What Students Do with 'Venture Fellowships'

March/April 2006

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What Students Do with 'Venture Fellowships'

Rod Searcey

Bronson McDonald looks at the high school kids he’s worked with and sees promising musicians. “In deprived communities especially, music is one of the only ways of getting out, besides sports and drugs.”

Sarah Vander Ploeg thinks back on the volunteer work she’s done with teen mothers and remembers their transformed children. “They come in from unstable situations, and they’re clingy and don’t speak. But after a year, they’ve changed so much. It’s unbelievable.”

McDonald and Vander Ploeg are the first students to receive $10,000 East Palo Alto Social Venture Fellowships. Offered through the Haas Center for Public Service, the grants are funded by Philanthropic Ventures Foundation of Oakland and are awarded for innovative projects that address economic, environmental, educational or social needs in EPA.

A native of Jamaica who plays varsity soccer, McDonald, ’06, got involved in the East Palo Alto Mural Art Project in his freshman year. Then a funny thing happened: “Basically we ran out of school walls [to paint].” In the winter of 2003, McDonald began looking to music as an alternative art: “We wanted to expand the medium in which organizations were reaching youth, and hip-hop right now is the voice of urban culture.”

With the help of friends who had experience in production and curriculum development, McDonald designed a program to teach high school students about the history of hip-hop. Two nights a week they study literary devices as they compare hip-hop lyrics and poetry, and write essays on beat boxing and sampling. They learn about Bay Area pioneers Keak Da Sneak and JT the Bigga Figga, rank their favorite songs and defend their choices in group discussions. They also fill in a timeline with important dates in black and Latino history. “That’s why we do this program,” McDonald says. “To have them understand and respect where hip-hop is coming from.” And to lay down some very hot tracks in the recording studio McDonald built on West Bayshore Road with the fellowship money he received in 2005. “To have access to a studio is awesome,” he says.

Vander Ploeg, ’06, has been volunteering at New Creation Home Ministries, a residential program for teen mothers, since her days at Palo Alto’s Castilleja School. As a Stanford freshman, she helped teach parenting classes and conducted workshops for young mothers who wanted to save money and rent their own apartments. Taking a course in ethics and public service from assistant political science professor Rob Reich sparked her interest in applying for fellowships.

Vander Ploeg envisions setting up a scholarship fund—the “Marian Circle,” named for children’s rights advocate Marian Wright Edelman—that young moms can use for child care. “One thing I kept emphasizing in the application process was that these girls have forgotten what it’s like to dream, what it’s like to be able to look 10 years in the future and say, ‘This is what I want for myself and my kids.’ ” Vander Ploeg is using the grant as seed money for office space and a newsletter that she hopes will help raise funds for the circle.

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