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Becoming civic superheroes

City Year's corps members get an intensive education in how to be activists. That means asking not just 'How do we change the world?' but 'How do we change ourselves?'

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They were warned that once they put on the jacket, nothing would be the same. "You lose your name," said the speaker to the 166 young adults being sworn in last Oct. 1. "Your first name becomes City. Your last name becomes Year."

But the folks in red didn't flinch. They stood at attention and pledged to serve their community and country.

Thus began their transformation from private citizens to the kind of civic superheroes City Year's founders envisioned 14 years ago when the organization began in Boston. Since then, the program has spread to 14 sites and served as the model for AmeriCorps, of which it is a member.

If the new inductees thought that changing society would be easy, however, they would have to think again. They, like the 80 percent of college freshmen who do volunteer work each year, would have to learn how to turn idealism into action. And like their predecessors who joined the Peace Corps two generations ago, they would have to discover that being effective activists means asking not just "How do we change the world?" but "How do we change ourselves?"

Over time, these heroes-in-training would also need to understand that their red jackets were not the same as red capes. Coats, after all, often start out too stiff or too big, and they must be broken it in over time. But City Year corps members begin wearing theirs right away.

Within days, the new CYers would be heading off to the sites where they'd work for the next nine months as "social change entrepreneurs." For the 11 members of the PTC team, that meant East Boston, a tightknit, blue-collar community where Spanish and Portuguese are heard almost as often as English.

The team would be teaching classes in social justice at the Umana-Barnes Middle School and working in three after-school programs. They would also plan a Servathon day for later that month, orchestrate week-long camps for elementary kids during February and April vacations, and plan a spring service day for employees of PTC, their team sponsor.

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