Monday, October 27, 2014

Weekly Words from our Director: 10/27

Happy Halloween week! Here's a message from our awesome director, Dean. 

Good Morning!

Artist, actress, and all-around funny woman Lily Tomlin once quipped, "I always wondered why somebody didn't do something about that.  Then I realized I was somebody.” 
This semester, I have been blown away by the amazing students at the University of Utah who seem to instinctively know that they are indeed the "somebody" needed to do "something."  The Bennion Center continues to attract and educate a tremendous cadre of young people who are improving our communities, leading change, inspiring others, and making a big difference in people’s lives.
Last Tuesday, I got to participate in the Service House Dialogue where students Gina Ha, Oliver Anderson, and Taylor Stratford, facilitated a stimulating discussion on the role of art and artists in civic engagement.     They adeptly provided a well-researched introduction about how art has, is, and will continue to generate important social commentary and civic action.  The ensuing conversations touched on themes of art as a social connector,  the speed and breadth of art dissemination through new technologies, and the ways in which art mobilizes individuals to create social change and help people in need.
On Wednesday, student leaders Emily Garfield and Kyleigh Kinzie stepped up with poise and professionalism to rally support and enthusiasm for our Project Youth among the Salt Lake School District principals.  Next spring semester, these two dynamic student leaders will welcome more than 1,000 sixth graders from area Title I schools to the University of Utah to experience a small taste of college life at the .  Emily and Kyleigh will coordinate hundreds of college student volunteers to serve as "mentors for a day" and share their educational journeys while they lead campus tours and activities.  These young ladies have their work cut out for them, but after I witnessed them in action at the School District Building, I know the project is in good, capable hands.   They’ve already had an overwhelming response from principals!
On Friday and Saturday, the Bennion Center’s amazing Student Board hosted a Fall Retreat for interested volunteers which included fun team building, food, dancing, and an important garden service project.  I had fun getting to know more students in a townhall question and answer session.  The students prepared thoughtful and interesting questions that triggered winning conversations.  I look forward to working with these students to dream, design,and implement a great future for the Bennion Center.   

Each student, in her or his own way, embodies the Bennion Center mission to foster lifelong service and civic participation by engaging the University of Utah with the community in action, change, and learning.  And, each appears to have had the same epiphany as Lily Tomlin... that they are the "somebodies" here to make a difference.  

Have a terrific week!
Warm Regards,

Monday, October 6, 2014

Weekly Word from Our Director: 10/6

Here's this week's email and wisdom from Dean! We hope your week starts off wonderfully.
Happy Monday!

October already?  This autumn weather has just been spectacular, hasn't it?  Last Wednesday evening you might have noticed the sun shining brightly on the valley while a huge wall of ominous looking clouds hung over the Wasatch Range. Of course,Thursday morning the most lovely dusting of snow topped the highest peaks within view from Salt Lake City.  Impossible not to enjoy that against a bright blue autumn sky all day long on Thursday

I've been re-reading  Jim Collins 2005 book entitled "Good to Great."  If you've read it you know that the thesis of the book is quite simple-- organizations should exude greatness.  Collins believes that almost any particular organization can substantially improve its results and performance, perhaps even become great, if it conscientiously applies the frameworks that great organizations use. While of course becoming "great" is rarely as simple as following a script or a "how to" manual, the book does outline some of the things that Collins has found as common themes of great organizations.

Two of my favorite concepts are the “Flywheel” and “Doom Loop.”  These two ideas represent positive and negative momentum and might have some applicability to our work at the Bennion Center. As you may know, a flywheel is a heavy wheel used in machinery to store energy and then release it consistently over time. A flywheel takes a lot of energy to set it in motion - to do so usually requires constant, steady work, rather than a quick acceleration. Think of a wind-up toy. Our youngest son, Harrison, still loves them (and so do I).  It can take a lot of effort and patience to get them wound up properly, and there really is no shortcut, but all that energy is stored in the flywheel of the toy then it's all released for our enjoyment as the marvelous toy scrambles across the floor.  Usually cheap, toy flywheels exhaust their potential energy in seconds; but good strong industrial strength flywheels can continue for hours or days or weeks once they're wound up properly and can actually create their own energy.

Great organizations undergo transformations like this as well. There is most often no magic recipe or no spectacular moment when everything changed. Rather, with lots of steady and consistent work, the wind up occurs and slowly gets the great organization going faster and better. Once it’s in motion, all that stored energy tends to keep it moving in the right direction.

Conversely, Collins describes the “doom loop” as the vicious cycle that unsuccessful organizations fall into.  Often they find themselves rushing first in one direction, then another, in the hope of creating a sudden, sharp break with the past that will propel them to success.  A quick fix or "get-rich-quick" scheme.  Sort of like choosing a fad diet rather than a long term wellness strategy.  Some organizations attempt to do this through acquisitions, some move locations, others through bringing in new leaders or personnel who decide to change direction completely, often in a direction incompatible with the organizational mission or the vision created by its founders, stakeholders, and constituents. Collins argues that the results are rarely good over the long-term for organizations that follow the doom loop.

The difference between the two approaches is characterized by the slow, steady, methodical preparation inherent in the flywheel, as compared to abrupt, radical, and often revolutionary, rather than evolutionary, changes that can be tempting but often fatal.  I agree with Collins that greatness is first and foremost a process.  It is not a destination. No matter where we are (or where we think we are) on the good to great continuum, there is always room for continuous learning and improvement. 

Some food for thought as the Bennion Center continues its steady evolution toward greatness and into its 28th year as a shining star among university-based public service centers across the globe. 

Have a terrific week!

Warm Regards,

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Costa Rica Spring Course & Trip

The Bennion Center is known for its wonderful Alternative Breaks program; our program was actually honored with the Program of the Year award. (see this video for the interview our staff partner Kris Fenn and student board representative Nisha Kavalam talking with ABC 4 about it here)

One of the really awesome programs we offer is a course every spring and partnering spring break trip to COSTA RICA! This is a very unique opportunity to really put service learning into actual work, as well as traveling to a beautiful, wonderful country.

So about the course...
The political science course is offered every Spring Semester and is worth 3 credit hours. The course fulfills the international requirement and is service-learning (Community Engaged Learning) designated. The course is cross-listed at the graduate level. One third of participants are graduate students. We draw heavily from MPA, MPP, MIAGE, PRT programs, among others. The academic content of this course is an introduction to International Development and Aid theories. We explore practical solutions and alternatives to traditional development aid theories and subsequent challenges.

And then of course, the trip!
The spring break trip goes down to the Monteverde region of Costa Rica. This component involves immersion in village culture, community and service-learning.

 Students will learn from first hand experiences that highlight:
1. the role of women in development
2. fair trade agriculture
3. eco-tourism
4. sustainable development
5. conservation biology
6. cooperative business management
7. micro-enterprise
8. payment for environmental services

Applications for this course and trip are available now here. If you have questions, please feel free to contact Gina Russo at