Carrying Oberlin's Values Into Our World

"Community service and involvement are growth industries at Oberlin these days," announced Daniel Gardner '89, to an attentive audience during Sunday morning's symposium, "Carrying Oberlin's Values Into Our World." Today's students, he said, take advantage of opportunities, particularly in Lorain County, to direct community service, sort and distribute surplus food, teach and tutor elementary school students, and become involved in general community activism.

Gardner, assistant to the president for Community Affairs at Oberlin, believes that engaging with social activism adds substance to the educational process--a notion shared by four fellow panel members who themselves have carried the concept of community service into their professional lives.

Peg Hume '73, senior associate with Management Sciences for Health in Newton, Massachusetts, is working to improve health systems in the developing world. "It was a privilege to live in the Oberlin community for four years--the values that were predominant here have been an anchor in my life," she said. "There's a congruence between who I am, what my values are, and what I do in the world. For me, there's a certain integrity to that."

Panelist Mark Blackman '89 (above) directs Oberlin's Bonner Scholars Program, a form of financial aid for first-generation, low-income college students who are paid for their community service efforts. "Community service is the hook that keeps these kids in school, " he said. "It also provides them real-world leadership skills. These students sit on the boards of health organizations, lead tutoring programs in Oberlin, run soup kitchens, and are leading the charge of forming partnerships with Lorain County Schools."

Oberlin will enroll 58 Bonner Scholars this fall; more than a third as incoming students. "This program allows these students access to a place like Oberlin," said Blackman, who lends his own hand tutoring kids and helping with a school program on Saturday mornings.

Needing no audience introduction was panelist Jerry Greenfield '73, co-founder of Ben & Jerry's Homemade, Inc., and president of the Ben & Jerry's Foundation. A company often recognized for its community and environmental concerns, Ben & Jerry's learned to "re-define its bottom line," Greenfield said.

"We examined our social involvement and how much we were giving back to the community." Today, the company's annual report runs both a social and financial audit, and 7 1/2 percent of the company's pretax profits are donated to the Ben & Jerry's Foundation, compared to a corporate average of 1 1/2 percent, Greenfield said. Still, the Foundation can barely fund five percent of the applicants, which has led the company to examine further its humanitarian efforts.

"Our day-to-day operation, we realized, is where our true power was," he said. "We decided to focus on for-profit activities that are involved with social projects." Brownies, for example, are bought from a bakery in Yonkers, New York, that funds low-income housing and employs economically disenfranchised people. Five of Ben & Jerry's 150 franchised stores are owned and operated by non-profit organizations--groups working with at-risk youth or mental illness. And this year, Greenfield said, the company will introduce new packaging that forgoes the traditional harmful bleaching process.

And how does the Ben & Jerry's Foundation choose which applicants to fund, asked an alumnus. "Employee groups decide," Greenfield said. "Those are the folks working for the company, and they should decide where the money goes."

As a student at Oberlin, Andrea Emmons '95 (above) was concerned with town/gown relations. She involved herself in numerous community service activities and developed a close friendship with an elderly woman who revealed "the flip side of what happens beyond Tappan Square."

Emmons' first volunteer experience--the creation of an after-school program for latch-key kids--flopped when her team approached the school and found that a program already existed. Although a disappointment initially, the experience revealed an important lesson--"to shut up and listen before jumping into a solution." But instead of walking away, Emmons instead created an enrichment portion for the existing program.

Today, Emmons works for City Year Cleveland, an AmeriCorps national service program that raises and combines corporate, governmental, and private monies to fund community service projects. "The partnership angle is what keeps me at City Year," she said, describing a project she led with the Cleveland Public Schools. "You can't blindly go out and attempt solutions to social ills without understanding the whole problem."