The Young Philanthropists

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Overheard recently:

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

"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 shortterm 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 runof-the-mill by any means.

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

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 learn about grant making by actually doing it. With the backing of the Surdna Foundation, the 20 to 25 students enrolled in each of the classes 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. The teenage grant makers also 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 New York board of education's Fund for Public Schools, which will administer the program on a three-year trial basis. If Surdna and the New York City Board of Education deem the program a success, it may be expanded citywide. Already it has received the endorsement of the city's schools chancellor, Joseph Fernandez, who has expressed interest in making community service a more integral part of the curriculum.

According to its organizers, the course 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 youngsters know best how to aid their communities.

"In the short term,'' says Edward Skloot, Surdna's executive director, "I hope the students will have a much finer appreciation of what it is to be a grant maker and how to analyze needs well and that they will widen their horizons in terms of community growth and community revitalization.''

Many students at George Washington know about philanthropy, but only from the "receiving end,'' 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, says Dana Willens, the teacher of the class at George Washington, 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 resources needed to implement them.

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

To the students, these issues are far from abstract; the social problems they grapple with 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 they must confront. They bring "a great deal of imagination and energy'' to the project, says 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, student 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 student body president 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 Graham, the assistant vice president for corporate social policy at Chemical Bank, recently visited the class to discuss Chemical's grant-making policies. Her visit fell two days after a classmate fatally shot two students at New York's Thomas Jefferson High School, and Graham says she was feeling depressed "about how society treats its kids and how hopeless their lives seem.'' (See "A Time To Mourn,'' page 18.)

But she left the school feeling uplifted by the students in the 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, student Franklin Fernandez says: "Nowadays, people don't want to do nothing unless they get paid money. But 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.''--Meg Sommerfeld

Vol. 03, Issue 08, Page 1-24

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