Sunday, December 02, 2007

London, London, London, we going down~

I got super lucky last month and got to spend a week in one of my favorite cities (which, as you might have guessed from my title was) across the pond in London, England. I had this fabulously unexpected opportunity through the fabulous service organization, City Year, I gave two years of my life to. It was essentially a four day business trip, full of back to back meetings to learn about the burgeoning youth service movement in Britain and gauge the possibility of bringing CY there. Our hotel was the Royal Horseguards Thistle Hotel, which is steps from the Millennium Bridge and down the street from Trafalgar Square (it's the one with the big lion statues) and the National Gallery. We got a great deal because it was the off season, otherwise there is no way our little non profit could have afforded it. It was beautiful! We got a full delicious English breakfast each morning as part of our stay, where I dined on eggs, hash browns (which were more like tater tots or latkas than American hash browns) and baked beans!!! That might sound gross, but trust me, they're great! I don't eat baked beans in America, they are disgusting. English baked beans, however, are so delicious, they are enjoyed on toast. Their orange juice wasn't fresh though; it was from concentrate! Gross. Needless to say, because of our crazy meeting schedule, I didn't get much time to enjoy our close proximity to Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing Street, St James Park or any other wonderful, historic tourist attraction. Luckily I have been to London many times and did not feel the need to see the sites, so I wasn't missing out. It was nice just to stroll or drive by them as we went to our many engagements. Surprisingly, London in the middle of autumn was much milder than I expected, not at all the dreary, depressing mess I had heard about for so many years. I guess global warming is doing something right. It was quite lovely, and I loved being able to walk around and soak up the atmosphere.

I spent a great deal of my time translating the cross-cultural communication we were doing. I did my best to bring a bunch of Yanks up to speed on both the major parts and the minutiae of British life. Schooling in Britain is different than America, all the way through college, which they call university. Compulsory schooling ends at 16 there. To them, college is the two years of school post high school (from ages 16 thru 18) where students decide on the subjects they want to study in college, learn only those, and prepare for huge exams in these subjects. The results of these exams, called A-levels (Harry Potter fans might recognize them as "O.W.L.s") determine which universities each student will place into and whether or not they will get admitted into the program of their choice (ie accounting, engineering, medicine, law). There is no liberal arts system there, and if you don't know what you want to do with the rest of your life at 16, well, tough luck.

Many young people can't wait to age out of the system. Since jobs, training programs and engaging opportunities for these minimally educated young people is scarce, they end up in the category of NEETs. NEETs is a govt term referring to young people, 16-18 yrs old, who are Not engaged in Education or Employment Training. They are not contributing to society and are beyond the scope of welfare. They are seen as a marginalized threat that is burden on their community. It is believed that many turn to delinquent behavior (drugs, alcohol, out of wedlock births, crime) with nothing to do. There is currently a huge push to direct money, both public and private, to organizations that offer some credible alternative for these NEETs.

London is hosting the 2012 Olympic Games, and like any host city in ther years leading up to it, there is a great deal of money floating around to improve it. This giant honey pot is both public and private. A lot of this funding is looking for a home with non profit organizations that are engaging youth to better their communities and build the culture of service. What better organization than my very own? We found a real need for our kind of proven service model and quantifiable results. We also found an extremely stratified society in terms of race, class, education level, ethnicity, among other things. This society is so segregated that people from different backgrounds and classes almost never have the opportunity to meet or interact, let alone work together for anything. There are no institutions where people can meet, make connections, build relationships, work together toward a common goal or share in a culture and experience together. Basically, these people need City Year!! The English folks we met with were interested in our program model and in our almost two decade track record. They were often unconvinced that City Year's cheerful, cheesy, peppy, multicultural organizational culture would fly with the staid, stiff upper lip conservative British folks.

They had some crazy impression that all Americans were cheesy, cheerful, silly and had no problem making fun of themselves in public. They thought that we were able to Power Greet (when CY corps members greet guests to our events with raucous songs, chants, applause and helpful directions) the masses, legions of starry eyed, idealistic Americans lining up to don the red jacket and donate to our cause. Yeah flipping right. Every year, there are corps members who hate starting their day with powerful PT (Physical Training), who hate the powerful unifying symbol of the uniform, who chafe under rules instructing what to do, how to dress, look and behave and are definitely not cheerful. They get over it. If they don't, they leave. It's that simple. When you dedicate a year of your life to service with City Year, you take a pledge (often each day) to put the community your serving before your own needs. You vow to work with your fellow corps members, putting your idealism to work in order to build the beloved community, bridging the gaps of difference by being the change you want to see in the world. It's some pretty powerful stuff if you take it seriously. British folks could get to be a part of it someday too, stiff upper lip not withstanding.

We've expanded to Johannesburg, South Africa and that corps has added so much to our culture, we've now use a lot of those things across the American network of CY sites. I can't even begin to imagine what British young people would contribute to the culture. Probably looser rules about alcohol, lol.

It was a great experience, and I was honored to go on CY's behalf. I got to meet some other alumni who were very cool. I also got to meet some of CY's founding board members. Talk about wealthy! My gosh... The highlight of the trip for me was getting to see my cousins, Naz and Kamal, and my new cousin (Kamal's wife) Sarah. We sat in a restaurant the day I arrived (after I hadnt slept in about 30 hours) and just talked. We havent ever had the chance to just talk, get to know one another and catch up since we've all been adults, and it was FANTASTIC. What fabulous people! I'm so glad we're related:) They certainly make up for the complete disappointment that is my paternal family tree. We talked about politics, the economies in both our countries, culture, cross cultural identities, India/Pakistan- it was AWESOME. I can't wait to go back this summer for a paternal cousin's wedding so I can see them and spend more time with them. By then, inshallah, there should be a niece waiting for me too!! :)

If you look very carefully, behind our dazzling red jackets, there is Big Ben, hidden in the darkness.

Here is Big Ben as we drive by on my last day.

My cousins Kamal, Sarah and I in the beautiful lobby.

The giant flower arrangement that lent the lobby beauty and fragrance the week I was staying at the Royal Horseguards Thistle Hotel. :D

My room, check out the twin beds pushed together!

My marble bathroom.

View outside the hotel entrance.

The fireplace in the lobby that always had a fire going.


girlalex said...

You didn't tell me you got to go to London! Lucky! Sounds like you had fun, and that would be so cool if they got a CityYear London going!
I'm at the airport about to fly to SanFran - Guess who I get to see!??!?! (hint: he's got a sexy accent!)

Passionista said...

Very cool prospects in London, I see! Glad you had a good trip and that you posted some pics. Now, in Harry Potter terms would Fred and George be in the NEET category? HMM...

Mariko said...

So cool! Can you imagine the Brits with a no drinking rule :-P

Passionista said...


There and back again said...

Thanks for the comments guys! I don't think that Fred and George would be NEETs b/c they have their magic joke shop, and that would count as Employment, even though they didn't get any training or higher education. Imagine if they just slacked off and pulled tricks on other people instead of channeling that energy into their jokes and gags? LOL