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Public Policy, Sustainability & Economic Development

Civic Engagement is a cornerstone of the Bonner Program, and can take shape in many ways. Volunteer roles in the areas of public policy, sustainability, and economic development often have capacity-building projects or social action campaigns as a built in component. Capacity-building projects open up opportunities for reciprocal, long-term, and multi-faceted relationships with community partners. Student engagement in community-identified projects or campaigns can be ideal for students who seek to integrate academic courses and majors with service learning skills.

Ayele D'Almeida
Ayele D'Almeida

 

Ayele D'Almeida
Majors: Leadership Studies & Political Science

 

My Bonner journey the past two years has been anything but linear. I have had many different placements throughout this time, with each of them teaching me a new lesson as I experienced them. Looking back on each of these adventures, the common thread, or lesson has been linking my passions to my service. All of my service experiences have tapped into at least one of my passions. Although I am grateful for each of my sites, I believe that two of them have shaped me the most as an individual and a leader.

Joining the Bonner Scholars program as a junior was an adjustment from my first two years, where much of my service was not connected to a larger program. In my prior service, I had engaged in the hands-on work, but felt that conversations rarely lasted beyond the task at hand. It was important to me as a student to gain the knowledge and vocabulary to understand what issues the Richmond community is facing. After my previous summer working on the Race & Racism project, I saw a shift in my focus in my community - I wanted to think more about racial disparities. Instead of limiting my focus to the University of Richmond, it needed to expand my lens. I believe that becoming a Bonner Scholar during my junior year was the best timing.

During my first Fall in the program, I took a class with Dr. Thaddeus Williamson on the topic of local and national leadership in our country. Through his class, I became connected with the Office of Community Wealth Building, an office created to help address unemployment for disadvantaged populations in Richmond. In the office, I was exposed to individual circumstances that changed my outlook on welfare institutions. It was clear that oftentimes, people are born into situations that they cannot change. It is the responsibility of our society to do right by them, and change how we support them. Furthermore, I began to understand that social services should be normalized and expanded. Our social services are stigmatized in a way that pushes people away from using them - they should instead be seen as a tool for all citizens to take advantage of.

My experience with the Office of Community Wealth Building also gave me lessons in what kind of “politics” I wanted to focus on. Before joining the Bonner program, I was feeling a disconnect from my political science major. I was frustrated by the lack of focus on the most pressing issues in American society. Much of the discussion was centered around the theoretical rather than on how to make our society better. When I joined the Office of Community Wealth Building, I was working with individuals who grew up in Richmond and wanted to see the city change for the better. This is when I realized that my interest was not in politics with a capital P. I was not as interested in campaigns and elections, or dissecting Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Instead, I was motivated by the individual, and how individuals can impact their communities. Self and community efficacy became my focus. I began to care more about how to use my talents to affect change.

During my senior year, I was able to tap into an element of myself that I had long put aside. With the “What is Downtown” excursions and exhibit, I was allowed to use my creativity to bring light to the stark racial inequalities in the downtown area. The process of conceptualizing, advertising, and eventually leading these tours gave me confidence in myself as both an artist and as a changemaker. I realized that it is possible, and sometimes necessary to analyze complex social issues through avenues other than academics. During the planning of my Downtown excursions for my “What Is Downtown?” exhibit, I was faced with the challenge of helping participants envision a downtown that they cannot fully see. Because I am still learning a lot about the community, I did not know how the walk could be educational as well as prompts for those who participated. Either way, I knew that I cared about helping others either learn more about the city or jog memories of their connection to Richmond. I was also taught through this experience that being a leader within my community does not have to have all of the answers. The best changemakers continue to ask questions and engage with the unknown.

One of my biggest hopes for my full-time job is to be surrounded by individuals who are dedicated to service outside of work. I look forward to being in a setting with people who care about our society, and who understand the value of community both inside and outside of the workplace. For now, I have started to dedicate more of my time to reading books for pleasure, and to discussing with my peers how these lessons can be applied to our world. I believe that now more than ever, it is important for me to continue learning. Finding individuals with shared passions for civic engagement will be one of my first tasks in my new community. Wherever I end land, I hope to use the lessons given to me in my years as a Bonner Scholar to affect change.

Nikolina Dakovic
Nikolina Davikovic

 

Nikolina Dakovic
Majors: Computer Science & Chemistry

 

The beginning of my civic engagement takes me back to my high school, when I was a United World College student in Italy. My school friends and I spent weekends doing social service in the city of Trieste. I remember going to my site where we spent creative, organized days with people with special needs. What felt so important and empowering was such a strong connection a high school kid was able to develop with a stranger; that feeling you know you are selflessly doing something for another human being and the satisfaction you get from receiving back their happiness and joy from you being around them. That was the time for me I realized I wanted to continue engaging in meaningful ways in my community, wherever that next community might be for me.

When I came to the University of Richmond, Bonner Program was there with the kindest, most approachable people who were willing to help you navigate your civic engagement and work with you to get the most out of our four year experience at the University of Richmond. My current Bonner mentor, Adrienne Piazza taught me an important life lesson: humbleness and gentleness of the heart means that we approach other people’s problems as if though they were our own, we approach not with a sense of superiority but with a sense of comradery and an open mind. This is something she projected with her own gracious actions and managed to engrave that attitude in me when it comes to social service and interaction with people in general. Furthermore, upon reflecting and preparing for this POL, I realized the entire Bonner program has been that sort of community for me. It has truly helped me believe more in the goodness of people and diminish the overwhelming sensations of helplessness and anger when it comes to the societal problems and the human suffering all around us. Bonner has trained me to do this by constant reflection, interaction with diverse communities from around the world, and thought-provoking input by various speakers. My story of how civic engagement transformed and made me a better version of myself starts off with how my Bonner experiences allowed me to better understand my own identity, realize where my aspirations lie and finally how to focus all of that energy onto things that matter to me.

One of such defining moments for me was during one of our monthly Bonner meetings. Namely, in attempt to try and find what is it that drives us and wakes us in the morning, we were given 10 possible but not exhaustive options, empowering quotes that might lead us to an answer. The idea was to find what is that something we would like to change in the world and engage ourselves in our communities to make it happen. Certainly enough, one of those quotes really got stuck in my mind: “Nobody deserves to spend their lives living in fear.” and that’s the thought that resonated with me throughout my civic engagement at the University of Richmond. An example of the kind of work Bonner program has allowed me to do was engaging with the Romani groups in my home town as a part of my summer service. It allowed me to fully immerse myself into that specific issue, learn about main problems and difficulties as well as efforts that have been realized to make a positive change in the lives of those people. You become aware of all the everyday fears and challenges people encounter such as education, poor hygiene, food scarcity, shelter, women unsafety in households etc. It was an eye-opener to how many different systemic as well as cultural forces shape their life-style and create an obstacle for realistic opportunities for a betterment. And such experience grows a natural drive within yourself to become a part of the solution and engage in ideas and processes that work towards better tomorrow for all of us. It builds you into a person who is willing, prepared and skilled to make a change in whatever community you find yourself in and that is one of the greatest hidden treasures Bonner program nourishes.

I am very grateful to the Bonner program and all my supervisors for enabling me to grow as a person and as a global citizen through their endless support and compassion. If it wasn’t for all of them, I wouldn’t have been able to give back to the Richmond community and further in the ways that I have.

Michael Elliott
Michael Elliott

 

Michael Elliott
Major: Business Administration

 

Hello everyone, my name is Michael Elliott and I am a senior here at Richmond majoring in Business Administration with concentrations in Finance and Economics. I have been fortunate enough to be extremely involved in my time at Richmond as I have been able to join various clubs and organizations. However, the extracurricular activity that has influenced my time at Richmond the most has undoubtedly been the Bonner Scholars program. Now, I would be lying to you if I said I was really excited to become a Bonner freshman year. My mom happened to meet Blake outside the CCE during some Experience Richmond day, and suddenly I had a new “scholarship to apply for.” While the program did seem interesting, it was also clearly going to be a large time commitment. Furthermore, I didn’t know how much I liked the idea of what essentially seemed like forced community service. Sure, I liked getting involved and giving back to my community at home, but I didn’t want to be punished in a sense if I got busy and wasn’t able to do service for a few weeks. Nonetheless, Freshman year began. I was officially a Bonner Scholar, and my time at Richmond has been positively impacted as a result. I will discuss the impact the program has had on me through my experiences at two different service sites, CHAT and Virginia Community Capital, before discussing what my future holds.

CHAT
As a Bonner the first service site I ended up at was CHAT, also known as Churchill Activities and Tutoring. I ended up there for a few reasons. First, I didn’t get to go on any of the site visits because my class schedule conflicted with them. As a result, I never got to really see other options. Secondly, I thought I wanted to do something working with kids. I had done a lot of work with kids in the past in the form of working at summer camps, and I generally enjoyed it. I figured a site like CHAT would give me the opportunity to continue doing this while having a positive impact on the lives of these students who were trying to learn and better themselves. I also found CHAT to be unique to the other “tutoring” type sites because it felt like a home where students were truly developing relationships with their mentors. Quite literally, students would meet in the homes of people who worked for CHAT after school for their tutoring. I loved the environment and thought it would be a great place for me. As a business major who also thought he would most likely be heading down the finance route, I also didn’t see many roles that would support my career development at the time.

My first few years at CHAT were great. I was able to work with a few different students and foster strong relationships with them. I actually enjoyed going to service after school and hanging out with them. It was fun for me, I really felt like I had an impact, and it was a good break from my own work. I was able to foster a great relationship with two particular students, X and Y. X and Y were brothers and they were very fun to work with. We were able to relate to each other on a few levels as they were athletes similar to myself when I was younger, and they both were willing to work hard and get school work done. There were probably a few reasons for this. One, they actually wanted to do well in school, and knew if they didn’t their mom would not be happy with them. Secondly, because I incentivized them by telling them when they got all their work done, and it was correct, we could go play football or something in the backyard. Occasionally, I would challenge them to get good grades which could be rewarded with pizza or the candy of their choice. We were able to develop a really strong bond between us which enabled me to see deeper into their lives as they began to open up more. Suddenly, I was learning more about their family life, how many times they had moved in the past year, and their aspirations on where they wanted to go to high school. I became more than just a tutor to them, would drive them home from tutoring sometimes to help out their mom, and just truly became friends with them. To me, this was peak CHAT. The environment fostered a culture of learning and growth not only through education but also on a personal level with the volunteers who came in each week. Through this experience I was really able to gain a better perspective on what life was like for many of these kids growing up in Richmond, specifically the Churchill type areas. I realized so many of the inequalities they faced and the uphill battle they often had to climb if they wanted to really succeed, potentially go to college, and be able to move up in life. While this experience was enlightening for me, CHAT unfortunately began to change.

I went abroad in the Fall of my Junior year to Milan, Italy, I had a great time and continued doing some service at a soup kitchen while I was there. Upon returning to Richmond I was very excited to go back to CHAT and continue the work I had been doing. However, when I returned I realized so much had changed. The after school program was no longer taking place in a house, but instead in a local church. They had also combined groups so now it was all of elementary and middle school together instead of just the middle school kids I had been working with previously. I also noticed that the environment seemed different. It no longer seemed like that “homey” tutoring and mentoring environment, but more of one were volunteers were just babysitters. I often would come in and spend two hours with a few students doing nothing but playing UNO and keeping them under control because they “didn’t have homework” and there was nobody really there to make sure they were actually doing their work. This was sad to me because I wanted to help these students, but they had no interest what so ever in school or in many cases their futures. I would occasionally bring this up to my supervisor, but nothing ever really seemed to change. While not all of this can be put on CHAT itself it is my belief that moving out of the home environment had a lasting impact on how students viewed CHAT and even changed the culture of the organization. This was no longer an experience I was enjoying, so I began to look elsewhere.

VCC and Opportunity Virginia
Beginning the Fall of my senior year I decided that I needed to switch sites because I felt that I no longer was having an impact at CHAT. Therefore, I spoke with Blake and Adrienne and was fortunate enough that they were able to find an opportunity at a bank called Virginia Community Capital. VCC is a CDFI, community development financial institution, and a registered B-Corporation. Their goal is to positively impact Virginia Communities through lending and investing in things such as affordable housing developments, foodbanks, or clean energy projects. For me this was the perfect opportunity because it fit very well with my major and concentrations in finance and economics. It would enable me to see a different side of the industry, one that I was more likely to potentially work in one day. VCC decided to take me in and I began working on the Risk Management team where I would help by putting together marketing materials, do data aggregation tasks, and work on developing databases in excel to help the team better their lending practices. In the spring I switched groups to Opportunity Virginia. Opportunity Virginia is a VCC initiative where the group works to connect investors across the US to investing projects in “opportunity zones.” Their focus is essentially impact investing which is essentially investing that is done with the main goal being social, community, or environmental impact rather than financial returns. Specifically, their mission states:

“Opportunity Virginia strives to encourage and enable positive community impact investments by ensuring fair and equitable access to resources, facilitating productive connections between investors, project sponsors, and communities via an inclusive marketplace, and maintaining a pulse on socio-economic impact in Opportunity Zones throughout the Commonwealth.”

I really enjoyed working with this team because what they are doing now is very similar to the work I want to do in my professional career. I feel the skills I am learning will really help me excel upon graduation. Furthermore, I really enjoy the projects I get to work on. For example, the big project I worked on this semester was a food co-op in Fredericksburg, VA. I had been doing a lot of work to find investors that would be interested in investing in the food co-op to ensure that it can be successful in the long term. I really enjoy this work even though the impact I have is less hands on in a sense. I may not be the one starting the food co-op or project, and I may not be there on a daily basis helping to run it, but without the work Opportunity Virginia and other “impact investing” firms do these projects may not be possible.

After Graduation
I hope the work I have been doing shows people that you can be a finance major without being a bad person! A very common theme I have found throughout my time as a Bonner is having certain people look down on me in a sense when I say my concentrations are finance and economics. I tell them my past two internships have been in investment banking and get responses that I am “selling my soul.” While they are right in that investment banking and many other finance related jobs are not exactly good about giving back to their communities and arguably may do more harm than good, I believe it is important to realize that is not always the case. Furthermore, in most cases having a job in IB, Private Equity, Asset Management, or consulting is often a prerequisite to work at many of these impact investing firms. For example, the other two “finance” people on my team at Opportunity Virginia previously worked at either private equity funds or in investment banking before they could get into their current roles. Upon graduation I will be working at Avascent, a management consulting firm in DC. I will not be working at a non-profit or impact investing firm right out of school, barring any sudden changes in direction. However, I do want to be an active citizen, be engaged within the community I become a part of, and give back in any way I can. I believe it is important to help those around you and especially those in the communities that you call home. At Avascent this can be done by doing pro bono work for people within the community. Long term I am not sure where I end up, but maybe it will be at an impact investing company or some other consutling related firm where I can have a bigger impact on communities. Only time will tell exactly where I end up, or what roles I will work in. However, one thing I know for sure is that my time as a Bonner has certainly impacted me as a person. It has made me more aware of the inequalities and injustices people face in our society, and it has driven me to become more of an active citizen that will seek out ways to be engaged in my community. For that, I will be forever grateful to the Bonner scholars’ program, and the opportunities I have been afforded within it.

Lina Tori Jan
Lina Tori Jan

 

Lina Tori Jan
Major: Leadership Studies & Political Science

 

My initial exposure to the root causes of social issues was in Afghanistan, where I grew up. The Taliban stripped the people of their right to participate in society, robbing one of the fundamental values a person can have. They shut down schools, burnt books, falsely imprisoned individuals, and prohibited women and minority groups from public appearance. Hazaras, the minority group that I am from, were the main target of their oppression.

These experiences taught me that one of the fundamental values of being human is in your ability to participate in society. This lesson has driven me to work tirelessly on social justice issues, especially those related to refugees, immigrants, minorities, and women. So when I had the opportunity to take part in a program that enabled me to serve others, I became a Bonner Scholar.

The Bonner Scholars Program has enabled me to give back to my community in a way that makes it possible for others to do the same. They supported my engagement with organizations committed to supporting women and minority groups and those who promote citizens in recognizing their role in society. As a result, I interned with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to support refugee women in building community and confidence by offering English classes and decision-making workshops. These workshops enabled women to tell their stories and have their voices heard by others who also were survivors of conflict.

During my internship with IRC what I was learning in my academic courses sparked in me to deepen my knowledge in government and policy making. As a result, I decided to change sites and work with the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia , Department of Restoration of Rights (RoR) where I helped restore the civil rights of convicted felons. Some of my classes had covered the topic of mass incarceration in the United States, however, I could not fully understand what it entailed until I took part in assisting the formerly incarcerated obtain their rights. Interning with RoR, helped me to learn that formerly incarcerated have many barriers to participation in society upon their return. While I believe that we ought to be held responsible for our decisions and consequences that follows, at the same time, as society we have a duty towards helping to build each other. It’s important for society as a whole to welcome back the brothers and sisters who spend years behind bars so they don’t fall into extreme measures of repeating those mistakes again. This of course goes both ways where all stakeholders need to truly participate in making the situation better for each other and our society as a whole. One of the main ways that RoR welcomed the formerly incarcerated was by giving them the right to vote—one of the most powerful rights of a citizen in a democracy. Needless to say but this internship was one of the highlights of my journey as a Bonner Scholar.

My internship with RoR came to an end after a year and I was able to continue my interest in understanding the role of policy in government with the Secretary of Education (SoE). Unfortunately, the events of the COVID-19 pandemic cut my time short with SoE where I assisted the mission of the Commonwealth to make education accessible across Virginia. During this internship, I was surrounded with a phenomenal group of servant leaders who worked tirelessly to make sure the concerns and questions of all our constituents were addressed in a timely manner. One of my favorite projects that I worked on during my time here was assisting the Secretary in identifying school names that deem to be controversial due to its history or background. This was particularly meaningful to me because I believe if you truly want toaddress unjust and systematic policies and create an inclusive environment, you have to make sure to address an issue in all ways possible, even if it means a name change.

Working with different marginalized groups has taught me the importance of being proactive in addressing civic issues and transcending social boundaries through public service. As an aspiring diplomat and policy influencer who aims to work in countries amidst war or through post-conflict reconstruction, I will remember my experiences as a Bonner and will continue my commitment to ensure that women and minority groups have their voice present in policy decisions. We need all voices to be heard in order to achieve sustainable policies that protect one's fundamental rights. I am very grateful to the Bonner program and all my supervisors for enabling me to grow as a person, as an advocate and as a leader through their endless support. If it wasn’t for all of them, I wouldn’t have been able to give back to the Richmond community in the ways that I have.