How a Kid With a ‘PhD in Street’ Found a Mentor in Bill Clinton and a Career With City Year
Now that he was POTUS and the media had been tailing him on his long jogs, the sweatshirt was getting a ton of play and Spaloss’ coworkers were freaking out.
“I was a service warrior and I didn’t even connect the dots,” Spaloss said. “I guess I still had a lot of my street beliefs. When I gave him the sweatshirt I said, ‘I want to make sure you remember you gave me your word, that you said you would help more young people.’ Then I just put my head down and went back to work.”
Between Clinton’s seemingly incessant exercise routine and the noise around the water cooler in the City Year Boston office, Spaloss’ decision seemed to be haunting him. Now he was on a date and his pager was going off. It was a 202 area code with a 9-1-1 message so he sucked it up, excused himself and headed to the payphone. He remembers being rude on the phone since he had to use a calling card. He was asked to hold for the White House speechwriter. Their conversation led to this:
The spirit of service also moves a young man I met about a year ago named Stephen Spaloss, who works with the City Year program in Boston. At age 23, he’s had some hard times in his life. But as he puts it, City Year gave him a place and the tools to be able to start over… Last year when I visited his project, he literally took his sweatshirt off his back and gave it to me so that I would never forget the kids at City Year. And I still wear it when I go jogging, always remembering what they’re doing in Boston to help those kids.
It was a speech Clinton was making at Rutgers University about national service less than two months after he’d taken office. “He did exactly what he promised,” Spaloss said. “He did what most won’t do.”
“What they’re doing in Boston” inspired AmeriCorps, which was founded soon after the speech at Rutgers and took City Year under its wing in 1994. AmeriCorps now funds 25 percent of City Year’s revenue and provides a $5,730 Education Award to each corps member at the end of his or her year of service. When Nelson Mandela invited Clinton to the Civil Society conference in 2001, Clinton brought reps from City Year, putting in motion the program’s first international affiliate.
Remembering Spaloss and City Year was the second step, though, not the first. The first was paying attention to a troubled kid with a hard story and a lot of fight.
“Something I found before I got to City Year was that even if you want a job, if you have to put down ‘felon’ it’s amazing how people change right in front of you,” Spaloss recalled. “This guy (Clinton) never blinked. He never looked away. He saw me and didn’t judge.”
The concept of acceptance was, at the time, something Spaloss was still getting used to. He had grown up in the foster care system in Nashua, New Hampshire and he was struggling to deal with the realities of being an orphan and an African American in a predominantly white community. Spaloss acted out with violence and the law caught up with him. His foster father, a well-known attorney in the area, was done bailing him out and it was jail or the military.
But Spaloss’ step-sister, a journalist, had just written a piece on City Year, then graduating its first group of corps members, and suggested a third alternative. He went to City Year originally to get the heat off of him. He stayed because of what he found.
“Once I left Nashua I never went back, physically and mentally,” he said. “Our founders saw that I could have gone either way but they took a shot on me so I went all in. I was willing to share my story to get others involved. I found myself speaking more at City Year than I did my entire life because I was realizing maybe I can inspire people. All these things were happening that this scared kid from New Hampshire never thought would happen.”
Now Spaloss, 46, manages six of the 27 cities where City Year has hubs. As a corps member, he had 300-plus hours of on-the-job training, including data analysis and implementation, which help him with his current responsibilities running day-to-day operations. He’s also groomed incoming corps members. Currently there are over 3,000 who work at 292 schools, half of which are among the lowest performing 5 percent in their state. The immediate and significant impact on the teacher-student ratio increases students’ chances of graduating on time, the first step on the pathway to a successful career. AmeriCorps works in relatively the same way.
“I barely graduated high school, I was just some kid with a PhD in ‘street.’ Now I’m trying to live up to the commitment others made in me in a way that will make them proud. This is an opportunity for a young person to stand and be our national offense versus our national defense.”
Spaloss and Clinton have stayed in touch. During his time in office, Clinton would call up Spaloss for a quick catch-up on Air Force One when he was in Boston, noticing when Spaloss had a new haircut, doting over pictures of his first child. At times, Spaloss didn’t even see him as the president but as a national service comrade. The two reunited at the City Year’s 25th anniversary when Clinton was given the Legacy Award for his commitment to the program and his part in setting the foundation for City Year South Africa. This time, Spaloss upgraded the sweatshirt to an honorary corps member jacket.
“I said to him, I’m committed to serve as long as he does,” Spaloss recalled. “Then I asked him if he was ever going to stop.”
For now, it looks like they’re both in it for the long haul.
The GradsofLifeVoice Forbes team provides thought leadership, research and expert commentary on innovative talent pipelines and related issues such as the skills gap, income inequality, workforce diversity, and the business case for employment pathways. We seek to change employers’ perceptions of young adults with atypical resumes from social liabilities to economic assets. This post was originally featured here.
Diversity, Government/Policy, Personal Story,
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