In N.Y.C. Schools, Budding Philanthropists Aid Their Community for Credit

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Overheard recently:

"Battered women are afraid to speak out. ... This isn't right. ... We need to do something about this.''

"We need more positive role models [for youths] to let them know there's something better out there.''

"We also need to help the homeless.''

"I think we as a foundation should have a goal. We should instill long-term values, instead of short-term values. We need to develop a focus.''

Sound like a group of middle-aged foundation officers, clustered around an oak conference table in their ornate Park Avenue office? Yes, these are the voices of foundation officers, but they are not run-of-the-mill ones by any means.

The directors of this fund are all under age 19, carry backpacks instead of brief cases, and their office is a classroom at George Washington High School, in the Washington Heights section of New York City.

The young leaders of the "Student Empowerment Fund'' are enrolled in a class in philanthropy, community service, and leadership, offered for the first time this semester for social-studies credit at three inner-city high schools in New York: George Washington, James Monroe in the Bronx, and Automotive, a vocational school in Brooklyn.

Following in the education-through-experience tradition of John Dewey, the students will learn about grantmaking by actually doing it. With the backing of the Surdna Foundation, the 20 to 25 students enrolled in each of the classes will have $7,500 at their disposal each year, to distribute grants to fellow students organizing community-service projects.

Over the course of the semester, students create a foundation, solicit grant proposals and decide which to fund, monitor the progress of their projects, and write up a final evaluation.

In addition, the teenage grantmakers will study the history of philanthropy in America and take several field trips to foundation offices and the nonprofit organizations they fund.

The Surdna Foundation, a New York-based organization devoted to environmental issues and community revitalization, has awarded a $292,000 grant to the schools through the Fund for New York City Public Education to administer the program on a three-year trial basis.

If Surdna and the New York City Board of Education decide the program is a success, it may be expanded citywide. Already it has received the endorsement of New York City's schools chancellor, Joseph A. Fernandez, who has expressed interest in making community service a more integral part of the curriculum.

New Twist on an Old Idea

According to its organizers, the class is a unique twist on an old idea: What often works best in philanthropy is helping communities help themselves.

The project's underlying philosophy holds that the city's youths know best how to aid their communities, according to Surdna's executive director, Edward Skloot, the man behind the original idea.

"In the short term,'' he says, "I hope the students will have a much finer appreciation of what it is to be a grantmaker, how to analyze needs well ... and [that they will] widen their horizons in terms of community growth and community revitalization.''

The students at George Washington "are so used to being on the receiving end'' of philanthropists' benevolence, says Linda Frank, a consultant hired by Surdna to develop the program and to act as a liaison between the foundation and the three schools. The philanthropy class, she says, will give them an opportunity to reverse roles and play the part of benefactor.

Perhaps the course's greatest strength, according to the class's teacher at George Washington, Dana Willens, is that it asks students for their ideas--"the ultimate sign of respect in the adult community''--and then lets them control the money and the resources needed to implement them.

They Don't 'Know What 'No' Means'

In a recent class session at George Washington, students identified a broad range of social issues that concerned them: homelessness, drugs, the dropout rate, teenage pregnancy, the need for positive role models for minority youths, environmental issues and recycling, sexual assault, and domestic violence.

To the students, these issues are far from abstract. The social problems they grapple with, Ms. Willens explains, are a visible part of daily life in their community.

As one student observes with frustration, it is difficult to escape the social ills that surround him and his classmates.

"I'm tired of all the [drug] traffic that's on my block; it's almost like a drive-up window,'' Jacob Ullah says. "I can't handle being in that environment [and then] having to go home and do homework.''

But, for the most part, the students remain enthusiastic and seemingly undaunted by the challenges that lie ahead. Among the assets the students offer to the project are "a great deal of imagination and energy,'' according to Mr. Skloot, and "a real inability to know what the word 'no' means.''

Already, the course seems to be having an impact on the students' visions of themselves and their community.

With a voice reflecting concern and responsibility, Michele Cabrera observes: "When we were little, our parents helped us out, and society helped us out; now it's our turn to help our brothers and sisters.''

Ayisha Oglivie, the president of the student government at George Washington, muses on what the return on their investment of time and money will be. "When you give, you gain a lot,'' she says. "You gain more than the object, you gain the pride in knowing you helped someone out, you gain emotional prosperity.''

Martha B. Graham, the assistant vice president for corporate social policy at Chemical Bank, recently visited the class to discuss Chemical's grantmaking policies. Eight years ago, Chemical "adopted'' George Washington High School through a school-business partnership program.

At the time of her visit, two days after a classmate fatally shot two students at New York's Thomas Jefferson High School, Ms. Graham says she was feeling profoundly depressed "about how society treats its kids and how hopeless their lives seem.''

But she adds that she left the school feeling uplifted by the students in Ms. Willens's class. "They were so positive, and they are so hopeful,'' she says. "They seem to have such unlimited possibilities that it was really like making the sun come out on a very gloomy day.''

Reflecting on what it means to be a philanthropist, Franklin Fernandez comments, "Nowadays, people don't want to do nothing unless they get paid money.''

"But,'' the student continues, "when you help somebody and see the smile on their faces, you did something that gives you a feeling of joy that sometimes not even money can compare to.''

Vol. 11, Issue 26, Pages 6-7

Published in Print: March 18, 1992, as In N.Y.C. Schools, Budding Philanthropists Aid Their Community for Credit
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