April 3, 2018

This program empowers high school kids to become engaged in their communities

Chicago nonprofit Allow Good brings the tools for civic engagement into the classroom

The nonprofit Allow Good has provided a civic engagement curriculum for 30 classrooms in Chicago’s public high schools. Photo courtesy of Allow Good

On many levels, my communities define me. I live in a very socially passionate community. I work in the nonprofit community. Friends and family are the core of my personal community. I love all of these communities and am deeply engaged in each one.

My parents deserve credit for this. Both believed in active community participation and showed me how to engage. I spent my childhood entrenched in their communities, influenced by their networks. My parents chose our nightly family dinners as the place where we discussed community, values, and beliefs. At the dinner table, they encouraged me to formulate and share opinions, which were regularly challenged. Dinner often resulted in rousing debates on the social issues of the time. Through this, I found my own social passions and voice and, not surprising to my parents, a legal career.

Six years ago, a friend who knows me well introduced me to Allow Good—a nonprofit whose mission is to empower youth to take meaningful action in their communities. I quickly saw the connection—this organization does for all youth what my parents did for me. I joined the board with enthusiasm for this new community. What started as volunteering eventually became my passion, flipped my career path, and I now proudly work with Allow Good as our Senior Director of External Relations.

Allow Good uses philanthropy as a tool to connect teens to community. We engage youth in community now for the long-term benefit of having a society of socially engaged citizens. Our innovative curriculum is infused into 8th through 12th grade history, social studies, and civics classes in Chicago public schools. Through our program, students explore the social challenges of their community, interact with organizations working to address those challenges, and learn the grant-making process. Ultimately each class becomes a grantor and distributes donor-backed funds to a social purpose organization of their choice. Students finish empowered and equipped with the skills and tools to become change agents in their communities.

My favorite days are when I see our students in action. It is powerful and energizing to witness a diverse group of students discuss the social issues of their neighborhood and hear what they think needs to improve.

My favorite days are when I see our students in action. It is powerful and energizing to witness a diverse group of students discuss the social issues of their neighborhood and hear what they think needs to improve. As they meet with leaders in their community, they learn how organizations effect change. As they discuss these organizations, they listen to each other and challenge their classmates’ opinions. These discussions can get heated, much like my family dinners, as each class debates how they will collectively distribute their funds. Emma, a sophomore in our program at Chicago’s Whitney Young High School, reflected on this aspect: “[This] is one of the best things I can expose myself to as a student. … Not a lot of people get to have an experience as a student in high school where they really are learning about others people’s opinions.”

The Allow Good curriculum has been infused into Pankaj Sharma’s government class for two years. He believes that through the program his students’ perspectives are broadened and they are able to see themselves as change agents. “The grant-making process that they participate in is a very meaningful experience,” he said. “They become very invested in the nonprofit selection and interview process. They have remarkably mature and thoughtful conversations about the problems facing their community and how to work towards change in a positive and productive way.”

We know the Allow Good process works. We see consensus build and deep connections form both within the classroom and between the student and their communities. Our students learn from each other, build social capital, and develop their social passions. We will empower over 750 student change-makers this year alone who will make 30 grants to a wide variety of organizations in their communities. Prior grant recipients focus on issues ranging from teen health, to food insecurity, to youth skill development, and refugee support.

Our curriculum is infused into 30 classrooms across Chicago this spring. Our teacher-partners work this into their history, social studies, and civics classes over a semester. We also have Allow Good college chapters at Loyola University of Chicago, Northwestern, and the University of Chicago. Forty college students are trained in our curriculum and teach it on a weekly basis during the school day. This near-peer model is powerful. Our U-Chicago chapter teaches in Anne-Michele Boyle’s class at Whitney Young High School. “The college student leaders’ engaging disposition leaves every single student feeling empowered and ready to affect positive change,” she said.

Three years into our program, wonderful ripple effects are occurring. Maddie had our program in her government class during her senior year of high school, transitioned to Loyola for college, and joined the Loyola Allow Good chapter. She now teaches our program in a sophomore history class at Chicago’s Senn High School. And Alycia, who is getting her Masters in Education from Loyola, heard about the chapter and joined so that she could teach our program at Chicago’s Hyde Park Academy—where she once attended high school.

Allow Good empowers youth to find their community fit and leadership potential, whether as a voter, neighbor, volunteer, organizer, activist, social entrepreneur, or community leader.

Empowered by our process and connected to organizations working to address their community’s challenges, our students go on to take independent action. A group of seniors who had our class as juniors organized their own field trip this year to check on how their grant recipients used their funds and how else they could engage with the organizations. The director of a food bank that was a grant recipient shared that a group of former students volunteered over the summer and then went on to organize food drives the following school year. Reflecting on these students, he told us that he can sense that a certain “awareness” has been instilled within the young participants. “It is encouraging to see that students are not only learning about the big picture of what philanthropy means, but are truly processing what they have learned in order to formulate plans of action.”

By equipping our students with both practical tools and community connections and shifting power to them to become grantors, our youth take active ownership of their future engagement. Allow Good empowers youth to find their community fit and leadership potential, whether as a voter, neighbor, volunteer, organizer, activist, social entrepreneur, or community leader. Like me, these youth will likely find themselves defined by their communities as adults. The next generation is taking action for good now and will continue to do so throughout their lives.

Aimee Long

Allow Good

Aimee Long is the Senior director of external relations for Allow Good, focusing on corporate development, running our Global Engagement Expeditions, and furthering our Global Affiliate relationships. Aimee graduated from the University of California, San Diego, where she studied economics and biology. She went on to receive a J.D. from Northwestern University and worked in the corporate and health care groups of two national law firms. After “retiring” from her legal career, she focused on global pursuits including co-founding a business advising students taking gap years between high school and college. Aimee has been involved with Allow Good since 2012 and brings a passion for educating teens about philanthropy and the greater global good to this role. Aimee lives in Evanston with her husband and two girls and enjoys family travels, photography, and reaching new milestones on her fitbit.