Southwestern Students Do Good and Do It Well
November 08, 2018
On November 1, 2018, the students of the Southwestern first-year seminar Doing Good and Doing It Well: The Philosophy and Practice of Philanthropy awarded the Georgetown Family YMCA a grant of $3,500. The funding—provided by generous donations from First Texas Bank and Atmos Energy Corporation—supports a nonprofit organization that represents the local community’s diversity while hosting accessible, inclusive after-school programming for children.
The SU students, who took on the moniker BC for Change because they live in Brown–Cody Hall, specifically recognized YMCA’s STEAM Power for Girls, which aims to develop young girls’ interests and skills in science, technology, engineering, art, and math. BC for Change felt that the YMCA program best fulfilled the grant requirements because their classes enhance children’s problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. The student grantors were also impressed that the STEAM Power for Girls teacher, Ms. Nancy, makes learning fun for her young students by engaging them in hands-on experiments, from discovering differences in fluid density by mixing oil, water, and food coloring in a Mason jar to sparking their creativity through engineering marshmallow-and-spaghetti sculptures. Hannah Houk ’22 says that “watching the interactions between the girls and the involvement in the activities”—including collecting and interpreting data from their experiments—”made me excited to go back to class and advocate for this program.”
Accepting a jumbo check at the formal award ceremony, YMCA Staff Development Director Cathleen “Cat” Phelps said, “We are very excited about this opportunity. … I want to thank the Southwestern community for seeing value in what the YMCA provides to this community and seeing value in that we’re just an ordinary group of people who wake up every day and hope to try to do something extraordinary for somebody. … Some lives have been made better, and we’ve moved the needle in making the world a better place. We know with your support and this grant, there are a lot of little girls who are going to get awarded a lab coat. … You know you’ve moved the needle when they say, ‘We’re scientists now.’”
In her acceptance speech, Phelps also congratulated the BC for Change students. “This is a really big thing to do. I’ve written a lot of grants, … and grant writing is harder for the person reading it and making that determination.” Houk confirms that group decision-making was one of the most difficult aspects of the seminar. “The challenges have been coming to a consensus with the whole class about what population we want to serve and how best to do it,” she says. “In the beginning, we all agreed we wanted to award this grant to an organization that benefited children. Everyone had wonderful ideas and passions about helping people and organizations in Georgetown, but agreeing on what program could best do that was a struggle.”
From foundations to decision-making and grant-awarding, the class has been a crash course in grant-giving. The first-year students developed a request for proposals (RFP) based on Georgetown Health Foundation’s (GHF’s) Southeast Georgetown Needs Assessment (2015), in which the students discovered a significant need for after-school programming that would support children’s academic and emotional development but also provide their parents or grandparent caretakers time to fulfill other responsibilities, such as work or grocery shopping. BC for Change then evaluated applications from local organizations, conducted site visits, and selected the recipient. For Antonia Renfroe ’22, visiting the YMCA’s small facility and the sites of the other finalists was both the highlight and the greatest challenge of the grant-giving process. “Hearing the stories and seeing the faces of the individuals and their impact was very moving. There were multiple people in my class who were moved to tears on multiple site visits,” she recalls. But Renfroe and her classmates had to discount that “overwhelming flood of emotions” to reach an objective decision about who would serve as the best steward of the BC for Change grant. “All of these people are doing amazing things,” she says. “As I sat there trying to eliminate emotional bias and choose the organization that best fit the parameters of what we asked for in our RFP, I realized this would be the most difficult part of this class.”
BC for Change’s decisions were informed by general advice about philanthropy from a range of guest speakers who visited their seminar throughout the semester, including SU Director of Development Taylor Kidd, SU Associate Director of Grants Niki Bertrand, Mission Capital CEO Madge Vasquez ’94, First Texas Bank Vice President and Director of Marketing and Communications Janie Freiberg, GHF Program Officer Lorna Hermosura, and GHF CEO and a longtime supporter of the course Scott Alarcón. The student donors also read relevant texts from across the centuries and disciplines—including neuroscience, religion, history, philosophy, and even science fiction—by such authors as Jane Addams, Aristotle, Alexis de Tocqueville, Andrew Carnegie, Ursula Le Guin, and Martin Luther King Jr. “Applying class discussions and readings to the real-world process of grant-giving that makes a difference to an organization and to those it impacts has been more enlightening and uplifting than I could have imagined,” reflects Erin Flessner ’22. “In a lot of classes, you don’t often get the chance to see immediate application of curriculum. In Doing Good and Doing it Well, it is the intent to do just that.”
“Applying class discussions and readings to the real-world process of grant-giving that makes a difference to an organization and to those it impacts has been more enlightening and uplifting than I could have imagined.”
The Doing Good seminar is the brainchild of Associate Professor and Chair of History Melissa K. Byrnes, who first taught the course in 2011; this is the fifth incarnation of the class. An expert in migration, race, and the French empire, Byrnes has been interested in humanitarianism and community development for nearly 20 years: her dissertation focused on the social-welfare and housing policies affecting North African migrants in Paris in the decades following World War II, and before that, she earned a master of science in foreign service specializing in foreign policy and international security. But Byrnes’s research does not influence what goes on in Doing Good: she has no say in which organization the students choose. In fact, Byrnes credits the course with both helping her develop her scholarly understanding of local activism and providing her a rationale for teaching what she teaches. For her, the great joy in facilitating the course is to watch the serious, sophisticated discussions students engage in during the decision-making process. “What’s so important is how much intellectual growth has happened in just these past two months,” she says. “[The students] are asking difficult questions, comparing ideas, and making connections within the class but also to other things they’re learning in other courses and to the community outside the University.”
In the spring, the class members will gather again to assess whether the YMCA has accomplished the outcomes defined by the grant. But in the meantime, BC for Change is clearly already enacting what they’ve learned beyond the grant-giving phase of their seminar. In early October, the Doing Good group won a $250 dinner for having the highest proportion of students in a single first-year seminar attend the Exploring Majors Fair. But instead of enjoying the award themselves, the students voted to donate the money to the Locker, another local organization considered for the grant.
Byrnes expresses pride at her students’ decision but is not surprised because the seminar is “a really powerful and empowering experience.” For example, in past versions of the course, various students have gone on to volunteer with the organizations who applied for grants. During the first year she taught the course, a student was so excited about the NEST Empowerment Center, one of the runners-up for the award, that he went on to spend two nights a week volunteering there for the rest of his time at Southwestern. “One of the first things [the Doing Good students] are learning in college is that whatever they’re doing within these walls goes beyond them,” Byrnes says. “When I really see them taking it further and taking on leadership roles and they don’t make the mistakes we see people making, I get really impassioned and inspired.”
Renfroe believes that her perspective on donor–recipient relationships specifically and philanthropy more generally has been expanded by an idea repeated in the assigned readings as well as by the guest speakers. “Essentially, this mantra, which I will now live by, is ‘Do things with people, not to them,’ she says. “This ultimately solves many issues in causing harm to those you are trying to help. You show that you value the people you are trying to help and also give what they truly need, not what you decide they need.”
For Houk, the takeaway of the seminar underscores the irony of giving: that the ultimate goal of philanthropy is to put itself out of business and destabilize the systems that leave people in need. “The most important thing I’ve learned is that you have to communicate with the community you’re serving to figure out what they really need, not just assume that you know how to fix the problem that you suppose exists,” she says. “It’s important to work with people, not for people. If we implement a program to help fix an issue within a community, it’s important to teach those within the community the skills to continue the benefits of the program so they can still thrive after we’re gone.”