And (Social) Justice for All

With City Year San José/Silicon Valley, Toni Schwarzenbach Burke, MPP’09, leads the effort to stem the region’s flood of high-school dropouts

Sometimes it seems impossible to find encouraging stories in the news. For every article published about economic inequality in the U.S., on its heels you’ll find others that examine persistent racism, wage stagnation or the stunning number of children living under the federal poverty line (it’s about 16 million, if you’re wondering).

Connecting the dots, one quickly sees that that these issues all live under the umbrella of social justice, a term that has been planted like a seed in the zeitgeist, a term that people often use when looking for answers. It’s an ethos that drives those who want to see change in their world, like Toni Schwarzenbach Burke, MPP’09, a former Heller Segal Fellow who’s making a (big) difference from the ground up, holding the reins at City Year San José/Silicon Valley.

City Year

City Year is a program launched under the aegis of AmeriCorps, and its simple but challenging mission is to bridge the gap between what students in high-poverty, underserved schools need to succeed and what they have. In San José, more than 2,600 students drop out of high school every year, and those students are then eight times more likely to end up behind bars and three times more likely to fall into joblessness.

“Education has always been important to me,” says Burke, City Year San José/Silicon Valley’s vice president and executive director, who went through a public school system that offered mentors, teachers and coaches to help students thrive. “Growing up, I saw how the system could and should work for students.” As she became exposed to the wider world, Burke saw disparities emerge at the intersection of the system and varying cultures and economic strata. “I realized that somebody like me, who the system worked for, should do something to try to make the system better for all students.”

For its part of that mission, City Year San José/Silicon Valley sends more than 130 AmeriCorps peer-mentors into regional schools to help students stay on task, find their way academically and make the educational system work for them. Burke sees the organization’s mission as critical in the effort to give students a new perspective, both on the educational system and themselves. 

“The challenge of students having been told, often, they don't have potential, that they aren't worthy—or having them see a system that continues to fail them—it’s ongoing. And then you've got the effects of poverty, which make it even worse,” says Burke. She credits the makeup of the AmeriCorps volunteers—who often come from similar backgrounds as the students they mentor—with much of City Year’ success. “Our AmeriCorps members are the secret sauce. They can say to these students, 'Hey, I actually graduated from this high school, and I was the first in my family to go to college. If I can do this, so can you.'”

MPP and the Segal Fellowship

City Year wasn’t Burke’s first step in addressing social justice issues. After finishing her undergraduate degree, she joined Heller’s master's in public policy (MPP) inaugural class, where she was an immediate standout.

“There was never any doubt that Toni would be a tremendous success,” says Michael Doonan, MPP program director and assistant professor, who has run the MPP since its inception. “Her boundless energy and determination portended great success by sheer force of will, and I think the MPP program helped hone her analytical, administrative and theoretical skills to maximize her ability to enable and inspire the next generation to public service.” 

For Burke, Heller’s motto of “knowledge advancing social justice” is axiomatic—it contains a meaningful truth, something that represents a way of life.

“All of the content and programming, all of the debates and dialogues we had, they were rooted in a philosophy that there had to be greater social justice for all,” she says. “We knew we had to be working toward creating a more equitable and just society—we weren't engaging in these debates for our own development or advancement but because we had to do something for the broader good.”

She credits Doonan, along with Susan P. Curnan, Anita Hill and Andy Hahn, specifically with embodying the Heller spirit of gaining understanding through examination of an issue’s context and using steadfast, strategic planning to move issues forward. And, as is Heller’s motto, it’s more than just a philosophical approach.

“The level of discipline and rigor I learned at Heller has kept me and my organization sustainable and excellent in the work we've done,” Burke says, noting that City Year San José/Silicon Valley has grown from having a $1.7 million budget to a $6.3 million budget during her tenure and has expanded its footprint considerably, now working with 13 schools, eight more than when Burke became executive director. “It's required an intensive strategy and relentless discipline, which I would have never gotten without the Heller School.”

Something else Burke wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else is the vast network she cultivated as part of the Eli J. Segal Citizen Leadership Program at Heller’s Center for Youth and Communities, which focuses on grooming future leaders for a life in public service.

“The program breaks down traditional silos to ensure the needs of our communities are being heard and the solutions to those problems are coming from the people in the community to effect policy change at the highest levels,” says Tam Emerson, director of the Segal Fellowship program. “Our fellows, and Toni especially, are great representation of this work.” 

“There is no way of getting things done in a community or with organizations or policymakers if I don't have relationships with them,” says Burke, “and the impact and investment the Segal network has continued to make on me has been instrumental.” She regularly encounters other Segal Fellows, more or less everywhere she goes. “I've seen the power of networked leadership in real time. I go to an event, and the person on stage is a Segal founder or knew Eli Segal or is talking about him. It's happens over and over again.”

Large- and small-scale success

As a former policy fellow in Atlanta who helped advance the rebuilding efforts in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, Burke knows as well as anyone that all the programs and networks and good intentions in the world don’t mean much if they don’t lead to change. And Burke comes equipped with some seriously good results: Through City Year in Silicon Valley, over 7,000 students are touched daily, and 95 percent of her students make significant gains in math and literacy, and are getting 90+ days of classroom time added to their school year. They’re also are getting 120,000 hours of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) programming each year.

Burke points to a student and AmeriCorps member who inspires her—Eric was a fourth grader reading at a first-grade level when Burke first met him, and problematic in the classroom.

“Kayla saw potential in him,” Burke says of Eric’s AmeriCorps mentor, who got Eric enrolled in City Year’s Extended Learning Time program, through which they worked together on Eric’s science, writing and math, areas he gravitated toward. He not only went on to love science; he went on that year to win both the school science fair and the district science fair. Now he's a fifth grader, thriving and on grade level.

“When I saw Eric a few weeks ago, he was wearing a Carnegie Mellon T-shirt,” Burke recalls. “Eric has no idea where Carnegie Mellon is, so I asked him about it, and he said, 'I'm going to go to Carnegie Mellon because that's where Kayla went. And then I'm going to go to UCSF Medical Center to be a doctor, because Ms. Kayla is there now.’”

With that kind of clarity, it’s easy to see striving toward social equity for all can pay huge dividends.