University News

Learning by giving: SOC 1870A

By
Contributing Writer

Receiving $15,000 for a college class might sound like a laughable dream, but in SOC 1870A: “Investing in Social Change,” a course offered by the Department of Sociology in conjunction with the Swearer Center for Public Service, that is exactly what happens. There is, of course, a catch — students do not keep the $15,000, but instead work in teams of five to award the money in grants to one or more community organizations.

After reading about a philanthropy-based class at another school, Martin Granoff P’93 approached the Office of the Dean of the College about funding a similar class at the University. They brought the idea to Roger Nozaki MAT’89, director of the Swearer Center for Public Service and associate dean of the College for community and global engagement, who then approached Associate Professor of Sociology Ann Dill about co-teaching the class.

The first section of the class was taught in the fall of 2008. Last fall, a second donor, Winston Himsworth ’62, began providing additional funding, increasing the capital for each team and the number of available seats in the class from 12 to 18.

While both teaching assistants and professors guide students through the philanthropic process, the course requires a significant degree of student initiative and teamwork. The students must draw from multiple perspectives to move beyond philanthropic theory to actual practice, Nozaki said.

“We were always joking about how this class puts you in the position of a philanthropist and how you might not ever get to the situation again, or it could be 50 years until you have that kind of money to give away,” said Addie Thompson ’12.5, a student in the class last year and a teaching assistant for the current section. “But you also learn how to be a microphilanthropist, how giving away five dollars here and there can still make a difference.”

The course attracts students from diverse backgrounds, including sociology, biology, mathematics and anthropology, Nozaki said.

“The group is 18 incredible people that are passionate about this, they know a lot about philanthropy,” Thompson said. “Or, they know nothing about it and just have this willingness and eagerness to learn.”

This past year there were 34 applicants for the 18 spots.

In addition to assigned readings, the class also features a number of speakers, a majority of whom are Brown alums who work for Rhode Island or Providence nonprofits.

Both professors bring with them a unique philanthropic background. Before coming to Brown, Nozaki worked in executive positions for the GE Foundation and the Hitachi Foundation. Dill’s research and teaching focuses on nonprofits, non-government agencies and community welfare. She plans to teach social work in Croatia next year.

Dill has also taught SOC 1540: “Human Needs and Social Services,” a course in which students evaluate grant recipients. “The interesting question with nonprofit work is when is a failure a failure. … If a project failed but still managed to help, say, 20 people, it’s difficult to define what success is,” said Tim Natividad ’12, who took both classes and is currently a teaching assistant for “Investing in Social Change.”

While $15,000 may seem like a lot of money, such a high value is important — community programs must feel that potential grant money is large enough to apply, Dill said.

“It’s been illuminating for me to go into these national-level conversations feeling that, on some level, our classroom conversations are ahead of these national leaders,” Nozaki said.

“Everyone has had their life-changing or career-changing class at Brown,” Natividad said. “This was mine.”