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BW students demonstrate how Gen Z is a force for good

As director of BW's David & Frances Brain Center for Community Engagement, Marsita Ferguson shares her observations of the many ways Gen Z is reshaping the way we think about giving back.

 

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The holidays are a time when service and philanthropy are front and center as we step up to replenish food banks, collect toys and make year-end donations to our favorite causes. Amid the challenges facing the world today, we find hope in doing good.

This year, I've been thinking particularly about Gen Z and how this generation, born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s, is reshaping traditional notions of volunteerism and philanthropy. My work directing Baldwin Wallace University's David & Frances Brain Center for Community Engagement gives me a front-row seat to some of the ways Gen Z is giving back and driving positive change.

Yes, BW students still rake leaves for shut-ins and visit senior living centers as they have for decades, but Gen Z is setting a new standard with digital activism, a willingness to lead their own initiatives, and expectations for inclusivity and sustainability.

Hunger and the Environment

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Left to right: Kristin Warzocha, president & CEO of Cleveland Food Bank, Vanessa Whiting, Harvest for Hunger co-chair & president at A.E.S. Management Corp dba Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, BW student honoree Ashley Workman, and Patrick Pastore, regional president at PNC Bank.

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Consider just a few of the ways students take on the issue of food insecurity.

For three years running, BW Americorps-funded CHANGE-INC. student volunteers help Cleveland residents experiencing food or health insecurities get the resources and services they need.

BW Circle K Club member Ashley Workman hosted campus fundraisers, helping to raise more than $1,400 and 850 pounds of food for the Cleveland Food Bank, which recognized her with its Student Leadership Award.

This month, BW's Fraternity and Sorority Council collected food and hygiene products to support the BW Campus Cupboard for students in need. 

With deep concern for the environment, that is a top Gen Z concern, students find ways to combat food waste and hunger simultaneously. BW's Campus Kitchen keeps dining services leftovers out of landfills with students cooking meals for soup kitchens. Computer science majors developed an app, Campus Plate, to divert leftovers from campus events to refrigerated pickup locations.

Inclusion and digital activism

Because Gen Z is not afraid to create their own projects, youth-led initiatives at BW tackle a variety of issues, including diversity and representation. While serving as what we call a "Brain Fellow," Daisjah Brown created Buzzin Black Friday at BW. Now in its second year, the event offers a vendor expo to support Black and Brown-owned businesses during Black History Month.

More often than not, this generation's tech-savviness and commitment to social justice result in innovative approaches, leveraging digital power to raise awareness, mobilize support and initiate change. Since 2016, a student-led group, BW Jackets Engaged, has led creative campus civic engagement efforts that have accelerated student voter registration and participation in elections.

This generation is also taking on the political polarization that makes our political conversations fraught with tension. Hannah Dodson, past student director of Jackets Engaged, established a "Dinner and a Fighting Dialogue" program at BW to counter this. The program is aimed at improving communication skills through constructive dialoguing across differences. 

Agents of Change

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A student from a BW English course — Grant Writing (ENG 309) — facilitated computer skills classes for residents at Cleveland's Cogswell Hall.

Instead of heading to sunny beaches over breaks from classes, many students take "alternative spring breaks" that revolve around service and social justice. In one of many examples, students Mehraeel Salah and Manav Patel led fellow students on a Public Health Alternative Break with the Centers for Disease Control.

Hundreds of students have enrolled in courses tied to BW's innovative Jacket Philanthropy Program (JPP), which allows students to compete for real grant money to support a project at their assigned nonprofit volunteer site.

Gen Z's approach to civic engagement, volunteerism and philanthropy is reshaping the way we think about giving back. As they continue to enter the workforce and become more influential, their impact on the world of giving is likely to grow even more profound.

So, join me in this season of gratitude and giving in showing appreciation for Gen Z. The world needs these fresh agents of change.


 A version of this column first appeared on cleveland.com and in SUN newspapers on Thanksgiving Day 2023.

Nonprofit organizations looking to develop new partnerships with the David & Frances Brain Center for Community Engagement are encouraged to meet with a staff member to discuss the possibilities. Contact the staff at (440) 826-2403 or BrainCenter@bw.edu.

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