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Penny Wise

USC Dornsife undergraduates empower local grade school students to give back to their community through the Penny Harvest Leadership Academy.

USC senior Christine Burcelis and Resurrection Catholic School fifth graders Jesus Ajiz and Leslie Lopez learn about civic engagement during the Penny Harvest Academy. Photo by Gus Ruelas.
USC senior Christine Burcelis and Resurrection Catholic School fifth graders Jesus Ajiz and Leslie Lopez learn about civic engagement during the Penny Harvest Academy. Photo by Gus Ruelas.

One by one, the children named problems they wanted to solve in their neighborhoods — air pollution, litter, homelessness, gangs, violence, and drug and alcohol abuse.

Then, the USC undergraduates sitting with them suggested they choose one cause they want to champion, and a nonprofit connected with that cause that should receive the $200 USC students had raised for them.

The deliberation among local fourth through eighth graders facilitated by USC students was part of the daylong Penny Harvest Leadership Academy, which empowers Los Angeles-area children to give back to their community and gives students from USC Dornsife and USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism practical experience in civic engagement and nonprofit leadership.

“The children have complete control over how the money is spent, so it teaches them leadership, decision-making and how to make a difference,” said Ann Crigler, political science professor at USC Dornsife. “And our students learn how to apply theory in the real world, and how volunteer work is connected to the larger social justice and political systems.”

Crigler launched her “Applied Politics: Civic Engagement and Leadership” course in 2012 to give undergraduates the chance to implement and facilitate the Penny Harvest program in local schools. Today, the program reaches more than 3,000 L.A. kids.

Students in USC Annenberg Professor Tom Goodnight’s civic engagement course have since joined the project. “It’s a way of connecting our undergraduates to the community,” Goodnight said.

The national Penny Harvest program engages K-8 students in youth philanthropy. Children in participating schools raise money, deliberate on how to spend their funds, develop service projects and ultimately present grant checks to the nonprofits of their choice. The daylong academy at USC allows children to cultivate their leadership and decision-making skills as they decide how to spend funds raised by USC undergraduates.

“It’s opened my eyes about how children can make a difference, not just adults,” said Ana Arce, a political science major at USC Dornsife. “The kids get the experience of giving back to the community and are able to see themselves as givers, not just receivers.”

Students from Griffin Avenue Elementary, Sheridan Street Elementary, Resurrection Catholic School and Lou Dantzler Preparatory Elementary participated in the Penny Harvest Leadership Academy.

“All these students are from various parts of L.A. and face different issues,” said James White, a double major in political science at USC Dornsife and policy, planning and development at the USC Price School of Public Policy. “It’s interesting to see how it plays out, and how they advocate for their own community’s issues.”

At the day’s end, the children were divided between two causes, so they decided to split the funds two ways. One hundred dollars would be granted to the Climate Action Reserve to combat pollution, and one hundred dollars would be awarded to the Los Angeles Boys & Girls Club to prevent gangs, drugs and violence.

The children will present their checks to the organizations at the end of May.

White and fellow USC students were so inspired by the program, they started a USC student club to support the effort and raise funds for local kids to donate at the next Penny Harvest Leadership Academy.

Danielle Starr, a political science major at USC Dornsife, said she hopes the children will take the lessons in philanthropy, civic engagement and community into their adult lives.

“It’s about the community taking ownership for solving its issues, and learning community organizing skills at a young age,” Starr said. “They also learn that all of these schools together make up the children of Los Angeles, and that they are one community.”