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Positive Change

In a university-wide effort, USC Dornsife undergraduates teach civic engagement and entrepreneurship to elementary schoolchildren — who learn that every penny counts.

Through Ann Crigler’s “Civic Engagement and Leadership” course, USC Dornsife students teach children how to raise funds for community organizations benefiting homeless shelters, animal rescue groups, community gardens, senior centers and other causes. Illustration by Roger Chouinard.
Through Ann Crigler’s “Civic Engagement and Leadership” course, USC Dornsife students teach children how to raise funds for community organizations benefiting homeless shelters, animal rescue groups, community gardens, senior centers and other causes. Illustration by Roger Chouinard.

Fifth grader Gillian Morgan explained why her class decided to raise money to help the homeless.

“First we were talking about our own families and what they mean to us, then we talked about people living on the streets that don’t have anything,” said the animated little girl who aspires to become an actress or politician.

“They carry signs saying ‘please help me.’ And we don’t want that in our community. We want people to have homes.”

Fifth grader Jada McKnight also voted to fundraise for the homeless.

“The community needs help and we need to start caring for it,” she said.

Located south of USC’s University Park campus, the girls’ class at Lou Dantzler Preparatory Charter Elementary School had been discussing the concept of community engagement with USC Dornsife students, who were there to introduce the Penny Harvest program at the school.


Fifth graders Gillian Morgan (left) and Jada McKnight, along with the rest of their class, participated in the Penny Harvest program’s “Wheel of Caring” lesson in which they discussed the meaning of community and how they can create positive change. Photo by Ann Crigler.

The largest child philanthropy program in the United States, Penny Harvest teaches 4- to 14-year olds the principles of civic engagement and empowerment as vehicles for positive change. Developed by nonprofit organization Common Cents, Penny Harvest features a fundraising component in which students collect money from neighbors, friends and families to grant to an organization of their choosing.

Program participant Ana Arce, a USC Dornsife junior and political science major, said her immediate goal going into a school is to get the children to relax and open up, especially the shier students.

“It helps when we start talking about what issues in their community the students might want to address,” she said. “One girl talked about how she’d had a beloved dog that passed away, and now she wanted to help the stray dogs she saw wandering the streets. Everyone had their own individual story and it was so interesting to see how their personal experiences allowed them to connect to this project.”

These children are growing up in the era of Facebook, online media and omnipresent smartphones — none requiring face-to-face contact. One could argue that teaching civic engagement to today’s children is more important than ever.

Learning to engage with one’s community has the potential to shape the next generation in a positive way and reinforce the kind of meaningful connections that enrich the human experience, said Ann Crigler, professor of political science in USC Dornsife.

Crigler believes that civic engagement begins with actions as simple as collecting stray pennies for a good cause. She came up with the idea for the program while on sabbatical last year, when she was inspired by her brother-in-law who sits on the board of Common Cents.

“I thought, ‘I have some time here to come up with something hands-on, to create an opportunity to get multiple professors from USC to work together on a project and to combine research with teaching,’ ” said Crigler, who quickly began assembling a group of interested collaborators.

Crigler then developed and launched her new course, “Applied Politics: Civic Engagement and Leadership,” in Fall 2012. Its goal is to introduce and implement the Penny Harvest program in Los Angeles schools and at USC. In the process, her students learn some of the complex entrepreneurial lessons associated with starting up a nonprofit organization.

One of Crigler’s students, political science senior and Joint Educational Project (JEP) veteran Eric Deng, explained why he found those lessons valuable. He enrolled in the inaugural class to engage in something he felt would yield real results, beyond papers, test scores and grades.

“I’d been taking a lot of theory classes, and as a senior I suddenly realized, I’m about to go out into the real world and I’m actually going to have to do things and apply all this theory,” Deng said. “I thought this class would be a great opportunity to make an impact in the community.”

Deng spoke of the complexities of starting a nonprofit from scratch. He recounted why the class was able to visit only one school during the first semester of the program, Sacred Heart Elementary School.

“We would have liked to do more, but that was part of the challenge — dealing with the bureaucracy of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). But, once in the school, it was a really cool experience.”

The program’s outreach was initially intended to focus on Boyle Heights, a working-class Latino neighborhood east of downtown that the class explored during field trips early in the semester. But due to complications with procuring formal school district approval, training participating schools and finding support staff available at each school, the Fall class received approval for only Sacred Heart in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood, near the USC Health Sciences campus.

Although thrilled to get permission to work at Sacred Heart, the undergraduates learned that things don’t always go according to plan, despite best efforts. They learned how to adapt to changes on the fly.


Students at Lou Dantzler Preparatory Charter Elementary organized a pep rally to launch their school’s Penny Harvest program. They pasted pennies on their T-shirts for the celebration, which included a choreographed dance routine. Photo by Laura Paisley.

Following guidelines set forth by Penny Harvest, USC student participants visit classrooms in small groups and teach children about civic engagement and the program through a “Wheel of Caring” lesson. In this exercise, children discuss what community is and how anyone can be part of a community in order to become a change agent. Then the children decide what issues they want to address.

After each classroom discussion, the USC students help the school as a whole to develop a “Wheel of Caring” pie chart, composed of different wedges displaying each classroom’s chosen philanthropic cause.

Deng recalled visiting a sixth grade classroom at Sacred Heart.

“We asked the kids questions to get them to think in a big way about their community and how to make decisions independently,” Deng said. “That’s the beauty of the program — where the money goes is up to the kids. They did all the research. We were there to help them out, but they ultimately make the decisions.”

On Feb. 1, 2013, Lou Dantzler Preparatory Charter Elementary School, a newly participating school for the Spring 2013 semester, organized a pep rally to launch the program and kick off its two-week penny collection period. Children from each classroom presented their philanthropic ideas. 

As part of the event, a group of girls choreographed a dance routine and a cheer, performing in line with pennies taped to their shirts in the shape of letters, collectively spelling out P-E-N-N-I-E-S. A fifth-grade boy contributed to the performance by drumming rhythmically on two overturned plastic buckets. The excitement was contagious. The students couldn’t wait to begin.

They went on to raise more than $1,000 for charity.


The Trust for Public Land Park Project Manager Laura Ballock accepts a $400 check on behalf of The Trust from student leaders at Lou Dantzler Elementary School. Working with USC's Penny Harvest program over a four-month period, the students collected 100,000 pennies. The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank received $600 as well. Also pictured: Alan Sanchez of Health and Sciences Campus Community Partnerships, right. Photo by Yolanda Adra.

In Crigler’s course, students are divided into four activity committees to manage the various tasks associated with building a nonprofit from the ground up. Each group develops an action plan and timeline. A communication committee focuses on messaging and promotion of the program. Another team researches community businesses and networks that could help develop the program. Still another researches funding opportunities. An evaluation committee tracks the progress and effectiveness of the program in schools and the community.

The Fall 2012 class held a “mini Penny Harvest” at USC and presented the funds raised to the students of Sacred Heart.

“Executing [the mini Penny Harvest] definitely sharpened our leadership skills,” said Nikki Pujji, a junior double-majoring in economics and political science, who helped to organize the event. “We had to communicate very effectively to make it all work.”

Crigler’s course has come to fruition through a collaboration of several academic units in addition to local elementary schools and Common Cents. Also involved are the USC Office of Community Partnerships, USC Dornsife faculty and staff, USC Dornsife’s Office of the Dean, JEP, Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, the Department of Political Science, USC Office of the Provost, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, USC Price School for Public Policy, USC Viterbi School’s Division of Engineering and Education, and USC Rossier School of Education. In an effort to develop the program, all are contributing expertise on everything from public relations to program evaluation to a sustainable business plan.

“We’ve been building all kinds of partnerships,” Crigler said. “It’s very exciting.”

After each Fall course, during which undergraduates introduce to children the concepts of civic engagement and how to address community issues through fundraising, Crigler has developed a follow-up course that builds on those efforts.

In the Spring course, undergraduates teach children in greater depth about public and private agencies in their community, and the issues the youngsters have identified. They advise them on how to find people and organizations who are working on these issues, then show them how to conduct interviews with advocates and officials. With that information and the interests of the neighborhood and fellow students in mind, the children form a “philanthropy roundtable,” through which they learn to deliberate. They also learn how to represent others’ interests and to reach decisions that can make a difference in their community.

By the end of the second semester, much has been accomplished.

For the Fall 2013 section of Crigler’s course, participation is being secured for seven schools, concentrated in the Boyle Heights neighborhood.

“Professor Crigler is an inspiration,” Pujji said. “This class is hands down the most interactive course I have taken so far at USC.”

Read more articles from USC Dornsife Magazine's Spring/Summer 2013 issue