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City Year Founding Story: The Bridge Builder

Photo by Lauren Schlenger

The supreme good is like water,

which nourishes all things without trying to.

It is content with the low places that people disdain.

Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.

In thinking, keep to the simple.

In conflict, be fair and generous.

In governing, don’t try to control.

In work, do what you enjoy.

In family life, be completely present

When you are content to be simply yourself

and don’t compare or compete,

everybody will respect you.

— From the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu as translated by Stephen Mitchell

Water is a powerful metaphor for social change, seeking the lowest level and therefore touching and connecting all things, flowing around what it cannot move, making good things grow, acting as a solvent on things that are stuck, and putting out fire—such as the anger that can too easily consume change agents and the causes they are passionate about. Water is also the ideal metaphor for an idea coined by Robert Greenleaf, the “servant leader,” who leads through service, example, and assistance rather than through power and authority. Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher (circa 600 B.C.) has provided us with a metaphor—and a blueprint to improve the world and live as a servant leader: Simplicity. Fairness. Generosity. Flexibility. Presence. And above all: equanimity—an unshakable sense of security in one’s self. When we have mastered these skills, breaking down social barriers, building community, and effecting meaningful change will follow.


About the Photographer: Lauren Schlenger served with City Year Washington, DC during the 2011–2012 school year. She took this photograph—a fountain in Boboli Gardens—while studying abroad in Florence, Italy. She said, “This small stream represents simplicity, groundedness, flexibility, and strength.” It is dedicated to her third grade students and her team of fellow corps members who kept her flexible and grounded, and “made my City Year experience unforgettable