door-to-door travel time… 26 hours. Better him than me!

It was a trip packed with many activities as well as a few challenges and new perspectives. But mainly it was a gift to celebrate the big event to come this Friday. July Fourth may be Independence Day here in America … but it’s Graduation Day for Mtuseni! To say I’m proud would be a massive understatement.

More to come later on his US visit and graduation, but for now I’ll share the picture he put up for his WhatsApp profile when he got home…

graduation


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