IT'S NOT SURPRISING that the Kennedy
School, with its public service mantra, attracts creative
students who find creative ways to inspire kids, not as teachers,
but as volunteers and mentors. Past students have started
a squash program for inner-city kids, after-school groups
for those at-risk, and a magazine that empowers young girls.
The resume of the current crop of students includes a host
of other success stories. A few of those stories follow.
Judy Gans MPA 2003
The shouts are coming from inside the entryway
of theNeighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester, Massachusetts,
as Judy Gans walks up the front steps. Her short, dark blond
hair is wet from the December rain, which is unusually warm
for New England. The voices are high and revved up, a mix
of the age (middle school) and sugar. (The annual pre-holiday
party has just let out.)
Everyone is so excited that youre
coming, says one of the teachers when she sees Gans,
who can barely make it inside the door before kids start hugging
her. Judy! Judy! they continue yelling. Judys
here! another screams over his shoulder.
Its been more than three months since
the students have seen her, just before she started the Mid-Career
program at the Kennedy School. By outward appearances, shes
not someone youd expect seventh and eighth graders to
get excited about. No pink hair. Piercings only in her ears.
Shoes that seem more comfortable than hip. Mellow. But Gans
is the Queen of Quilting, and for the past two years, these
kids have worshiped in her court, learning to love a craft
that dates back to the pharaohs of the first Egyptian dynasty.
Today shes visiting to see how the quilting project
she started there and turned over to two other women is progressing.
Once inside the school, theres no need
to ask the kids girls and boys how they feel
about Gans or sewing. Their actions say it all. A few minutes
after she goes down to the quilting room, a papaya-colored
space in the basement filled with sewing machines, cutting
mats, and a metal cabinet filled with cloth, a group comes
into the room singing Merry Christmas, Judy. They
are cracking up because no one can sing in unison. Two girls
present Gans with a white-frosted cake covered with red and
green squiggles. Another boy even races home on his bike to
get a quilt he started with Gans but finished after she left.
Although school has let out early for the holiday break, he
rides back in the rain to show her his piece. Folded carefully
in a clear plastic bag, he pulls it out. The fabric is black
on one side, with swatches of yellowy-orange squares and triangles
on the other. As an added flair, he stitched a giant letter
J, for Jason, in the center. The quilt, about
the size of four album covers laid in a square, looks professional.
This is wonderful, she says, fingering the cloth.
He smiles. A tall eighth grader tells Gans that shes
asked for a sewing machine for Christmas.
Gans says she started the quilting project in
one of Bostons more distressed neighborhoods
more than half of the schools 200 students live in poverty
as a way to work with kids. Initially she visited the
school at the suggestion of a neighbor who served on the board
of trustees, wanting to volunteer but not sure what she could
offer. Quilting was something she had done on and off since
her two kids, now young adults, were babies. Headmaster Kevin
Andrews loved the idea.
We didnt have a lot of extracurricular
activities, he says, noting that the school is only
seven years old and, like most charter schools, working with
a small budget. Basic art and music, of course, but
the kids needed another outlet.
At first we thought wed tie it into
a social studies curriculum. We piloted the project with five
kids, all girls, and did one group quilt, Gans says.
Then it took on a life of its own. Kids started working
on their own quilts and more wanted to sign up. Boys
included. Today theres a waiting list to get in.
Whats most impressed Gans since she started
the project is how personal the pieces have become. One girl
included Bible passages and photographic images of her deceased
mother on a quilt, later giving it to her father as a birthday
present. A boy whose sister died while he was in the program
tucked his quilt into her coffin at the wake. Another included
hers in her prep school application package, later getting
a full scholarship, in part, the admissions committee said,
because of the quilt.
Quilting became a way for the kids to
represent their lives, Gans says. For some, it
was also an important way to process grief.
Headmaster Andrews calls Gans a hero
and jokes about her wanting to spend free time with rowdy,
sometimes fresh middle schoolers.
She said to me, I love this age!
I thought she was insane, Andrews says. Then I
watched her style. Its so relaxing. She has a special
way. Shes calm. Shes reflective. And she really
understands the age. She had some tough kids with attitudes.
But she made major breakthroughs with them. Eventually, the
quilting room became the place to be at the school. Kids started
hanging out there, even if they werent quilting. These
kids dont have much. Quilting has had a lasting impact
on our school.
Gans is modest about her impact, talking instead
about the benefits she got from the project, which she hopes
to return to once she finishes her degree in June.
It was an incredible privilege to work
with middle-school kids, she says. The privilege
was just in being a part of their lives and knowing that,
in some situations, I was a positive influence or helped them
through a tough time. Having kids trust you is a deep compliment.
Michelle Blair MPP 2003
First-year MPP student Michelle Blair uses words,
not quilts, to connect with kids. After graduating from Cornell
University with a BA in English, she was living in Brooklyn,
working full time as a legal assistant. What she wanted to
do was mentor young people. A friend told her about HarlemLive,
an online magazine written, created, and designed by teenagers,
mostly from Harlem.
Started in 1996 by Richard Calton, a former
teacher at P.S. 206 in East Harlem, HarlemLive is part personal
journal, part news outlet, part billboard for creativity.
USA Today once called it an online celebration by the
young people of that immensely creative community. The
New York Times described it as a kids-eye
view of Harlem. Even the Houston Chronicle mentioned
the magazine last year in a story about teens using the Web
to better themselves.
In an era when the Internet is sometimes considered
a bad thing for kids they play too many games, they
surf questionable sites, and they spend hours chatting with
potential predators Blair knew this was one of the
crown jewels of the online teen world.
It was also a great match for her. At Cornell
she had taken journalism classes and written a column for
the student newspaper. She even toyed with the idea of becoming
a magazine editor down the line. When she had a chance to
become a volunteer editorial advisor at HarlemLive,
she signed on.
For the next year-and-a half, she met with students
at least once a week. They brainstormed new ideas together.
She helped them write stories.
Well, not really write. More like edit,
she says, explaining how shed go line-by-line through
the text. She wanted the writers to think carefully about
words and their meaning. Its important not to
just tell kids this isnt the way to do something, but
why. Its all about helping them understand what theyre
Like Judy Gans, the quilter, Michelle Blair
is mellow. Even a little quiet. It may be part of the reason
teenagers like working with her. Their energies balance each
other. She also isnt much older than most of the staffers.
Theres also her background.
I grew up in a lower, middle-class family
in New Jersey in a community where so many people thought,
I could never do that. A word like Harvard was
like other to us, she says. I didnt
have a mentor in high school. None of my friends did either.
A lot of them are nowhere near where I am today. That discourages
Today, while shes working on her masters
degree, Blair has traded one-on-one time with Harlem teens
for Boston teens. Volunteering with Harvards COACH program,
she now helps Boston public school students navigate the college
application process. She hasnt left HarlemLive
completely, though. For the past few months shes been
organizing an Ivy League bus tour sponsored by the magazine,
for students interested in visiting universities like Harvard
and Yale. Lack of money for a bus is holding up the tour,
she says, but, Thats how things are with a nonprofit.
And, of course, she still checks out the magazine
online often and is eager to show it off. Parked in front
of a computer in the Bulletin office between classes,
Blair moves the mouse around the site, clicking on different
sections. Content is updated weekly, she says, and is completely
created by the teenage staff. Stories are grouped around art
and culture, politics, local Harlem issues, and personal essays.
Recent pieces include a first-person look at the death of
Clash guitarist Joe Strummer, a narrative on what its
like to be chosen by People magazine as one of 20 teens
likely to change the world, and a story about local Harlem
tenants fighting eviction.
Individual voices are important to the magazine,
Blair says, clicking on the Our Staff section,
which has a photo and bio of each student involved. And one
party line is never pushed.
One of the major distinctions between
HarlemLive and other online publications is that theres
not one voice being maintained, she says. Opposing points
of views are strongly encouraged. (A good example is the variety
of layout styles used to design each section.) Many
talents are encouraged and nurtured. The students produce,
write, do layout, film video, and create original graphics
What the teens get out of the magazine is more
than just a few clips for their scrapbooks. They learn new
skills and showcase their talents for prospective employers
and colleges. And perhaps most important, Blair says, they
go out into their community, interviewing leaders and celebrities.
Almost all come away with a new appreciation for where they
Its a project Blair would have loved as
If I had something like HarlemLive
when I was growing up, it would have given me a higher sense
of purpose and more self esteem, she says. Thats
why helping young people know the options available to them
is one of the best things I can do with my spare time.
Mike Fernandez MPA 2003
Its not hard to get excited about the
project that Mike Fernandez helped create. It involves tiny
kids. It involves guitars and singing. Sometimes it even involves
legendary musicians like BB King, Bonnie Raitt, and John Lee
And if that doesnt draw you in, the name
certainly will: Little Kids Rock!
The idea for the project came in 1996 from a
San Francisco second grade teacher named David Wish. An avid
guitarist who played jazz clubs at night, Wish was frustrated
with the lack of funding for music education at his school.
Music, he believed, was a necessary component in healthy child
development. The best he could do was give free guitar lessons
informally after school to a few kids who were interested.
A couple of years later, Fernandez met Wish.
He had been dabbling in guitar, but never seriously. He offered
Wish a deal: teach me how to play and Ill teach you
Web development. Wish agreed.
I love exchanging skills with people,
Fernandez says. But, I realized pretty quickly that
Dave wasnt all that interested in the Web skills. So
I asked him: what do you want to do? His dream, he said, was
to be able to really teach kids, especially those from disadvantaged
schools, to play guitar.
Fernandez was confident he could help Wish convert
his dream into to a full-fledged program. He had done it before,
first with an e-business consulting company, then a dot.com
that focused on coffee. From a marketing perspective, he knew
that Wish and his idea were a goldmine.
We have a teacher whos passionate
and his last name is Wish, he says. Schools are
cutting programs. And what better thing is there than teaching
little kids? Its not only fun, but its also cool.
Fernandez and Wish devised a plan. First they
picked a name: Little Kids Rock! They figured out how to brand
it. They started getting volunteers and talking to business
professionals with potential funding. Finally they put out
a call for donated guitars.
The program took off. Pretty soon, kids in several
public elementary schools in the San Francisco area had the
chance to sign on for a free, after-school guitar program.
Eventually it grew to include programs in New York, New Jersey,
and most recently, Memphis, Tennessee. Now there are even
dozens of volunteers, including mentors who teach
kids how to play, people who update the Web site, public relations
experts, and fundraisers. (Fernandez focuses mostly on the
Whats truly unique about the program is
that the kids dont borrow the guitars: they get to keep
them, something struggling parents particularly appreciate.
Our current, informal rule is that after
the child has been involved with Little Kids Rock and they
show they are responsible for the instrument, its theirs
to keep, Fernandez says. We dont just view
it as a musical instrument for the child, but also as a life
long friend. That is how I view my guitars.
Unique, too, is how Little Kids Rock teaches.
The program respects tradition but using different mediums
rock, jazz, funk, hip-hop, rap, and the blues
it also encourages kids to be creative and to own the music.
Our approach is learning by doing: students
learn to play by playing, Fernandez says. Its
like learning a language. You have to understand the basics
first, but then we get kids up to speed as quickly as possible
so that theyre composing pieces. We want kids to write
their own stuff.
They record, too. The programs fourth
CD, Coast to Coast, was released this year. Twelve
of the tracks are original compositions, including Little
Dinosaur, a bluesy number, and the ska-inspired piece,
Make Your Dreams Come True. (Some of these can
be heard online at www.littlekidsrock.org)
These days, in between classes, Fernandez is
starting to drum up interest in a Boston program.
First well start a movement with
people who say, I believe in this. Then well
get the word out. Theres nothing more powerful than
that, he says. Eventually well find a school
and mentors. (For legal reasons, all mentors have to
A movement of sorts has already been started
among legendary musicians, thanks in part to national media
exposure on shows like Good Morning America and
in magazines like Guitar Player. Carlos Santana donated
$10,000 worth of acoustic and electric guitars. The String
Cheese Incident hosted a benefit event. Grateful Dead guitarist
Bob Weir donated money. BB King and Bonnie Raitt are honorary
board members. (Raitt also mentioned the project during a
visit to the Rosie ODonnell show.) And Delta blues man
John Lee Hooker not only joined the board before he died in
2001, but also visited one of the San Francisco schools, played
a few songs, and listened to the kids play.
The kids didnt realize it was John
Lee Hooker, but in years to come, theyll look back and
say, I learned how to play that lick from John Lee Hooker,
Fernandez says. How cool is that?
For details on each of the projects, go to: