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Faces of Change
This article originally appeared in the Bentley Magazine.
Marching for civil rights. Volunteering to teach business skills to members of a Ghanaian village. Organizing a relief effort following a natural disaster. Civic engagement takes many forms but runs on a single commitment: to improve the world or some corner of it.
What inspires people to action? In the 1960s and 1970s, according to sociologist and Bentley professor Jonathan White, there tended to be one sweeping issue at a time that people flocked to en masse. Baby boomers marched in support of equality for women and people of all races, political freedom and solidarity, and in protest of war and nuclear weapons.
"You saw millions of people rallying around one particular issue that took center stage," says White, who directs the Bentley Service-Learning and Civic Engagement Center (BSLCE). "In some ways, baby boomers were building the domestic civic character of our country."
Franklyn Salimbene, who led Bentley service-learning for a decade and now coordinates the undergraduate minor in Nonprofit Organizations, recalls pivotal moments that shaped his view of civic engagement.
"When President [John F.] Kennedy created the Peace Corps, I realized the important contributions people could make to the wider community, worldwide," says Salimbene, senior lecturer in law, taxation and financial planning. "Shortly after, President Lyndon B. Johnson created Volunteers in Service to America. These programs demonstrated how organized, focused initiatives could generate community engagement and action."
POWER OF EXPERIENCE
Ayo Haynes '90, MBA '91 has a healthy respect for what her boomer parents experienced as African-Americans in the 1950s and 1960s.
"They had to fight for integrated schools and women's rights, and I've benefited from that," says Haynes, a real estate agent and actress. "Growing up, I didn't need to fight because so much had already been gained — or so we thought. As a result, my generation tends to become more civically active later in life: through initiatives at their children’s schools or their workplace."
Experience plays a major role in people's approach to civic engagement. Haynes grew up in a "volunteering household." With her mother, a Presbyterian minister in New York City, she traveled on mission trips to Cuba and participated in yearly volunteer projects in the States. The alumna's current volunteer work, as board chair of Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP), ties back to those days. Growing up, she heard about children being removed from their families by the state’s child welfare agency. CWOP offers support and education that helps parents advocate for their families to stay together, provided it is safe to do so.
The transformative experience for Mitch Roschelle '83 was a service trip to Belize in 2011, sponsored by his employer.
"PwC employees taught financial literacy to children in the local schools, and I was able to see the power of skills-based volunteerism," says Roschelle, a partner at PwC and one of the firm's business development leaders. "It was life altering for me."
The alumnus was inspired to replicate the initiative in the States, with impressive results: PwC's Earn Your Future program has reached 3.5 million children and educators across the U.S.
When Amanda Miranda '13 joined PwC after graduation, she volunteered in Boston with the very program Roschelle had launched years earlier. She also developed a passion for workplace diversity.
"As an Afro-Latina, this is something that has always been important to me," Miranda says. "I want to have a hand at changing company culture and make sure diverse perspectives are heard."
Today, Miranda holds a post at Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts that includes rolling out diversity and inclusion initiatives in the workplace and at the board level. She credits Bentley professors and service-learning projects through the BSLCE for providing a broad perspective of civic engagement.
"I've been fortunate to have mentors who support me," says Miranda, who is the first in her family to graduate from college. "When I got the chance to mentor students at the McDevitt Middle School in Waltham, I was excited to give others that same kind of support. I saw how my work helped students grasp academic concepts, establish good study habits and build confidence."
Community partnerships are an important part of the BSLCE. A recent $500,000 grant from the Yawkey Foundations, for example, will support three initiatives: a civic engagement leadership seminar, nonprofit internships and a nonprofit career fair.
"We are helping to develop the civic and nonprofit leaders of today and tomorrow," says White. "The opportunity to create deep connections to the nonprofit world in turn creates more opportunities for students to apply their business and liberal studies skills and knowledge to improve the lives of others."
Paul Marobella '92 points to a shift of focus among fellow members of Generation X.
"We are coming into leadership roles across society and business, and I've seen a shift from building careers to helping others in need," says the alumnus, who is chairman and CEO at Havas Creative, U.S. In addition, Marobella is board chair for the nonprofit Inner-City Education program, which supports youth education and hockey opportunities in the Chicago area. "I would imagine this is a function of seeking a higher purpose in life, and putting resources and influence to work beyond our jobs."
Information technology and greater levels of education have further influenced civic engagement. Millennials and their successors "know a lot more about a lot more issues," says White of the BSLCE. "Today if I ask 100 students about their issue of passion, I may get 30 different answers, whereas in the past it would have been a dozen issues. So their involvement is much more spread out."
Recent generations, he says, are confident in their ability to change the world for the better. "Millennials and Gen Z have more opportunities to consider both domestic and global issues such as global warming, and they grasp the interconnectedness of issues. When they start looking at the environment, for example, they can't help but intersect it with human rights and human issues all around the world."
While fair compensation is important to millennials, they don’t work just for a paycheck."How Millennials Want to Work and Live," Gallup study
They look to employers for this same kind of commitment. A Gallup study, "How Millennials Want to Work and Live," reports that while fair compensation is important to millennials, they don’t work just for a paycheck — they want to work for organizations with a mission and purpose beyond profitability.
"It doesn’t matter if millennials are in leadership positions or not, they are driving our workforce," says Roschelle. "If they feel very connected to community and it is important for them to give back, organizations have an obligation to provide service opportunities."
Marobella sees social media as a platform for younger generations to build movements quickly. "Millennials swarm around issues and activate quickly to raise awareness through their mastery of technology. They also have a healthy skepticism of large, faceless charities that have come under fire for spending less of each dollar for the cause. Platforms like GoFundMe have allowed a direct line to the difference they make and where every dollar goes."
Most millennials, he adds, are "still building their career and financial strength, so they place more value on pledging their talents and time, versus dollars."
LESSONS FROM THE PAST
Despite differences in how the generations define and pursue civic engagement, all can learn from each other, according to White. He is U.S. board chair of WE, a movement that brings nearly 4 million young people together for civic engagement initiatives worldwide.
"WE is constantly looking at past movements to learn what worked — and what didn't — in order to innovate new ways moving forward," says White, noting a similar approach by the Millennial Campus Network as it develops a social movement of campus involvement. He sits on that organization’s Global Education Council, whose co-chair is Bentley President Gloria Cordes Larson.
White recently contributed the chapter "Generation Y Not: Millennial Activism for Multi-Use Structural Change" to Welcome to the Revolution: Universalizing Resistance for Social Justice and Democracy in Perilous Times (Routledge, 2017). The book draws lessons from prominent civic activists such as Medea Benjamin, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader and Juliet Schor.
Salimbene says that service-learning at Bentley was founded on the work of inspirational leaders who called for social change — Martin Luther King Jr., for one.
"My greatest appreciation for the importance of civic engagement was during my years as director of the [service-learning] program," he says. "I saw students get inspired and energized when they engaged in hands-on community initiatives related to their course work. They were developing attitudes and approaches toward their responsibility as citizens."
CONSCIENCE AT WORK
Many millennials, like Julie Delongchamp '15, came out of college looking for opportunities. Bentley service initiatives had shown her the profound impact of civic engagement. As an assistant at an adult ESL school in Waltham, she got to practice her French-speaking skills while teaching English to help Haitian immigrants support their families through better jobs.
"It was not about just giving them a job," she says. "It was about helping them identify and learn skills that would allow them to help themselves."
... if we want a community to become stronger, we need to break barriers and take risks … teach and learn from people we've never met.John Drew '69
Delongchamp has found a home for her business skills and social conscience at Wellington Management. In addition to her work as an environmental, social and governance research associate, the alumna volunteers with the firm’s nonprofit foundation. She reviews grant applications from organizations that support educational opportunities for economically disadvantaged youth. This work led her to volunteer with Let's Get Ready (LGR); the organization operates in 10+ schools in Greater Boston, providing free college access and success support for students from low-income backgrounds and those who are the first in their family to attend college.
"I've helped students with their college applications, college essays and résumés once they are in college," she says. "My favorite story about working with LGR was another instance when I got to help an immigrant articulate his story through a personal statement, so that he could make the most of his college experience in the U.S."
This kind of interaction across ethnicities has the greatest potential for impact, says John Drew '69, president and CEO of anti-poverty organization Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD).
"I often see first and second generations cluster together to help each other in organizations such as the Irish American Club or Portuguese American Club; people are comfortable around people they know," explains Drew, noting that ABCD sees 32 different nationalities and languages on a daily basis. "But if we want a community to become stronger, we need to break barriers and take risks … teach and learn from people we've never met."
He should know: In 1966, Bentley's Rae D. Anderson '35 took a chance on him. Drew was living in Boston public housing when he approached the professor and dean about educational opportunities. Drew worked hard to get into the school’s accounting program, and ultimately graduated with high honors. After working at KPMG, he took an auditing gig at ABCD, and ended up joining the agency. Its board, he says, is purposefully diverse, ranging from the lower-income people they serve to city councilors to members of NAACP. "We are all working toward a common goal."
Drew sees generational connections every day. "It can be as simple as an elderly woman knitting booties for a baby, or someone calling to check in on an elderly resident who lives alone."
I want my daughter to know how important it is to act on behalf of people.Ayo Haynes '90, MBA '91
What will civic engagement look like for a new generation? Haynes introduced the concept to her young daughter and made it a fun experience. To celebrate her second birthday, they raised money toward building a school in Kenya via a sponsored 10-block walk through their New York City neighborhood; total strangers joined in to support the cause. A few weeks later, mother and daughter attended their first demonstration together: the Million Women March in New York.
"I want my daughter to know how important it is to act on behalf of people," says Haynes, who is writing a children's book on volunteerism. "Every birthday we will do some kind of volunteer project and invite friends to join in. Getting gifts is nice, but the true lesson is in giving to others. Teaching this at a young age will help make civic engagement the fabric of our society. It is how you raise a world-changer."
Alison Davis-Blake, the former business school dean at the Universities of Michigan and Minnesota, was inaugurated as the eighth president of Bentley University in a ceremony attended by students, faculty, staff, alumni and other members of the extended Bentley community.