I recall this Superman like figure hoisting me on to his shoulders, and teasing me by calling me ‘Champ’. I was stunned when my parents shared with me that Ali was Muslim-American like me.
Up until that point in time, I had only seen Muslim-Americans living on the sidelines of the American experience. I had no idea that it was possible to be anything other than a soft voice disconnected from the conversation.
In the years following my meeting with Ali, I became a student of this great American’s complicated life. Ali went from angst at racism and throwing his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River, to being America’s representative lighting the Olympic cauldron in the 1992 Barcelona Games.
During my greatest moments of adversity, I have recalled Ali’s journey and his growth as a leader against the turbulent civil rights era. Ali’s story reminds us of the American duty of expressing our civic voice.
I am fortunate to have found a voice through my work with City Year Miami. As a result of the deep support of a visionary school district and amazing teachers and principals, our corps members are able to serve as tutors, mentors, and role-models driving impact in attendance, behavior and course performance in Math and English. Each day, I smile as I see City Year corps members uplift students in the same way Ali did to me.
This week is AmeriCorps Week, and it is a time to celebrate the tremendous service our corps members provide to students in schools every single day. The theme of this year’s celebration is AmeriCorps Works, and I have seen firsthand the work that can get done by these dedicated AmeriCorps members.
Sadly, programs like City Year are at grave risk if AmeriCorps funds continue to be cut as they have been these past two years. 79 US Senators in 2009 voted to expand national service via the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, and yet today because of contraction nearly one million AmeriCorps applications have been denied in the last 2 years. This is all in spite of the fact that AmeriCorps programs yield a 3 to 1 dollar match from local sources including from the private sector.
City Year demonstrates there is a way to scale the presence of tutors, mentors and role-models who can support young people to keep going against all odds. We must use our voice to say yes to this generation of informed and engaged young citizens who make real the meaning of Ali’s words when he said “I hated every minute of training, but I told myself ‘suffer now’ and live the rest of your life as a champion.”