If you’ve ever listened to the Hamilton musical soundtrack, or you had the unique opportunity of seeing the production for yourself, one of their best songs is Yorktown. It describes the battle of Yorktown in 1781; the battle that had the British wave the white flag in surrender!
A line in the song reads, “And so the American experiment begins, with my friends all scattered to the winds…”
In the Summer of 2016, I was playing that song multiple times a day. Why? As a member of the After-School All-Stars team, we were launching a new program in Oakland, Calif. I spent a year traveling to the Bay Area, meeting with city officials and educators in San Francisco, the school district and charter schools in Oakland, trying to figure out where we would begin our “All-Star experiment” in the East Bay. We spent that Spring and Summer hiring and training staff, aligning with partners, and even launched a Justice League superhero theme as our pitch to students at Claremont Middle School. I remember being restless the night before we launched, having visions of grandeur as I imagined our staff walking the halls and students basking in our Out-Of-School-Time glow!
I had this feeling before but magnified multiple times over. April 2, 2019 marked the one-year anniversary of the passing of an amazing human being by the name of Bonnie Reiss. Among many things she accomplished in life, she was the founding executive director of a new OST program by the name of Arnold’s All-Stars back in 2001. I joined a community of creative, committed, and bold individuals in April 2002 that wanted to help transform communities in Los Angeles. We had spent months finding the right people and building a training experience that went well beyond what you might consider professional development today. At one point, we had a two-week training, with Bonnie present to see how we were preparing ourselves, and our pitch, to win over middle school youth in East LA and South Central LA.
We launched in May 2002 and it was crazy! The nervous energy, long days, the continuous scheming and planning and dreaming, with what one of my colleagues coined as “Part-Time Staff with Full-Time Attitudes.” If that doesn’t describe our spirit, then nothing will. Bonnie, you put us together 17 years ago! You started that great OST experiment! We want the world to know that you did not “throw away your shot” (another awesome Hamilton reference).
Over these past few years, I came to the realization that I would never relive the start of Arnold’s All-Stars. That the colleagues and adventures we had could never be duplicated. The launch of the Bay Area program was memorable and powerful, but nowhere near the same.
Having said that, there are ingredients in that recipe that could be used to create a “founding” or start-up experience for all of us practitioners, leaders, and managers! Here are a few of the things that stood out in those early years!
1) Don’t settle in the experience you want to offer: Why just design a banner when you can create a billboard? Why take a field trip when you can take a vacation? Why deem an opportunity as a privilege when you can call it VIP Status? It does not take a lot of money, it just takes a fresher, edgier perspective.
2) Create. Create. Create: Our teams were energized by creativity. Human beings, we are designed to create. When we don’t contribute, we don’t feel ownership. We take the “someone else will do it” mentality. Because we had the license to create in those early years, we went from Microsoft Clip Art to using Photoshop in a matter of months. With few dollars spent except for some tutorial books. Give your teams the power and freedom to create!
3) Find places outside the office or school site to dream: There was a Denny’s near the Twin Towers Jail in LA where we went to dream big. Don’t know if it was the Moons Over My Hammy omelet, but a lot of cool things were thought of in that space. There’s something about changing the scenery, and being consistent in meeting there, that builds tradition, memories, and friendship!
4) Allow for passionate conflict: “Is this the best that we can do?” was a question that my friend and mentor, Diego Arancibia, threw out one time! It stunned us. We wanted to fight back, but we knew he was right. He will tell you it was not about being right, but about being authentic. It pushed us to new levels of quality and commitment!
5) Ask those that have a lot to give, to give a lot: There are so many stories of staff just stepping up and being bold. Whether it was an ask around food for our families, money for supplies, funding for our programs, field trips for our students, we asked people to give a lot. And give a lot they did!
So, there you have it. If you’ve been part of a start-up team, then you know how these experiences bond people. We have a responsibility as long-time members of the afterschool community to pass these experiences on to newer generations. Why would we ever want to rob our colleagues of the opportunity of launching their own great afterschool experiment?!
Dedicated to the late, great Bonnie Reiss. The one that brought the few to transform the many! You can check out my Facebook post dedicated to her last year. It tags my All-Star friends who have been scattered to the winds, out there, doing amazing things in and out of OST!
P.S. Oh, and by the way, if you were wondering how that first day in Oakland went, it was a disaster! Ha, ha! But we recovered. Just keeping it real!
For breakfast, I had a turkey and cheese quesadilla!