Doing Good So Others Can Do Well
by Susan Warmbrunn
Ask these Scripps alumnae about their achievements, and they talk about someone else’s success.
Dana Cook Dakin ’64 highlights a woman in Ghana who used incremental loans to expand her bakery into a business that now sells almost 8,000 loaves of bread a week.
Pandwe Gibson ’04 describes a 15-year-old eighth grader in New Orleans who was “leading people toward chaos” before getting serious about school and becoming a drum major in the marching band.
Hannah-Beth Jackson ’71 lauds women who relied on small stipends and supersized courage to escape domestic violence.
Scripps students and alumnae who have gone into public service say they want to do good so others can do well. Their drive seems to stem from personal history, deep-seated beliefs, and a penchant for problem-solving as well as a mix of chronic curiosity, occasional outrage, and a certain amount of chutzpah.
“I love being part of a community that is working toward the success of others,” said Laurel Horn ’08, a Teach For America alumna who works with special education students at Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School in Washington, DC. “I love watching other people thrive.”
Nationally, applications to public service organizations like Teach For America have soared in recent years. In 2010, the organization received more than 46,000 applications, a 30% increase over the previous year, according to Kaitlin Gastrock, regional communications director for Teach For America. The Peace Corps and AmeriCorps programs report similar spikes in applications.
Last year, about 13% of Scripps’ senior class applied to Teach For America, and seven graduates ultimately joined. Two seniors went into the Peace Corps. But definitions of public service encompass so many fields it’s impossible to quantify exactly how many students ultimately work in that arena, said Vicki Klopsch, the director of Career Planning & Resources at Scripps.
Many commentators attribute the increased interest in public service to a desire to put off entering a withered and unwelcoming job market. Klopsch says that theory doesn’t fit the undergraduates she knows.
“Our students aren’t in the habit of avoiding anything,” Klopsch said. “They aren’t driven by a paycheck; they’re looking for places where they can make an impact and be challenged.”
Stories of the places they’ve gone and the challenges they’ve met illustrate the advice Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords ’93 gave in her 2009 commencement speech at Scripps: “When you tune out the critical voices in your head and embrace what your heart is saying, you don’t just make your own life better, you make the world better.”
Growing Gold Ties
Last year in New Orleans, Pandwe Gibson helped open a charter school in a building that had been chewed up by years of neglect, then pummeled by Hurricane Katrina. Sheets of plywood covered gaps in the floor, “insane asylum” green paint peeled off the walls. When it rained outside, it rained inside. So many dead pigeons were found in one spot it became known as the “bird room.”
The building had housed an elementary school, which was taken over by ReNEW, a charter school management organization that specializes in turning around failing schools. Working with ReNEW, Gibson helped write a charter and then was named principal for sixth, seventh, and eighth grades of Batiste Cultural Arts Academy, the new kindergarten through eighth grade charter school.
Some students had their lives uprooted by Katrina in 2005. They lost homes, loved ones, and any sense of stability. They may have had to repeat grades and shuttle between guardians. Several middle school pupils are as old as 16 and as big as Shaq, Gibson said. Thirty percent of her approximately 250 students started the academic year reading at a first- or second-grade level, according to The Times-Picayune.
Today, the building isn’t perfect, but the bird room has been replaced by classrooms named after teachers’ alma maters — there’s a Harvard room, a Stanford room, a Tulane room. Gibson often tells her students, “Smart isn’t something you are; smart is something you get.”
At Batiste Cultural Arts Academy, getting smart is getting cool. Middle schoolers wear uniforms, but they earn their ties, different colors for different accomplishments. At the end of the first quarter last year, Gibson handed out gold ties to students who scored at least 80% on assessment tests. Only six qualified.
“After the assembly, I had two of the most popular students come up to me and say, ’I’m going to get me a gold tie,’” Gibson said. “That just set the tone.”
By the end of the next quarter, almost 40 students had earned gold ties.
“It’s amazing to see the number of ties growing in the school,” Gibson said.
Working in a school almost a thousand miles northeast of New Orleans, Laurel Horn also has seen her students succeed despite an array of challenges in their community. Thurgood Marshall Academy lies on the east side of the Anacostia River in Washington, DC. In the surrounding neighborhood, almost half of the adults are functionally illiterate, and only eight percent have gone to college, said Alexandra Pardo, the academic director at the Academy. More than 70% of the students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch.
When Horn took her students to an exhibit about the Berlin Wall, she asked if they could think of another example of a city divided between two realities.
“Every hand shot up,” Horn said. “They live in Washington, DC, but there is this whole other world of DC on the other side of the river.”
Horn tries to help her students break down both academic and social barriers. In her first year teaching, her group of ninth graders increased their reading levels by an average of almost three years. But Horn says qualitative moments matter more to her than quantitative measures, like the day a ninth grader announced to the class, “I’m having a challenging day — can everyone tell me something they appreciate about me?”
“The most important thing is seeing them believe in their value to themselves, to each other, and to the world,” Horn said.
Small is Big
Instead of being overwhelmed by the magnitude of need or the extremity of despair, Scripps College alumnae who have gone into public service believe big change can start small: a gold tie, a $22 loan, a loaf of bread.
In 2003, Dana Dakin didn’t try to eradicate poverty in all of Africa when she founded WomensTrust, a nonprofit providing funds for loans, schooling, and healthcare for girls and women in Ghana. She began in a single village with loans ranging from $22 to $33 for women who had small businesses but not the means to expand them. Since then, WomensTrust has provided more than 2,000 loans, given some 1,400 women and infants medical care, and awarded more than 600 scholarships to girls who otherwise couldn’t afford to go to school.
Dakin was 60 when she founded WomensTrust. She reminds people that every life follows its own script, and there are opportunities to give back in every act. She says her trajectory reflects the adage that life is lived in thirds: first you learn, then you earn, then you return.
“Every skill you build in your life is going to be hugely applicable in social change and public service,” said Dakin, who drew on her experience creating a marketing agency for financial institutions about two decades before launching WomensTrust.
Dakin encourages people nearing retirement to think about how they would like to spend the next chapter of their lives.
“You don’t have to go into ’3G’ land — golf, grandchildren, and gardening,” she said. “I’m not against any of those, but you really can do something more. There is time.”
In two years, when Dakin turns 70, she hopes so many people will be starting their own nonprofits “that I will get in my camper and tweet my way across the country teaching women everything I know.”
Like Dakin, Eli Winkelman ’07 started small. She didn’t have a “specific path or motivation” when she began baking challah in 2004, her first year at Scripps. After other students joined her in the kitchen, she realized they could sell their bread and donate the cash for a good cause. Challah for Hunger has now raised nationwide almost a quarter of a million dollars for refugees in Darfur and nonprofit organizations around the country.
When former President Bill Clinton spoke at The Claremont Colleges in 2007, Winkelman approached him with a brochure and a loaf of challah. Several months later, Clinton sat between Alicia Keys and Bono at MTV’s Clinton Global Initiative forum and described Challah for Hunger as a vivid example of the kind of creative contributions young people can make: “Jewish girls baking Jewish bread saving Muslim kids’ lives in Africa,” Clinton said. “You start from where you are, whatever your gift is.”
Winkelman’s gift for mixing flour and yeast evolved into a nonprofit that has more than 40 chapters across the country. Today, Winkelman works from her home office in Austin, Texas, when she’s not on the road visiting chapters or giving talks about how
to start a nonprofit from scratch.
“Whatever you enjoy, unless it’s harming other people or things, there’s a way you can use that for good,” Winkelman said.
Trailblazers Seeking Pathfinders
For anyone interested in creating her own public service project, Winkelman recommends flagging down a mentor. “There are people all around us with knowledge and wisdom,” she said.
Winkelman was about a year out of school when Challah for Hunger began burgeoning a bit beyond control. She contacted Scripps’ Career Planning & Resources to find people with experience running nonprofits. CP&R put her in touch with Dakin and another alumna, Diana Ho ’71, who is now the board chair for Challah for Hunger.
“Being Scripps women, we’re taught to speak out and reach out,” said Fry, who designed her own bioethics major at Scripps, then moved to Washington, DC, where she earned a master’s degree in public health from George Washington University, lobbied on behalf of nonprofits, and did a policy fellowship at the National Academy of Sciences.
After Gabrielle Giffords arrived in Washington, DC, as a newly elected congresswoman in 2007, Fry hosted a reception with the Office of Alumnae Relations, drawing more than 60 alumnae to celebrate the first Scripps College alumna elected to national public office.
After the reception, Giffords sent Fry a handwritten note saying to let her know if Fry ever thinks of running for office. Fry doesn’t plan to go into elected politics, but meeting “such an incredible role model, who has such a similar background, I thought, I could do this too.”
Hannah-Beth Jackson would like to see more women think “I could do this too” and ascend the steps of the Capitol, where women make up about 17% of the current U.S. Congress.
“Women have a different perspective, and it’s a perspective that should be at the table,” said Jackson, who served in the California State Legislature for six years.
Jackson circulated her first petition when she was about seven years old and Little League wouldn’t let her play baseball with the boys because she was a girl. She’s been passionate about politics ever since. She believes that it is ultimately in our own self-interest to be unselfish citizens.
“We all have a responsibility to each other,” Jackson said. “If we are a society that thinks only about ourselves, we will not survive.”
Getting from Giving
Those who work in public service often say they get as much as they give.
Hannah Pickar ’11, a psychology major who has worked summers and volunteered weekends at a camp for children with life-threatening illnesses, describes helping others not as a duty but as a personal imperative and profound pleasure.
“It’s like a drive,” said Pickar. “I don’t think, ’I’m going to go do some public service’; I think, ’I’m going to go play with some really deserving children.’”
Yet public service comes with tradeoffs. Salaries can be relatively low, personal sacrifices high, and free time rare.
If you go into elected politics, you give up your anonymity and usually the prospect of a quiet, uninterrupted dinner on the town, said Jackson, who is now president of Speak Out California, a web forum for political discourse, and executive director of Renew California, a progressive think tank.
But if she adds up the impact of the bills she’s written on everything from education and domestic violence to air quality and pesticide control, she says the pluses of public life have far outweighed the minuses.
“The rewards in feeling you’ve done something and helped people are enormous,” said Jackson. “That’s a big pro column.”
Studies show that being engaged with the community isn’t just a good thing to do, it’s good for you, says Nancy Neiman Auerbach, associate professor of international political economy at Scripps.
“Happiness has less correlation with the amount of money you make than with the number of connections you have, with being involved with something bigger than yourself,” Auerbach said.
Auerbach requires her students to participate in a variety of activities in the community, including growing and preparing organic food with at-risk youth and women who are on parole.
“I make sure all my classes connect theory to practice,” Auerbach said. “It’s pointless to think about my role as a political scientist in terms of coming up with fancy models — ultimately, it has to be about making a difference in the world. Politics is really depressing otherwise.”
Auerbach uses the term “community engagement” instead of “community service” because she thinks “service” implies a oneway street instead of a mutual exchange.
Assistant Professor of Music David Cubek agrees with Auerbach that students receive when they give and learn when they teach.
“Giving back to society what one has learned is not solely altruistic — it’s a win-win situation,” said Cubek, who is also the director of the Claremont Concert Orchestra. “Through the process of sharing knowledge and talent with other people, the teacher continues growing.”
Cubek supervises two students, one from Scripps, the other from Pomona College, who began teaching guitar and music fundamentals to teens at San Antonio High School, an alternative school in Claremont.
“I think it is a must for each of us to give back whatever our talent is,” said Cubek. “I think it should be an essential part of everyone’s education.”
With its tree-trimmed courtyards and storybook gardens, Scripps could be an easy place to retreat from the rest of reality. Instead, Scripps women have been using their talent and education to do some good in the wider world since the College was founded in 1926, six years after women won the right to vote.
When Laurel Horn visited Scripps as a prospective student, her mother took a picture of her next to the inscription from Ellen Browning Scripps that says part of a college’s duty is to develop in its students “the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.”
“This is what I hope for my students as well,” said Horn, who earned a master’s degree in special education while working with Teach For America in Washington, DC. “It doesn’t just say we want to develop you as thinkers; it says we want to develop your ability to live your life by what you believe in.”
As a teacher, Horn believes that one way we can evaluate our education system is to examine its outcomes and ask ourselves: “What should the end results look like? Who are we developing? What kinds of citizens are we producing?”
At Scripps, one answer to those questions may be these women, changing the world.
CAPTION: Left, Pandwe Gibson and two of her “gold tie” charter school students. Below, Laurel Horn coaches the girls volleyball team at Thurgood Marshall Academy.
Erin Fry with Gabrielle Giffords at a Scripps alumnae event in DC, in 2007, celebrating the first Scripps College alumna elected to national public office.
Hannah Pickar’s campers pour chocolate pudding over her during Silly Olympics at The Painted Turtle camp in Lake Hughes, California; the goal was for the children to get the counselors as messy as possible.
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